Little Richard, rock's flashy founding father, dies at 87

Little Richard, rock's flashy founding father, dies at 87

Little Richard, whose outrageous showmanship and lightning-fast rhythms intoxicated crowds, has died.

Little Richard
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He was 87 years old.

Reverend Bill Minson, a friend of the legendary musician, said Little Richard died Saturday morning following a battle with cancer.

With a distinctive range from robust belting to howling falsetto, Richard transfixed audiences and inspired artists including The Beatles as he transformed the blues into the feverish new style of rock 'n' roll alongside Fats Domino and Chuck Berry.

His raunchy 1955 song "Tutti Frutti" became a sort of opening salvo of rock 'n' roll's entry into American life, starting with his nonsensical but instantly thrilling first line: "Awop bop a loo mop / Alop bam boom."

Richard stunned buttoned-down post-World War II America with an otherworldly look of blindingly colorful shirts, glass-embedded jackets, a needle-thin moustache and a 15-centimeter high pompadour.

A consummate entertainer, he would play piano with one leg hoisted over the keys and, in one legendary concert in Britain, played dead on stage so effectively that the venue sought medical help before he resurrected himself to an astounded crowd.

Richard's lifestyle - he spoke fondly of bisexual orgies - became the epitome of rock 'n' roll decadence.

Once openly - by standards of the time - attracted to men, Richard became a born-again Christian and renounced homosexuality as a temporary choice, anathema to the modern gay rights movement and psychologists.

- Mentor to rock's greats -

His influence was incalculable. Early white rockers including Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley all pursued Richard's sound.

The upstart Beatles and Rolling Stones served separately as opening acts when Richard toured England, and a young Jimi Hendrix and members of Earth, Wind and Fire played in his back-up band.

"He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens," Mick Jagger tweeted Saturday. 

"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 50's."

Bob Dylan called Richard "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."

"Of course he'll live forever," he said in a series of tweets. "But it's like a part of your life is gone."

David Bowie was mesmerized when he saw one of Richard's movies, with the then nine-year-old deciding to learn the saxophone and later saying, "If it hadn't have been for him, I probably wouldn't have gone into music."

The superstar was aware of the debt his successors owed him. "Prince is the Little Richard of his generation," he told Joan Rivers in 1989.

He then turned to face the camera directly and said: "I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!"

The estate of Prince, who died in 2016, said Saturday that Richard "didn't just open doors, he smashed entire walls to pieces to make way for all who would come after him."

Tributes poured in Saturday, with Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers mourning "the loss of a true giant" and former president Bill Clinton hailing his "unforgettable charisma."

Questlove of The Roots was more emphatic: "LITTLE RICHARD is THE TRUE KING. LONG LIVE THE KING."

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