In 1955, when Little Richard released Tutti Fruti with its war cry, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!”, the African-Americans and the white folks shivered in unison — rock ‘n’ roll had been around for a while but this rambunctious sound was new. Born with one foot shorter than the other, earning him the nickname Little Richard, Richard Wayne Penniman wasn’t the originator of rock ‘n’ roll (though he’d beg to disagree); the 87-year-old man from Georgia, who died from bone cancer on Saturday, was something more — he was its emancipator.
Was rock music disruptive? Yes, it was meant to be, and Little Richard dialled that intent up to 11 — with a vocal range that could bellow the bass notes and howl out a falsetto, and by playing the piano like it was a percussion instrument, he made rock ‘n’ roll sound feverish, frantic, uncontainable. All of these qualities were felt by his audiences in his live shows; the show would begin with people segregated according to race, and by the end of the night, Little Richard and his band would bring everybody together on the floor. There would be no James Brown, the Beatles, or Elton John without him, but breaking through walls of race and gender in a country that perceived him as a lesser man is his truest legacy.
Little Richard was also one of the first to celebrate his queerness openly. Sure, there’d been Liberace before him, but with his six-inch high pompadour, the shiny costumes, that pencil-thin moustache that quivered when he sang, Little Richard was one of a kind. By embracing the masculine and the feminine in equal measure, he made it difficult for people to pin him down, to categorise and define him. In 1957, three years after he’d recorded 18 hits and sold over a million records, Little Richard converted to Christianity, renounced his sexuality and went on a hiatus. He’d found god, but take it from his fans, they’ll tell you that surely it was the other way around.