When Little Richard played the Royal Theater in Baltimore, the audience was so excited by his demonic showmanship that some had to avoid jumping off the balcony.
Police repeatedly stopped the show to curb dozens of hysterical girls who climbed onto the stage, trying only to touch the pompadoured, pencil-moped dandy.
Thwarted, they flung their panties onto the stage in what one band member called a “shower.”
As a perfect showman, he never missed an opportunity to shock. At a concert in Britain, he played dead onstage, prompting management to seek medical attention – before jumping on to continue performing. He was pictured above at the 1988 Oscars
And this was 1956, a decade before the world would be shocked if Tom Jones received similar treatment.
If Richard’s show could get a little wild, that was nothing compared to his off-stage life. Debauchery hardly begins to cover it.
Elvis, calling him “ the greatest, ” might have been the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but he liked to say – with a wink – that he was more like the Queen (those pantyhose throwers had no idea they had their time) .
Drug addiction, cross-dressing, “beautiful” bisexual orgies and voyeurism – Little Richard generously indulged and was not shy about it.
The icon, who passed away at the age of 87, inspired generations of musicians with his breathtakingly energetic music and sexual ambiguity – that wailing, falsetto-mad piano performance, one leg raised on the frame, while attacking the keys on hits like Good Golly Miss Molly , Tutti Frutti and Lucille.
His first hit, Tutti Frutti, hit the charts in 1955 and was quickly followed by another hit, Long Tall Sally, the following year. He got 15 more hit singles in less than three years including Lucille, Jenny Jenny, Good Golly Miss Molly and Keep A-Knockin ‘
After his death on Saturday from cancer, Mick Jagger praised him as “the greatest inspiration of my early years.”
Bob Dylan called him “the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do,” and Paul McCartney said, “Without Little Richard, there would have been no Beatles.” However, it was not only his music that inspired so many stars, but also his exotic, gender-bending persona.
In its heyday in the 1950s, the African American camp embodied “devil music” in the segregated Bible Belt America.
Distinct from the macho, white and generally tight stars of those early days, it was Richard who pioneered the outrageous reinvention, decadent makeovers and raw stage performances that we now take for granted in our rock acts.
Good golly didn’t begin to describe the commotion caused by these tastiest fruttis.
In his early career, he would dress up for performances like the Queen of England (or at least his interpretation of Her Majesty) or the Pope.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman – the third of 12 children of a poor moonshine in 1932 in Macon, Georgia – he was not just black in the segregation era South. He had a disproportionately large head, and one leg and one arm were shorter than the other, giving him a strange, crooked gait. He is pictured above in 2016 (right) with radio star Cathy Hughes
As a perfect showman, he never missed an opportunity to shock. At a concert in Britain, he played dead onstage, prompting management to seek medical attention – before jumping on to continue performing.
His fast and furious live performances, he said, “made your liver vibrate, your bladder splattered and your knees freeze.”
Little Richard’s private life was similarly convulsive. He even claimed to have a threesome with fellow rock’n’roll star Buddy Holly. “I’ll never forget that,” he said scornfully. “He came and went.”
And yet, even at the height of his orgiastic behavior, he insisted that he was a devout godly man who always wanted to be a preacher. “I got up from an orgy and went to get my Bible,” he once said.
Distinguished from the macho, white and generally tight stars of those early days, it was Richard who pioneered the outrageous reinvention, decadent makeovers and raw stage performances that we now take for granted in our rock acts
“And sometimes I’d carry the Bible with me.” Indeed, orgy partners said they would be awakened by the sound of Richard reciting verses from the good book.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman – the third of 12 children of a poor moonshine in 1932 in Macon, Georgia – he was not just black in the segregation era South.
He had a disproportionately large head, and one leg and one arm were shorter than the other, giving him a strange, crooked gait. Later he called his piano his crutch.
He said that he felt decidedly feminine and that his father had punished relentlessly after catching him wearing his mother’s clothes and makeup.
The other boys called him “sissy” and “freak,” he recalled. He joined a local gospel choir, but was thrown out thanks to his screaming vocals.
In his early teens, he enjoyed relationships with both sexes. After a relationship with his father, who called him “a half son” when Richard announced he was bisexual, he left home when he was 15.
He started performing with various tour groups and Georgia drag clubs where, dressed in what would become his signature thick pancake makeup and lacquered pompadour, he called himself Princess Lavonne.
The makeup was not just for effect. While hoping to build his music career outside of the black clubs, Richard would later have his African-American backing band, The Upsetters, whiten their faces with makeup to make it easier for them to play in front of a white audience.
His first hit, Tutti Frutti, hit the charts in 1955 and was quickly followed by another hit, Long Tall Sally, the following year. He scored another 15 hits in less than three years, including Lucille, Jenny Jenny, Good Golly Miss Molly and Keep A-Knockin ‘.
Still, it irritated him that white artists like Pat Boone would make covers of his songs that white music fans felt easier to buy.
He also protested the music industry’s exploitation of black artists in record contracts – the only way to make decent money was by touring.
Richard’s fame and success allowed his ravenous and weird sexual desire to run wild. He loved watching other people while having fun. A girlfriend would drive him around and pick up men who would allow him to see them having sex in the back.
In 1955, he was arrested for “lewd behavior” after an employee of a gas station saw him in a car with such a couple.
He was in prison for three days, but was released after his lawyer convinced the court that he would leave the city for good.
Life on the road often included what he called “sex parties.” Girls came together to see the band in their dressing room or hotel, and Richard was able to live out his voyeuristic tendencies.
“I loved watching these people having sex with my band men,” he said. “They should have called me Richard the Watcher.”
He also had “girlfriends”, especially Audrey Robinson – also known as “Angel”. Pretty naked
model and stripper, her main function was, he admitted, “drawing lots of handsome boys for me.”
The makeup was not just for effect. While hoping to build his music career outside of the black clubs, Richard would later have his African-American backing band, The Upsetters, whiten their faces with makeup to make it easier for them to play in front of a white audience. He is depicted in Wembley, London in August 1972
Richard claimed that he and Angel had an appointment with Buddy Holly when they were touring together.
Although Richard – who was inundated with naked photos and phone numbers of female fans – would call himself ‘omnisexual’, women mainly proved to be a support for his sexual interest in men. He later said that he had been “gay all my life.”
It is no coincidence that rock historians consider him the gold standard for excessive behavior.
But he was certainly a man of contradictions. He abruptly left rock and roll for religion in 1957 and founded the traveling Little Richard Evangelistic Team. He traded Angel for the much healthier Ernestine Campbell, a shy and educated secretary he met at an evangelical church meeting.
They married two years later despite Richard being six hours late for his marriage. He later admitted to seeing her as a sister and neglecting her “terribly.”
And yet the sex scandals continued, including his 1962 arrest for spying on men urinating in a bus station toilet, which was the last straw before his three-year marriage.
He returned to music and toured the UK and Germany with The Beatles as a support band and later with Jimi Hendrix on guitar.
He quickly embraced the decadent lifestyle that now also included drinking and drug use, as well as the orgies.
In 1972, he was addicted to cocaine and also added heroin and the mind-altering drug PCP to a habit that cost him $ 1,000 a day.
His personal and professional life went downhill and hit rock bottom in 1977 when an old friend threatened to shoot him for not paying drug debt.
That year he returned to God as a traveling Bible salesman. He stated that homosexuality was “wrong” and condemned his stray sexual encounters as “satanic acts”.
Richard never had children of his own, but adopted a son, Danny, after his mother died.
“In a way, I’m done,” he said of his ambitions in 2013, when he was quietly living in Nashville. He wasn’t wrong – he had done it a long time ago.