While looking at the life of a person in binaries shouldn’t be a way of understanding them, it seems like that is what stands out the most when looking at the life of Little Richard.
Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman, was one of the pioneering figures behind what would become rock and roll music. The ‘Tutti Frutti’ star influenced many artists, including the likes of Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan. Even though he didn’t achieve broad commercial success in his musical career when compared to some of his contemporaries, what was more important, perhaps, was how diverse his grasp of musical genres was — he switched from rock and roll music to gospel music and vice versa while also touching upon blues and soul.
Born in Macon, Georgia, in a family with his father who was a church deacon and his other mother who was a member of Macon’s New Hope Baptist Church, Richard experienced a very religious upbringing. An immediate showman, the budding musician was gifted with a loud, soulful voice and as a child and, in a bid to hone his skills, he sang in church choirs and even joined the marching band in the fifth grade.
One of Richard’s initial musical influences was a gospel performer and his favourite, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and, in what proved a life-affirming moment, Richard once got the opportunity to open her show at the Macon City Auditorium. This breakthrough moment, in truth, was arguably a critical period in which Richard decided to devote his life to music. Shortly after, he began listening to more secular music such as R&B, and rhythm and blues to further develop his understanding. It was also around this time that he started performing in drag, wearing make-up and flashy clothes which, according to him, was a way to attract the attention of his audience.
Little Richard was unique in a way that he was able to gain an integrated fan following. At a time when public places had strict demarcations for “white” and “coloured” crowds, Richard’s shows brought together people regardless of the colour of their skin, even though there were segregated balconies for each. Richard went on performing on stage, in a flamboyant character, which he said would stop the audience from thinking that he was looking for attention from the white girls.
The truth remained though, Richard was often mocked for his effeminate character and, for the most part, he didn’t bother with it. “I figure if being called a sissy would make me famous, let them say what they want to,” he once said. Much like his musical career, Richard went back and forth on defining his sexuality. He went from saying that he had been gay all his life, but “God let me know that he made Adam to be with Eve, not Steve. So, I gave my heart to Christ.” In his 1984 book, he called homosexuality “unnatural” and “contagious” and later in an interview in 2017, he went on denouncing homosexuality and transgender identity and called it “unnatural affection” that went against how “God wants you to live.”
The 1970 and 1980s was also the time when he left the path of rock and roll and strictly moved towards evangelism. He felt that God was punishing him for living a secular life and, in response, he went on to study to become a minister. During this time, he moved away from the limelight of being a music personality and, instead, began officiating a number of weddings including multiple celebrities’ such as Cindy Lauper, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Tom Petty.
Upon his death on 9th May 2020, several stars mourned his death and wrote about their personal anecdotes on interacting with Little Richard on social media. Cindy Lauper tweeted, “So sad Little Richard passed away. He married my husband and I. He was one of the truly great rock and roll singers and one of the rock and roll pioneers. He will be missed.”
Richard married Lauper and her husband David Thornton in 1991. Demi Moore, who was married to Bruce Willis in 1987 by Richard, tweeted, “Remembering Little Richard today… Bruce and I were so lucky and honoured to have him officiate our wedding back in 1987 – thankful for the memories. Rest easy.” Stevie Van Zandt, who was married to his wife (nee) Maureen Santoro was the first wedding Little Richard had officiated.
Van Zandt said, “Maureen and I were so honoured being the first marriage he conducted. We were lucky to know him.” Former Detroit radio host Ken Calvert shared a photo of Tom Petty and Dana York’s wedding in 2001 with Richard as their minister. He wrote about Petty recalling the day. Petty said, “He did yell ‘Shut up!’ at one point. He was really nervous, but so was I. He gave a long talk about love and its characteristics. He was pretty inspirational.”
Little Richard inspired and influenced many lives and, while his problematic, homophobic and transphobic threatened to tarnish his legacy, he did work for the emancipation of Black lives as well as people suffering from AIDS. He inspired people as a musician, as an evangelist and as a person but caused a stream of conflicting controversy in the process.