Little Richard, one of the originators of rock and roll whose ecstatic, flamboyant performance style single-handedly paved the way for generations of popular music entertainers, passed away on Saturday, May 9. He was 87.
The legendary music icon passed away after a years-long battle with bone cancer, his longtime agent Dick Alen told PEOPLE. “Little Richard passed away this morning from bone cancer in Nashville. He was living with his brother in Nashville,” Alen said. “He was battling for a good while, many years. I last spoke to him about two or three weeks ago. I knew he wasn’t well but he never really got into it, he just would say ‘I’m not well.’ He’s been suffering for many years with various aches and pains. He just wouldn’t talk about it much.”
Want the Top 5 news stories of the day delivered straight to your inbox before you even wake up? Sign up for the Fame10 Top 5 newsletter and receive 5 breaking news stories every morning!
Little Richard released multiple hits in the mid-50s for Speciality Records, including “Long Tall Sally,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Slippin & Slidin,” and “Jenny, Jenny,” the musician helped establish the very core of rock and roll’s original American songbook, providing the genre with several of its first-ever bona fide standards.
His songs, filled with carnal desire, inner-turmoil, and adolescent angst, made Little Richard one of the most unique songwriting voices in American popular music.
“I created rock and roll,” Richard would later say, “didn’t even know what I was doing.”
As a musician, he also helped form the core spirit and technique of rock and roll piano.
Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932, grew up in Macon, Georgia as the third of 12 siblings. Despite growing up in a devout household, he explored the musical underworld of Macon and the American Southeast as a teenager, where he slowly developed his frenetic style of piano playing and began experimenting physical intimacy with men and women. “The jazz and blues was really like school, and I was in class constantly,” Richard said in 1992. “But the carnival was an advance class in entertainment, and I was awakened.”
After having a fall out with his father over his homosexuality, Richard fled town. “I didn’t like to sing like nobody else. I didn’t like to play like nobody else,” He once said of his Macon upbringing. “I was considered crazy and stupid and backwards.”
Little Richard, who performed in drag, directly influenced entertainers such as Mick Jagger, Elton John, Prince, David Bowie and many more, who all challenged traditional depictions of masculinity in their stage presentations. “When I saw Little Richard standing on top of the piano, all lights, sequins, and energy,” Elton John once said. “I decided there and then that I was going to be a rock and roll piano player.”
In 1986, the musician was chosen as one of the inaugural inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1993, Little Richard received a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002.
“I never thought, even being the architect of rock-and-roll, that the music would last this long,” Little Richard said in 1992. “But it’s stronger than ever.”