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Little Richard, who invented rock music and influenced generation of musicians, dies aged 87

The legendary performer, whose real name was Richard Penniman, had been suffering from multiple health ailments over the years, including hip problems, a stroke, and even a heart attack
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

One of the greatest pioneers of rock 'n' roll, Little Richard, has died at the age of 87.

The legendary performer, whose real name was Richard Penniman, had been suffering from multiple health ailments over the years, including hip problems, a stroke, and even a heart attack. Danny Penniman, Richard's son, “confirmed the pioneer’s death … but said the cause of death was unknown,” according to Rolling Stone magazine.

Kelvin Holly, one his band members, shared his condolences on Instagram.

“Rest in peace, Richard. This one really stings. My thoughts and prayers go out to all my bandmates and fans all over the world. Richard truly was the king!” he wrote.

Richard's illustrious career began in the late 40s when he was just in his mid-teens, but his early recordings with the RCA Victor label had little success on the charts.

The rocker shot to fame in 1955, when he signed up with Specialty Records and released a series of singles that defined one of the most flamboyant eras in rock 'n' roll history. Among these were "Lucille", "The Girl Can’t Help It", "Long Tall Sally", "Rip It Up", "Tutti Frutti", "Good Golly, Miss Molly", and "Keep A-Knockin’. These classics would make him one of the biggest stars across the Atlantic.

With his trademark in-the-face performance style, donning brightly colored clothes and eyes lined with mascara, he would go on to inspire several artists, including the legendary Prince. Before the rock 'n' roll boom, he had been a drag performer and was involved in voyeurism (by his own admission) - he would let men have sex in the back seat of his car while he watched on, and was even arrested twice for lewd behavior.

"Tutti Frutti", Richard's breakthrough single, was originally about anal sex - until producer Bumps Blackwell suggested it be cleaned up. Nonetheless, the number would go on to become the greatest nonsensical expression of joy and freedom. The meaning and syllables in the term “Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom!” is debated to this day.

But Richard had somewhat of a reawakening while touring Australia in October 1957. He saw a fireball crossing the sky, which many claim was the Sputnik 1 satellite, and considered it a sign from God that he needed to change his ways. From 1958 to 1962, he became a preacher; but soon returned to secular music. According to The Guardian, the "conflict between God and the devil’s music was a theme for much of the rest of his life."

Richard's singles formed a profound template for a number of talented musicians in subsequent eras. Among them was Paul McCartney, who had the Beatles perform a number of Richard's songs in concert.

“I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing. It’s like an out-of-body experience,” McCartney once said. “You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it. You have to actually go outside yourself.”

AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson opened up in 2014 about the experience of seeing Little Richard on television for the first time.

“It was a Saturday, it was one o’clock and it was a sunny day," he told The Guardian. "And this woman was going, ‘And now, from America, we have Little Richard.’ And it was this fucking black guy with this fucking ridiculous hairdo and teeth. He was fucking prettier than a woman. And it was Tutti Frutti …”

Johnson relived the moment in his mind at the point.

“What the fuck? There was nothing, and then there was this," he recalled.

“The way he plays and the way he sings, it’s art and science, everything together," AC/DC guitarist Angus Young added.