Music | May 9, 2020 12:19 pm

Iconic Rock Musician Little Richard Dead at 87

His influence can be felt on entire genres of music

Little Richard Recording
Musician Little Richard performs on the recording studio at a microphone and piano, circa 1959.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Few musicians had careers as long, or as influential, as that of Little Richard. The iconic rock musician, born Richard Wayne Penniman, got his first record deal in 1951, and remained a musical mainstay and influential figure over the course of the decades that followed. Rolling Stone reports that Little Richard died earlier today at the age of 87. As David Browne writes, a group of early singles helped to establish Little Richard’s distinctive style and musical impact:

Starting with “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, Little Richard cut a series of unstoppable hits – “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up” that same year, “Lucille” in 1957, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958 – driven by his simple, pumping piano, gospel-influenced vocal exclamations and sexually charged (often gibberish) lyrics.

The list of artists who have cited him as an influence is vast — Pitchfork’s report on his death cites figures from The Beatles and Bob Dylan to James Brown and Lemmy Kilmister as having learned from Little Richard. And his long career in music also resulted in him having had a direct role in the development of subsequent generations of artists.

His distinctive musical style still sounds electrifying today. As music historian Bon Stanley noted on Twitter, Little Richard’s voice has a seismic impact when it was first heard on the radio.

But his music wasn’t the only reason Little Richard was an icon for many. As Browne writes, Little Richard also made a stylistic impact on many artists with “his pompadours, androgynous makeup and glass-bead shirts.” Writing at The New York Times, Tim Weiner notes that Little Richard was also a pioneer in terms of his approach to gender and sexuality:

He was fond of saying in later years that if Elvis was the king of rock ’n’ roll, he was the queen. Offstage, he characterized himself variously as gay, bisexual and “omnisexual.”

His musical influence was so vast as to be immeasurable; without his presence, it’s impossible to imagine what decades’ worth of music might sound like. Little Richard’s own discography remains thrilling and vital — as captivating and innovative as the man who made it.

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