When a revered musician dies, the natural starting point for any appreciation is to talk about the songs that made him iconic. But with Little Richard, the hits are only part of the story. The man born Richard Wayne Penniman, who died today at the age of 87, is a first-ballot hall-of-famer — in fact, he was part of the initial class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — but the greatness of his music is almost secondary to what he represented as a subversive cultural force.
Rock ’n’ roll got its name from the slang term for sex, but no artist made sexual energy so central to his appeal. His euphoric songs exploded with libidinous power — hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” — and he himself seemed to be a conduit for unbridled, depraved desire. Was he straight? Was he gay? We he pansexual? Was he androgynous? He and his fans — many of whom went on to become the most sexually adventurous performers in popular music — spent the rest of their lives trying to get to the bottom of that mystery.
Growing up in a religious household with 11 siblings, Richard had a bootlegger father who kicked the kid out of the house because he thought he was gay. Drawn to music from a young age, he adopted a flamboyant onstage manner: big hair, big outfits, big personality. Fusing gospel, blues and R&B, Richard was lethal to pianos as he made his name in the mid-1950s, pounding away on the keys while bellowing, wailing and pleading about girls he either wanted to nail or was currently nailing. Sometimes, he dispensed with words altogether and merely articulated the funky, nasty flow of sex itself: What else could “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom” possibly mean?
Before Elvis gyrated his hips and scandalized white America, Little Richard was the embodiment of fucking.
“Everybody knows people make love,” Richard said in 1970. “They had to make love for you and I to be sittin’ here today. Old people try to make sex sound so bad and all but it’s beautiful. Wonderful thing, thank God for sex!”
But it wasn’t just Richard’s sexual candor that was shocking. (Other Black artists of the 1950s, like Chuck Berry, made sex central to their music.) It was that Richard wore eyeliner and rocked those joyous “Woooooo!” falsettos that were almost feminine. Where his contemporaries were unabashedly masculine, he projected a sexual fluidity that was as unruly as his songs’ throbbing pulse. He sang about women, but he wasn’t overtly macho. “[Growing up] Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald was all I heard,” he once said. “And I knew that there was something that could be louder than that, but I didn’t know where to find it. And I found it was me.”
As part of his journey of self-discovery, he was sexually curious. “I didn’t know that homosexuality was wrong until I read it in the Bible,” Richard said in the 1984 biography The Life and Times of Little Richard, later adding, “I’d been going that way for so many years. I want to tell you something, I enjoyed being a homosexual. I didn’t give up something that I hated. I enjoyed being gay. I enjoyed being unnatural.”
In that same exchange, however, he declared that homosexuals would go to Hell — “That’s not the way God planned it” — and laid bare a troubling inner conflict he never quite resolved. In a 1995 Penthouse interview, he announced, “I’ve been gay all my life, and I know God is a God of love, not of hate,” and years later his biographer Charles White recalled a conversation in which Richard told him, “We are all both male and female. Sex to me is like a smorgasbord. Whatever I feel like, I go for. … What kind of sexual am I? I am omnisexual!” Yet in 2017, he appeared on the Three Angels Broadcasting Network, a Christian channel, to denounce homosexuality: “You’ve got to live the way God wants you to live. … He can save you.”
No matter how he identified, though, Richard’s ecstatic whoops and feverish performances articulated more about rock’s potential as a sexual liberator than anything the artist said in an interview. Every shriek was an orgasmic release. Every rowdy piano chord was the sound of a bedframe pounding against the wall. Whoever was his lover, that person was going to have a fine time.
Artists white and Black took from Richard. Elton John employed the same crazy costumes. David Bowie borrowed the sexual androgyny. (“Without him,” Bowie once said, “I think myself and half of my contemporaries wouldn’t be playing music.”) His influence even transcended music: Impish filmmaker John Waters memorably profiled the singer, whom he adored, in 1987. “I love gay people,” Richard told Waters. “I believe I was the founder of gay. I’m the one who started to be so bold tellin’ the world! You got to remember my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother’s curtains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wearing makeup and eyelashes when no men were wearing that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere. If you let anybody know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out, I didn’t care what nobody thought. A lot of people were scared to be with me.”
But the musician who most embodied Richard’s boundary-busting ethos was Prince, who brought that brand of uninhibited sexual energy to a worldwide audience, testing societal norms by wearing high heels or assless pants, and playing with gender norms in his songs. Lots of songs are disguised as being about love, but Little Richard and Prince were artists who made the underlying sexual urge palpable in their music. Emancipated by Richard’s example, Prince went further, making sexual politics a centerpiece of his work. “Prince is the Little Richard of his generation,” Richard declared in 1989, still full of the bravado that had been his trademark.
We’re so far removed from the early days of rock ’n’ roll that it’s hard to be shocked by its originators’ actions anymore. The music has grown far more suggestive and outrageous since — and it’s inspired artists in other genres to pick up its rebellious spirit for a new era. In fact, what’s ironic about rock music is that, for the most part, it’s now thought of as an outdated, conservative, heteronormative genre. But Richard’s ebullient sense of style and his untamed sexual fluidity remain key fixtures in modern music like pop and hip-hop.
If anything, he might have been embraced and championed today in a way he wasn’t even back then — it only took 65 years for the culture to finally catch up with the man.
You couldn’t always understand the words Little Richard was singing, but for anyone who still believes that music can channel sex’s nasty, sinful, heavenly pleasure, we knew exactly what he was saying.