Richard Wayne Penniman (born December 5, 1932), known by his stage name Little Richard, is an American recording artist, songwriter, and musician. He has been an influential figure in popular music and culture for over six decades. Penniman's most celebrated work dates from the mid-1950s where his dynamic music and charismatic showmanship laid the foundation for rock and roll. His music also had a pivotal impact on the formation of other popular music genres, including soul and funk. Penniman influenced numerous singers and musicians across musical genres from rock to rap.
Penniman has been honored by many institutions, including inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is the recipient of Lifetime Achievement Awards from The Recording Academy and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Penniman's "Tutti Frutti" (1955) was included in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2010, claiming the "unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music."
Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, on December 5, 1932, the third-eldest of twelve. His parents were Leva Mae (née Stewart) and Charles "Bud" Penniman. His father was a church deacon who sold bootlegged moonshine on the side and owned his own nightclub, the Tip In Inn. His mother was a member of Macon's New Hope Baptist Church. Initially, Penniman's first name was supposed to have been "Ricardo" but an error resulted in "Richard" instead. The Penniman children were raised in the poor neighborhood of Macon called Pleasant Hill. He was nicknamed "Lil' Richard" by family due to his small and skinny frame as a child. A mischievous child who played pranks on neighbors, Penniman began singing in church at a young age. Possibly due to complications at birth, Penniman had a slight deformity that left one of his legs shorter than the other. This produced an unusual gait, for which he was mocked over its allegedly effeminate appearance.
Penniman's family was highly religious, joining various A.M.E., Baptist and Pentecostal churches, with some family members becoming ministers. Penniman enjoyed the Pentecostal churches the most due to its charismatic worship and live music. He later recalled that people in his neighborhood during segregation sang gospel songs throughout the day to keep a positive outlook because "there was so much poverty, so much prejudice in those days." Penniman had observed that people sang "to feel their connection with God" and to wash their trials and burdens away. Gifted with a loud singing voice, Penniman recalled that he was "always changing the key upwards" and that they once stopped him from singing in church for "screaming and hollering" so loud, earning him the nickname "War Hawk".
Penniman's initial musical influences were gospel performers, such as Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams. May, who as a singing evangelist was known as the "Thunderbolt of the Middle West" due to his phenomenal range and vocal power, inspired the boy to become a preacher. Penniman attended Macon's Hudson High School where he was a below-average student. His musical talent, however, was recognized there when he learned to play the alto saxophone. Penniman's mother recalled how Richard was "always musical" and that when he was young, he would always "beat on the steps of the house, and on tin cans and pots and pans, or whatever", while singing. She also recalled that Richard was so quick at learning to play the saxophone that he was allowed to play with the school's marching band immediately. While in high school, Penniman obtained a part-time job at the Macon City Auditorium for local secular and gospel concert promoter Clint Brantley. Penniman sold Coca-Cola to crowds during concerts of star performers of the day, such as Cab Calloway, Lucky Millinder and his favorite singer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
On October 27, 1947, Sister Rosetta Tharpe heard 14-year-old Penniman singing two of her gospel recordings before her concert at the Macon City Auditorium. Tharpe was so impressed that she invited him to sing onstage during the concert. Clint Brantley recalled that Penniman approached him before the show, announcing that Tharpe was allowing him to open the show. Brantley, as the promoter, told him he could not. However, when the curtain lifted, Penniman began to sing and surprised Brantley with his vocal ability. The crowd cheered and Tharpe paid him for his performance. Penniman was hooked on performing for a living after that. He began singing with traveling shows that came through town and was losing interest in school. He would sing to draw people to the local town prophet and spiritualist, Doctor Nubilio, who wore a turban, a colorful cape and carried a black stick and something that people came to see which Nubilio called "the devil's child" - a dried up body of a baby with claw feet like a bird and horns on its head. Nubilio told Penniman that he was "gonna be famous" but that he would have to "go where the grass is greener." Due to problems at home and school and associations in the community, Penniman left and joined Dr. Hudson's Medicine Show in 1948, performing "Caldonia". Penniman recalled the song was the first secular R&B song he learned due to his family's strict rules against playing R&B music, which they considered "devil music". Penniman soon joined his first musical band, Buster Brown's Orchestra. While performing with the band, he began using the name Little Richard. After his tenure with the band ended in 1950, Penniman began performing for various vaudeville groups including Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam, the Tidy Jolly Steppers, the King Brothers Circus and Broadway Follies, earning a reputation as a drag performer. Around this time, Penniman began listening more to R&B and frequented Atlanta clubs where he witnessed Roy Brown and Billy Wright. Heavily influenced by Wright's flamboyant persona and showmanship, Penniman began performing as a solo artist as part of the chitlin' circuit. Penniman gained notoriety for high-energy onstage antics during live performances. He eventually befriended Wright during an Atlanta performance in 1950.
In 1951, Wright put Penniman in contact with his manager, Zenas Sears, a local deejay. Sears recorded Penniman at his station backed by Wright's band. The recordings led to a contract that year with RCA Records. Penniman recorded a total of eight sides for RCA, including the blues ballad, "Every Hour", which became his first single and a hit in the Georgia area. The release of "Every Hour" improved his relationship with his father, who began regularly performing the song at his nightclub. After its release, Penniman fronted Perry Welch and His Orchestra, playing at clubs and army bases for $100 a week. Penniman learned how to play boogie-woogie piano from teenage musician Esquerita around this time. Penniman left RCA in February 1952 after his records failed to catch on. That same month, his father was suddenly killed after a confrontation outside his club. Penniman, struggling with poverty, settled for work as a dishwasher for Greyhound Lines and hired Clint Brantley as his manager. He formed a band called the Tempo Toppers that year and began to perform as part of blues package tours in clubs across the south, such as New Orleans' Club Tijuana and Houston's Club Matinee. With the Tempo Toppers, Penniman signed with Don Robey's Peacock Records in February 1953, recording eight sides, including four with Johnny Otis and his band that were unreleased at the time. Penniman had a contentious relationship with Robey and soon found himself disenchanted with the record business and with his group, leaving Peacock and disbanding the Tempo Toppers. That same year, Penniman formed a hard-driving R&B band, the Upsetters, which included drummer Charles Connor and saxophonist Wilbert "Lee Diamond" Smith, which toured under Brantley's management. The Upsetters began to tour successfully, even without a bass player on songs, forcing drummer Connor to thump "real hard" on his bass drum in order to get a "bass fiddle effect."
Under the suggestion of Lloyd Price, Penniman sent a two-song demo for Price's label, Specialty Records, in February 1955. Time passed before Penniman got a call to record for the label. Art Rupe, owner of Specialty Records, loaned Penniman money to buy out his Peacock contract and Rupe set him up to work with producer Robert "Bumps" Blackwell. Upon hearing the demo, Blackwell felt Penniman was Specialty's answer to Ray Charles. Penniman told Blackwell he preferred the sound of Fats Domino. As a result, Penniman began recording at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios in New Orleans that September, recording there with several of Domino's session musicians including drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen. Initial cuts failed to produce anything to inspire huge sales and Penniman and his producer took a break at a club called the Dew Drop Inn. While there, Penniman performed a risqué song he had improvised from his days on the club circuit called "Tutti Frutti". The song's a cappella introduction was based off a drum rhythm Penniman had devised. Blackwell felt the song had hit potential and hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to replace some of Penniman's sexual lyrics with less controversial words. Recorded in three takes in September 1955, "Tutti Frutti" was released as a single in November.
"Tutti Frutti" became an instant hit, reaching No. 2 on Billboard magazine's Rhythm and Blues Best-Sellers chart and crossing over to the pop charts in both the United States and overseas in the United Kingdom. It reached No. 17 on the Billboard Top 100 in America and No. 29 on the British singles chart, eventually selling a million copies. Penniman's next hit single, "Long Tall Sally" (1956), became his first to reach No. 1 on the R&B chart and the first to reach the top ten of the pop charts in both America and Britain. Like "Tutti Frutti", it sold over a million copies. Following his success, Penniman built up his backup band, The Upsetters, with the addition of saxophonists Clifford "Gene" Burks and leader Grady Gaines, bassist Olsie "Baysee" Robinson and guitarist Nathaniel "Buster" Douglas. Penniman began performing on package tours across the United States, often appearing last, where he would steal the show. Art Rupe described the differences between Penniman and a similar hitmaker of the early rock and roll period by stating that, while "the similarities between Little Richard and Fats Domino for recording purposes were close", Penniman would sometimes stand up at the piano while he was recording and that onstage, where Domino was "plodding, very slow", Penniman was "very dynamic, completely uninhibited, unpredictable, wild. So the band took on the ambience of the vocalist." During a period of racial tension in the United States, Penniman attracted mixed-race audiences at a time when public places were divided into "white" and "colored" domains. H.B. Barnum later explained that Penniman "opened the door. He brought the races together". Prior to Penniman, audiences in musical shows were either "all black or all white and no one else could come in." Penniman's success enabled audiences of both races to enter the building, albeit still segregated (e.g. blacks on the balcony and whites on the main floor). By the end of Penniman's performances, however, the audiences would come together to dance. Despite broadcasts on TV from local supremacist groups such as the North Alabama White Citizens Council warning how rock and roll "brings the races together", Penniman's popularity was helping to shatter shibboleths that held that black performers could not successfully perform at "white-only venues", especially in the South where racism was most overt.
Penniman's show, according to Barnum, was the first rock and roll show to use spotlights and flicker lights, which had been a show business tradition, accentuating Penniman's innovative use of colorful capes, blouse shirts, makeup and suits studded with multi-colored precious stones and sequins. Penniman's onstage antics often included running on and off the stage, lifting his leg while playing his piano, and jumping up and down onstage and atop the piano, bringing audiences into a frenzy. Fans reacted in similar and sometimes extreme ways. During Penniman's show at Baltimore's Royal Theatre in June 1956, several fans had to be restrained from jumping off the balcony. Cops stopped the show twice to prevent fans who had rushed the stage from ripping souvenirs off of Penniman. During the same show, a woman threw a pair of her undergarments onstage at Penniman, leading other female fans to repeat the action.
Penniman had nine hits in America in 1956 and five in Britain, with recordings such as "Slippin' and Slidin'", "Rip It Up" "Ready Teddy", "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Lucille". Most of Penniman's earlier hits inspired covers by the likes of Pat Boone, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. Described as having "electrifying movie-star looks", Penniman accepted brief roles in movies such as Don't Knock the Rock, Mister Rock and Roll and The Girl Can't Help It. His success continued in 1957 with international hits such as "Jenny, Jenny" and "Keep A-Knockin'". Penniman scored further hit singles such as "Good Golly Miss Molly", eventually scoring 18 hit singles in less than three years.
In May 1957, Penniman released his first album, Here's Little Richard, which reached No. 13 on the Billboard Top LPs chart, then a rare feat for a rock and roll artist. Penniman's success made him a millionaire and in late 1956, he settled in Los Angeles, purchasing a mansion in a wealthy section of the city, where he lived next door to boxer Joe Louis. He had engaged in a serious romance with Audrey Robinson, then a teenage college student and later a stripper under the stage name Lee Angel. In October 1957, Penniman embarked on a package tour in Australia with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. During the middle of the tour, he shocked the public by announcing his decision to follow a life in the ministry. Penniman later explained that during a flight from Melbourne to Sydney that he had seen the plane's red hot engines and felt angels were holding it up. During the Sydney performance, Penniman saw a bright red fireball flying across the sky above him and was deeply shaken. He took the event, later revealed as the launching of the first artificial Earth satellite Sputnik 1, as a sign from God to repent from performing secular music and his wild lifestyle and enter the ministry. Returning to the states ten days early, Penniman later learned that his original return flight had crashed into the Pacific Ocean solidifying his belief he was doing as God wanted. After a performance at the Apollo Theater and a recording session with Specialty later that month, Penniman enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study theology. Fueling his decision to leave the music business was Penniman's feeling that he hadn't received proper remuneration from Specialty. Upon ending his contract with Specialty in 1959, Penniman reluctantly agreed to relinquish any royalties for his material. In 1958, he formed the Little Richard Evangelistic Team, traveling across the country to preach. A month after his conversion, while speaking at an evangelical convention in November 1957, Penniman met Ernestine Campbell, a secretary from Washington, D.C. He married her on July 11, 1959.
Around this time, Penniman began recording gospel and had some chart success with songs such as "He's Not Just a Soldier" and "Crying in the Chapel". Another gospel single, "He Got What He Wanted", reached the top 40 in the UK. Childhood hero Mahalia Jackson acknowledged his gospel efforts after hearing him sing at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Los Angeles. After working with Penniman on the Mercury album King of the Gospel Singers, Quincy Jones remarked in 1984 that his performance in the studio impressed him more than any other artist with whom he had worked.
In 1962, concert promoter Don Arden convinced Penniman to tour Europe after telling him his records were still selling well there. Arden booked him as the headline artist with Sam Cooke second on the bill. Penniman performed gospel material at the first show without Cooke opening due to the delay of his arrival, receiving a tepid reaction. After Cooke opened the second show with vigorous applause from the crowd, Penniman and his organist Billy Preston warmed up in darkness before launching into "Long Tall Sally", resulting in hysterical responses. Penniman's shows received similar responses wherever he would perform, including a show at Mansfield's Granada Theatre, which closed early due to fans rushing the stage. Wanting to capitalize on Penniman's headline-grabbing performances, Beatles manager Brian Epstein asked Penniman and Arden to allow his newly recorded band to open for Penniman on some tour dates to which they agreed, first opening at New Brighton's Tower Ballroom that October. The following month, the Beatles opened for Penniman at the Star Club in Hamburg. During this time, Penniman advised the group on how to perform his songs and taught Paul McCartney his trademark vocalizations. Back in the U.S., Penniman recorded six rock and roll songs with the Upsetters for Little Star Records, under the name "World Famous Upsetters", allowing him to keep his options open in the ministry.
Penniman returned to the UK the following fall, with the Rolling Stones as openers. At the end of that tour, he starred in his own special, The Little Richard Spectacular, for Granada Television. The special became a ratings success and led to two rebroadcasts following over 60,000 fan letters. Footage of the special was shown around the world, highlighting the frenzy associated with rock and roll. In 1964, Penniman returned briefly to Specialty and recorded five songs, including the charted single, "Bama Lama Bama Loo", which reached the top 20 in the UK but only made 82 in the US. Later that year, he signed with Vee-Jay Records and issued the album Little Richard Is Back (And There's a Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On!). The album failed to catch on domestically, despite a televised performance of the single "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" on Shindig! that drew wild responses from audience members. By September 1964, Jimi Hendrix had joined the Upsetters band, as a full member. In December, Jimi and some '50s band members joined Richard in New York for a session of remakes. The most successful collaboration between Little Richard and Hendrix came in the following year, also in New York, when Hendrix, Billy Preston, and Penniman recorded the soul ballad "I Don't Know What You've Got (But It's Got Me)", which became a number 12 R&B hit. Penniman and Hendrix clashed over tardiness, wardrobe and Hendrix's stage antics and as a result, in July 1965, Penniman's brother Robert fired him. That same year, Penniman attempted to set up his own record label but only cut two unreleased tracks. Instead he signed with Modern Records, which resulted in a very agreeable string of rock and soul singles but yielded just one chart-maker, "Do You Feel It?". He left that label in early 1966 for Okeh Records. Okeh paired Penniman musically with his friend from the mid-1950s, Larry Williams, who produced two albums for him in 1966 and 1967; the first being a studio album, The Explosive Little Richard, which generated the modest hit singles, "Poor Dog" and "Commandments of Love", and the second, Little Richard's Greatest Hits: Recorded Live!, which returned him to the pop album charts for the first time in ten years, as well hitting number 28 on the Hot R&B LPs chart. Williams also acted as the music director for Penniman's live performances at the Okeh Club in Los Angeles amid the Okeh period, during which time the demand for Penniman's appearances increased greatly. Leaving Okeh in late-1967, Penniman briefly recorded with Brunswick but left shortly after his final session.
Penniman struggled when he returned to secular music in the 1960s. He often complained to producers in the 1960s that he felt unappreciated as producers pushed him towards a horn-oriented Motown sound and felt he wasn't treated with appropriate respect. Penniman often performed in dingy clubs and lounges with little support from his label. Penniman adapted a wilder flamboyant and androgynous image that, while a hit with club audiences, was a problem for labels attempting to promote him to conservative R&B buyers. Angered by his decision to "backslide" from his ministry, clergymen in the South forced radio disk jockeys to ignore Penniman's work. His insistence on performing in front of mixed audiences prevented him from receiving radio time in the areas of Los Angeles affected by the Watts Riots. Despite recording and public relations struggles, according to his Songwriters Hall of Fame biography, he had sold over 32 million records worldwide by 1968. Focusing on live performances rather than recordings at the end of the 1960s, Penniman found success with performances in casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, New York City and Los Angeles. Penniman returned to the national spotlight in 1969 as a performer at the Atlantic City Pop Festival, where he stole the show from top performers such as Janis Joplin; he did the same to headliner John Lennon at the Toronto Pop Festival. These successes brought Penniman to talk shows such as the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and the Dick Cavett Show, making him a major celebrity again.
Following this, Penniman signed with Reprise Records in 1970, releasing the album, The Rill Thing, which included the charted singles "Freedom Blues" and "Greenwood, Mississippi". Penniman's follow-ups for Reprise failed to produce similar success and Penniman spent much of the decade performing as a guest instrumentalist on sessions with rockers such as Delaney and Bonnie, Joey Covington and Joe Walsh. The sessions for Canned Heat's "Rockin' with the King" (1972) and Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Take It Like a Man" (1976) resulted in chart successes. Penniman and three of his brothers formed a management company, Bud Hole Incorporated, around this time. Leaving Reprise in 1973, he charted for independent labels including a Green Mountain Records single, "In the Middle of the Night", which proceeds went to charity following a string of tornadoes that damaged 12 states. Three years later, the Mainstream Records single "Call My Name" was distributed by Motown but barely charted in 1976. That same year, Penniman re-recorded 18 of his classic hits in Nashville for K-Tel Records, with a single featuring new versions of "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Rip It Up" reaching the UK singles chart. Following over ten years of drug and alcohol abuse and a string of recent personal tragedies, Penniman quit rock and roll music again in 1977 and returned to evangelism, releasing one gospel album, God's Beautiful City, in 1979.
In 1984, Penniman filed a $112 million lawsuit against Specialty Records, Art Rupe and his publishing company Venice Music and ATV Music for not paying him royalties after he left the label in 1959. The suit would be settled out of court in 1986. According to some reports, Michael Jackson gave Penniman monetary compensation from his work when he co-owned the Beatles and Penniman's songs with Sony-ATV. In 1985, Charles White released Penniman's authorized biography, Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard, which returned Penniman to the spotlight due to the book's subject matter. Penniman returned to show business in what Rolling Stone would refer to as a "formidable comeback" following the book's release.
Reconciling his roles as evangelist and rock and roll musician for the first time, Penniman stated that the genre could be used for good or evil. After accepting a role in the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Penniman and Billy Preston penned the faith-based rock and roll song, "Great Gosh A'Mighty" for its soundtrack. Penniman won critical acclaim for his film role and the song found success on the American and British charts. The hit led to the release of the album Lifetime Friend (1986) on Warner Bros. Records, with songs deemed "messages in rhythm" that included a gospel rap track. In addition to a version of "Great Gosh A'Mighty", cut in England, the album featured two UK charted singles, "Somebody's Comin'" and "Operator". Penniman spent much of the rest of the decade guesting on TV shows and appearing in films, winning new fans with what was referred to as his "unique comedic timing". In 1989, Penniman provided rhythmic preaching and background vocals on the extended live version of the U2/B.B. King hit "When Love Comes To Town". That same year, Penniman returned to singing his classic hits following a performance of "Lucille" at a Cher-hosted AIDS benefit concert.
In 1990, Penniman contributed a spoken-word rap on Living Colour's hit song, "Elvis Is Dead", from their album Time's Up. The following year, he was one of the featured performers on the hit single and video "Voices That Care" that was produced to help boost the morale of U.S. troops involved in Operation Desert Storm. He also recorded a rock and roll version of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" that year that led to a deal with Disney Records, resulting in the release of a hit 1992 children's album, Shake It All About. Throughout the 1990s, Penniman performed around the world and appeared on TV, film, and tracks with other artists, including Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John and Solomon Burke. In 1992, yet another album of remakes was released, this time with Richard and Japanese guitar hero, Takanaka. Included in the band were swamp guitarist Travis Wammack and his drummer son Monkee, members of Richard's then current touring band.
In 2000, Penniman's life was dramatized for the biopic Little Richard, which focused on his early years including his heyday, religious conversion and return to secular music in the early 1960s. Penniman was played by actor Leon, who earned a NAACP Image Award nomination for his role as the musician. In 2002, Penniman contributed to the Johnny Cash tribute album, Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash. In 2006, Penniman was featured in a popular advertisement for the GEICO brand. Then, a 2005 recording of his duet vocals with Jerry Lee Lewis appeared on a cover of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" for Lewis's 2006 album, Last Man Standing. The same year, Penniman signed on as a guest judge for the TV series Celebrity Duets. In 2008, Penniman and Lewis performed alongside John Fogerty at the Grammy Awards of that year in a tribute to the two artists considered to be cornerstones of rock and roll by NARAS. That same year, Penniman appeared on radio host Don Imus' benefit album for sick children, The Imus Ranch Record. In June 2010, Penniman recorded a gospel track for an upcoming tribute album to songwriting legend Dottie Rambo.
Towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Rolling Stone reported that Penniman remained "one of the most recognized and quotable celebrities in the world." Throughout the decade, he kept up a stringent touring schedule, performing primarily in the States and Europe. However, sciatic nerve pain in his left leg and then replacement of the involved hip began affecting the frequency of his performances by 2010. Despite his health issues, Penniman continued to receive critical acclaim for his performances, with Rolling Stone reporting after a performance at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. in June 2012 that Penniman was "still full of fire, still a master showman, his voice still loaded with deep gospel and raunchy power." Following the D.C. concert, Penniman performed a full 90 minute show at the Pensacola Interstate Fair in Pensacola in October 2012 and headlined at the Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas during Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend in March 2013.
In 2014, actor Brandon Mychal Smith won critical acclaim for his portrayal of Little Richard in the James Brown bio-pic "Get On Up." Mick Jagger co-produced the motion picture.
In 1956, Penniman began a romantic relationship with Audrey Robinson, a 16-year-old college student, originally from Savannah, Georgia. According to Penniman, he would invite other men to have sex with her in groups and once invited Buddy Holly to have sex with her; Robinson denied those claims. The relationship ended after Penniman's religious conversion in 1957. Robinson later became a stripper using the name Lee Angel. According to Robinson, Penniman wanted to continue to see her but she felt uncomfortable seeing a preacher as a stripper. Described in GQ's UK edition as a "lifelong soulmate", Robinson and Penniman are occasionally in each other's company.
Penniman met his only wife, Ernestine Campbell, at an evangelical rally in October 1957. They began dating that year and wed in July 1959. According to Campbell, she and Penniman initially enjoyed a happy marriage with "normal" sexual relations. Campbell claimed when the marriage ended in divorce in 1963, it was due to Penniman's celebrity status, noting that it had made life difficult for her. Penniman claimed the marriage fell apart due to him being a neglectful husband. While married, in 1962, Penniman adopted a one-year-old boy, Danny Jones, from a late church associate. Penniman and his son remain close, with Jones often acting as one of his bodyguards.
Penniman's sexual orientation has long been a topic of debate. Penniman claimed that as a child he felt feminine and played with girls, which was the source of jokes at his expense. Caught wearing his mother's makeup and wardrobe at times, he was brutally punished by his father. Penniman began having sexual encounters with both sexes by his early teens. Allegedly due to his effeminate mannerisms, Penniman's father kicked him out of their family home at 15. Penniman first became involved in voyeurism in his early twenties, when a female friend of his would drive around and pick up men who would allow him to watch them have sex in the backseat of cars. Penniman was once arrested after a gas station attendant in Macon reported sexual activity in a car featuring Penniman and a couple. Cited on a lewd conduct charge, Penniman spent three days in jail and was temporarily banned from performing in Macon.
During the early 1950s, Penniman had appeared as a drag performer in various vaudeville groups. By the time he entered the chitlin' circuit, he began using makeup regularly, influenced by Billy Wright, who recommended him his brand of makeup, Pancake 31. Later, as he began experiencing success in the mid-1950s, Penniman made members of his band use makeup as a means to gain entry into white clubs during performances. Penniman later told a columnist, "I wore the make-up so that white men wouldn't think I was after the white girls. It made things easier for me, plus it was colorful too." Penniman received female attention during his mid-1950s heyday stating that female fans would give him naked photos of themselves and their phone numbers. In 2000, Penniman stated: "I had girlfriends and a stack of women who followed me and traveled with me. I figure if being called a sissy would make me famous, let them say what they want to."
While attending Oakwood College, Penniman recalled a male student showed himself to him. After the incident was reported to the student's father, Penniman withdrew from the college. In 1962, Penniman was again arrested after he was caught spying on men urinating at a men's bathroom at a Trailways bus station in Long Beach, California. Penniman returned to participating in sexual orgies after his return to secular music in the 1960s. He differed in depictions of his sexuality. In 1984, while he noted that he felt homosexuality was "unnatural" and "contagious", he would tell Charles White that he was "omnisexual" after he was asked about his sex life. In 1995, Penniman told Penthouse that he always knew he was gay. In 2007, Mojo magazine described Penniman as a "bisexual alien".
Penniman allegedly was a heavy drinker and cigarette smoker during the mid-1960s. By 1972, he was using cocaine, developing an addiction to the drug. He later lamented during that period, "they should have called me Little Cocaine, I was sniffing so much of that stuff!" He got addicted to heroin and PCP around that same period. Of his drug experiences, he said "I lost my reasoning". He said of his cocaine addiction that he did whatever he could to use cocaine. Penniman admitted that his addiction to cocaine and heroin was costing him as much as $1,000 a day. In 1977, longtime friend Larry Williams once showed up with a gun and threatened to kill Penniman for failing to pay his drug debt. Penniman later mentioned that this was the most fearful moment of his life because Williams's own drug addiction made him wildly unpredictable. Penniman did, however, also acknowledge that he and Williams were "very close friends" and when reminiscing of the drug-fueled clash, he recalled thinking "I knew he loved me – I hoped he did". Within that same year, Penniman had several devastating personal experiences, including his brother Tony's death of a heart attack, the accidental shooting of his nephew that he loved like a son, and the murder of two close personal friends – one a valet at "the heroin man's house." The combination of these experiences convinced Penniman to give up drugs and alcohol, along with rock and roll, and return to the ministry.
Penniman's family had deep evangelical (Baptist and AME) Christian roots, including two uncles and a grandfather who were preachers. Penniman also took part in Macon's Pentecostal churches, which were his favorites mainly due to their music, charismatic praise, dancing in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. At age 10, influenced by Pentecostalism, Penniman would go around saying he was a faith healer, singing gospel music to people who were feeling sick and touching them. He later recalled that they would often indicate that they felt better after he prayed for them and would sometimes give him money. Penniman had aspirations of being a preacher due to the influence of singing evangelist Brother Joe May.
After he was born again in 1957, Penniman enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, a mostly black Seventh-day Adventist college, to study theology. Penniman returned to secular music in the early 1960s. He was eventually ordained a minister in 1970, and again resumed evangelical activities in 1977. Penniman represented Memorial Bibles International and sold their Black Heritage Bible, which highlighted the Book's many black characters. As a preacher, Penniman evangelized in small churches and packed auditoriums of 20,000 or more. His preaching focused on uniting the races and bringing lost souls to repentance through God's love. In 1984, Penniman's mother, Leva Mae, died following a period of illness. Only a few months prior to her death, Penniman promised her that he would remain a Christian.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Penniman officiated at celebrity weddings. In 2006, Penniman wedded twenty couples who won a contest in one ceremony. The musician used his experience and knowledge as a minister and elder statesman of rock and roll to preach at funerals of musical friends such as Wilson Pickett and Ike Turner. At a benefit concert in 2009 to raise funds to help rebuild children's playgrounds destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Penniman asked guest of honor Fats Domino to pray with him and others. His assistants handed out inspirational booklets at the concert—a common practice at Penniman's shows. He somberly told a Howard Theatre, Washington, D.C. audience in June 2012, "I know this is not Church, but get close to the Lord. The world is getting close to the end. Get close to the Lord." In 2013, Penniman elaborated on his spiritual philosophies, stating "God talked to me the other night. He said He's getting ready to come. The world's getting ready to end and He's coming, wrapped in flames of fire with a rainbow around his throne." Rolling Stone reported his apocalyptic prophesies generated sniggers from some audience members as well as cheers of support. Penniman responded by stating: "When I talk to you about , I'm not playing. I'm almost 81 years old. Without God, I wouldn't be here."
In October 1985, Penniman returned to the United States from England, where he had finished recording his album Lifetime Friend, to film a guest spot on the show, Miami Vice. Following the taping, he accidentally crashed his sports car into a telephone pole in West Hollywood, California. He suffered a broken right leg, broken ribs and head and facial injuries. His recovery from the accident took several months. His accident prevented him from being able to attend the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in January 1986 where he was one of several inductees. He instead supplied a recorded message.
In 2007, Penniman was having problems walking due to sciatica in his left leg, requiring him to use crutches. In November 2009, he entered a hospital to have replacement surgery on his left hip. Despite returning to perform the following year, Penniman's problems with his hip continued and has since been helped onstage by a wheelchair. He has told fans that his surgery has his hip "breaking inside" and refuses to have further work on it. On September 30, 2013, he revealed to Cee Lo Green at a Recording Academy fundraiser that he had suffered a heart attack at his home the week prior and stated he used aspirin and had his son turn the air conditioner on, which his doctor confirmed had saved his life. Penniman stated, "Jesus had something for me. He brought me through."
Penniman's music and performance style had a pivotal impact on the shape of the sound and style of popular music genres of the 20th century. As a rock and roll pioneer, Penniman embodied its spirit more flamboyantly than any other performer. Penniman's raspy shouting style gave the genre one of its most identifiable and influential vocal sounds and his fusion of boogie-woogie, New Orleans R&B and gospel music blazed its rhythmic trail.
Penniman was blessed with a phenomenal voice able to generate croons, wails, and screams unprecedented in popular music. He was cited by two of soul music's pioneers, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, as contributing to that genre's early development. Redding stated that most of his music was patterned after Penniman's and that he had "done a lot for and soul brothers in the music business." Cooke said in 1962 that Penniman had done "so much for our music". Cooke had a top 40 hit with his cover of "Send Me Some Loving" in 1963.
James Brown said that Penniman and the Upsetters, including drummer Charles "Chuck" Connor, were "the first to put the funk in rhythm", with a biographer stating that their music "spark the musical transition from fifties rock and roll to sixties funk".
Penniman's hits of the mid-1950s, such as "Tutti Frutti", "Long Tall Sally", "Keep A-Knockin'" and "Good Golly Miss Molly", were generally characterized by playful lyrics with sexually suggestive connotations. AllMusic writer Richie Unterberger stated that Penniman "merged the fire of gospel with New Orleans R&B, pounding the piano and wailing with gleeful abandon", and that while "other R&B greats of the early '50s had been moving in a similar direction, none of them matched the sheer electricity of Richard's vocals. With his high speed deliveries, ecstatic trills, and the overjoyed force of personality in his singing, he was crucial in upping the voltage from high-powered R&B into the similar, yet different, guise of rock and roll." Due to his innovative music and style, he's often widely acknowledged as the "architect of rock and roll".
Ray Charles introduced him at a concert in 1988 as "a man that started a kind of music that set the pace for a lot of what's happening today." Rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley called Penniman "one of a kind" and "a show business genius" that "influenced so many in the music business". Penniman's contemporaries, including Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, all recorded covers of Penniman's works. Taken by Penniman's music and style, and personally covering four of Penniman's tunes on his own two breakthrough albums in 1956, Presley told Penniman in 1969 that his music was an inspiration to him and that he was "the greatest". Pat Boone noted in 1984, "no one person has been more imitated than Little Richard". As they wrote about Penniman for their Man of the Year – Legend category in 2010, GQ magazine stated that Penniman "is, without question, the boldest and most influential of the founding fathers of rock'n'roll". R&B pioneer Johnny Otis stated that "Little Richard is twice as valid artistically and important historically as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones put together."
In addition to his musical style, Penniman was cited as one of the first crossover black artists, reaching audiences of all races. His concerts broke the color line, drawing blacks and whites together despite attempts to sustain segregation. As H.B. Barnum explained in Quasar of Rock, Penniman "opened the door. He brought the races together." Barnum described Penniman's music as not being "boy-meets-girl-girl-meets-boy things, they were fun records, all fun. And they had a lot to say sociologically in our country and the world." Barnum also stated that Penniman's "charisma was a whole new thing to the music business", explaining that "he would burst onto the stage from anywhere, and you wouldn't be able to hear anything but the roar of the audience. He might come out and walk on the piano. He might go out into the audience." Barnum also stated that Penniman was innovative in that he would wear colorful capes, blouse shirts, makeup and suits studded with multi-colored precious stones and sequins, and that he also brought flickering stage lighting from his show business experience into performance venues where rock and roll artists performed.
Penniman influenced generations of performers across musical genres. James Brown and Otis Redding both idolized Penniman. Brown allegedly came up with the Famous Flames debut hit, "Please, Please, Please", after Penniman had written the words on a napkin. Redding started his professional career with Penniman's band, The Upsetters. He first entered a talent show performing Penniman's "Heeby Jeebies", winning for 15 consecutive weeks. Ike Turner claimed most of Tina Turner's early vocal delivery was based on Penniman, something Penniman himself reiterated in the foreword of Turner's biography, King of Rhythm. Bob Dylan first performed covers of Penniman's songs on piano in high school with his rock and roll group, the Golden Chords; in 1959 when leaving school, he wrote in his yearbook under "Ambition": "to join Little Richard". Jimi Hendrix was influenced in appearance (clothing and hairstyle/mustache) and sound by Penniman. He was quoted in 1966 saying, "I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice." Others influenced by Penniman early on in their lives included Bob Seger and John Fogerty. Michael Jackson admitted that Penniman had been a huge influence on him prior to Off the Wall. Rock critics noted similarities between Prince's androgynous look, music and vocal style to Penniman's. The origins of Cliff Richard's name change from Harry Webb was seen as a partial tribute to his musical hero Penniman and singer Rick Richards. Several members of The Beatles were heavily influenced by Penniman, including Paul McCartney and George Harrison. McCartney idolized Penniman in school and later used Penniman's vocals as inspiration for his uptempo rockers. "Long Tall Sally" was the first song McCartney performed in public. During the Beatles' Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Harrison commented, "thank you all very much, especially the rock 'n' rollers, an' Little Richard there, if it wasn't for (gesturing to Penniman), it was all his fault, really." Upon hearing "Long Tall Sally", John Lennon commented that he was so impressed that he "couldn't speak". Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were also profoundly influenced by Penniman, with Jagger citing him as his first induction to R&B music and referring to him as "the originator and my first idol". Upon hearing "Tutti Frutti", Richards explained, "it was if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to Technicolor". Penniman was an early vocal influence on Rod Stewart. David Bowie called Penniman his "inspiration" stating upon listening to "Tutti Frutti" that he "heard God". After opening for him with his band Bluesology, pianist Reginald Dwight was inspired to be a "rock and roll piano player", later changing his name to Elton John. Farookh Bulsara performed covers of Penniman's songs as a teen, before finding fame as Freddie Mercury, frontman for Queen. Penniman was referred to as Lou Reed's rock n roll hero, deriving inspiration from "the soulful, primal force" of the sound made by Penniman and his saxophonist on "Long Tall Sally." Reed later stated, "I don't know why and I don't care, but I wanted to go to wherever that sound was and make a life." Patti Smith said, "To me, Little Richard was a person that was able to focus a certain physical, anarchistic, and spiritual energy into a form which we call rock 'n' roll ... I understood it as something that had to do with my future. When I was a little girl, Santa Claus didn't turn me on. Easter Bunny didn't turn me on. God turned me on. Little Richard turned me on." The music of Deep Purple and Motörhead was also influenced by Penniman, as well as that of AC/DC. The latter's Bon Scott idolized Penniman and aspired to sing like him, and Angus Young was first inspired to play guitar after listening to Penniman's music. Later performers such as Mystikal, André "André 3000" Benjamin of Outkast and Bruno Mars were cited by critics as having emulated Penniman's style in their own works. Mystikal's rap vocal delivery was compared to Penniman's. André 3000's vocals in Outkast's hit, "Hey Ya!", were compared to an "indie rock Little Richard". Bruno Mars admitted Penniman influenced him. Mars' song, "Runaway Baby" from his album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans was cited by the New York Times as "channeling Little Richard".
Penniman received the Cashbox Triple Crown Award for "Long Tall Sally" in 1956. In 1984, he was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Penniman's influence on rock and roll was later recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 1990, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1994. In 1993, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1997, he was given the American Music Award of Merit. In 2002, along with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, Penniman was honored as one of the first group of BMI icons at the 50th Annual BMI Pop Awards. That same year, he was inducted into the NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame. A year later, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2006, he was inducted into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame. Four years afterwards, he received a plaque on the theater's Walk of Fame. In 2008, he received a star at Nashville's Music City Walk of Fame. In 2009, he was inducted to the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. The UK issue of GQ named him its Man of the Year in its Legend category in 2010.
Included in numerous Rolling Stone lists, Penniman's Here's Little Richard was ranked fifty on the magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. He was ranked eighth on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Rolling Stone listed three of Penniman's recordings, "The Girl Can't Help It", "Long Tall Sally" and "Tutti Frutti", on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Two of the latter songs and "Good Golly, Miss Molly" were listed on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The Grammy Hall of Fame inducted several of Penniman's recordings including "Tutti Frutti", "Lucille", "Long Tall Sally" and Here's Little Richard. "Tutti Frutti" topped music magazine Mojo's list of "The 100 Records That Changed the World". The same recording was inducted to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry with the library claiming the "unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music". Penniman appeared in person to receive an honorary degree from his hometown's Mercer University on May 11, 2013. The day before the doctorate of humanities degree was to be bestowed upon him, the mayor of Macon announced that one of Penniman's childhood homes, an historic site, will be moved to a rejuvenated section of that city's Pleasant Hill district. It will be restored and named the Richard Penniman – Pleasant Hill Resource House, a meeting place where local history and artifacts will be displayed as provided by residents.