Little Richard—the pioneering, wildly flamboyant singer and pianist who, while not exactly inventing rock n’ roll, did about as much as one human being could to imbue it with lightning-bolt energy and uninhibited, gender-bending sexuality—has, according to his son, died of cancer at the age of 87.
Despite the fact that his chart-topping songs were limited to a brief creative burst from 1956 to 1958, those songs—”Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” among them—have long served as cornerstones of rock n’ roll, while his incendiary performances inspired everyone from James Brown to Prince.
“Prince is the Little Richard of his generation,” Little Richard told Joan Rivers in 1989, and the parallels were hard to miss, from the makeup to the pompadour to the glittering stage costumes and the unrestrained, pansexual songwriting and stage presence. Richard then turned to the camera to speak to Prince directly. “I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!”
In 1956, while washing dishes at a bus station in his hometown of Macon, Georgia, Richard (born Richard Penniman), came up with a catchy chorus for a dirty little ditty he’d been working on—a cover of a novelty song called “Tutti Frutti.” Very quickly, a cleaned-up version of that song, along with that chorus—“a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom”— would go on to ignite his career, define a genre, and inspire legions of legendary admirers and imitators.
“I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it,” Elton John told Rolling Stone in 1973. “I didn’t ever want to be anything else. Soon the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were serving as his opening acts—sometimes performing covers of his songs. A young Bob Dylan learned to pound his songs out on his piano. Jimi Hendrix played guitar in his band. And unlike virtually every other performer during this time in American history when segregated performances were the norm, Little Richard attracted both black and white audiences—something that soon caused concerned (white) citizens to denunciate rock n’ roll. (It’s worth noting that ur-white singer Pat Boone had a bigger hit with his denuded cover of “Tutti Frutti” than Little Richard himself did.)
And then, just as quickly as his writing and performing career began, it was over. Late in 1957, while performing in Australia, Richard witnessed the Russian satellite Sputnik orbiting overhead. “It shook my mind,” he later told a biographer, Charles White. “It really shook my mind. I got up from the piano and said, ‘This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.’”
Richard, who’d grown up amidst a world filled with gospel music, became ordained as a minister and recorded a gospel album. Over the ensuing decades, he flitted back and forth between the rock n’ roll world and the gospel world, at one point becoming a bible salesman; between sobriety and addiction—and between identifying with a wildly expressive kind of pan-sexuality and denouncing homosexuality as something not intended by God. In 1986, Little Richard was one of the original 10 inductees to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Though he’d been performing up until fairly recently, health troubles caused him to retire in 2013.
Jerry Lee Lewis—along with Don Everly of the Everly Brothers perhaps the only legend left alive from the original pioneers of rock n’ roll—with a “heavy heart,” paid tribute to his “lifelong friend and fellow rocker” earlier today. “He will live on always in my heart, Lewis said: “with his amazing talent and his friendship! He was one of a kind and I will miss him dearly. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue