Elton John is among the many figures from the entertainment world to pay tribute to rock’n’roll icon, Little Richard, who died on Friday in Nashville at the age of 87. His cause of death was cancer.
Posting a photo of Little Richard in his heyday to Instagram, John said, “Without a doubt – musically, vocally and visually – he was my biggest influence. Seeing him live in my teens was the most exciting event in my life at that point. Goosebumps, electricity and joy came from every pore. His records still sound fresh and the opening few seconds of “Tutti Frutti” are the most explosive in music history.
“I was lucky enough to work with him for my “Duets” album in 1993. He was shy and funny and I was SO nervous. The track we recorded “The Power” is a favourite in my catalogue.
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“We also played live at the Beverly Hilton and I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. He influenced so many and is irreplaceable. A true legend, icon and a force of nature. #RIP Little Richard.”
Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, Little Richard achieved worldwide fame in early 1956 with his breakthrough hit, ‘Tutti Frutti’ – achieving chart success as a nascent rock’n’roll icon just before Elvis Presley.
He went on to have 15 chart hits in three years, including classics such as ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Lucille’.
His flamboyant and wild stage act electrified audiences. Before his mainstream success, he was already an experienced showman. He’d performed as a drag queen called Princess LaVonne in the early 1950s with various vaudeville acts.
Offstage, his personal life was just as wild as his stage persona. He was twice arrested for lewd conduct in the 1950s, having a fondness for using a female friend to pick up men, and then watching her and the man have sex in the back of his car.
The original lyrics for ‘Tutti Frutti’ were concerned with anal sex: “If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.” However, these were changed before the song was committed to vinyl.
He was later open about attending orgies and sleeping with men, variously describing himself in one interview as “omnisexual” and telling Penthouse in 1995, “I’ve been gay all my life”.
However, a victim of the times he lived in and his upbringing, Little Richard had conflicting views on his sexuality over the decades, sometimes denouncing homosexuality as “unnatural”, and briefly once turning his back on rock’n’roll in the late 50s to become a preacher.
Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan were among the many others to pay tribute to the rock pioneer. Jagger tweeted, “I’m so saddened to hear about the passing of Little Richard. He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens and his music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid ’50s.
“When we were on tour with him I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience and he was always so generous with advice to me. He contributed so much to popular music. I will miss you Richard, God bless.”
Dylan tweeted, “I just heard the news about Little Richard and I’m so grieved. He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do.”
Paul McCartney tweeted, “I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He would say, ‘I taught Paul everything he knows’. I had to admit he was right.
“In the early days of the Beatles we played with Richard in Hamburg and got to know him,” McCartney continued. “He would let us hang out in his dressing room and we were witness to his pre-show rituals, with his head under a towel over a bowl of steaming hot water, he would suddenly lift his head up to the mirror and say, ‘I can’t help it cos I’m so beautiful.’ And he was.”
Writer and director Ava DuVernay (Netflix‘s When They See Us), recalled how Little Richard had generously helped her when she was a struggling creative trying to get a break in the business.
“I served soul food brunch to Little Richard every Sunday for a year while waitressing at Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch in LA,” DuVernay tweeted.
“I was a college student. He tipped me a crisp $100 bill each week on a $75 breakfast with friends. This was 30 years ago. Helped me so much. God rest his soul.”