Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, December 5, 1932, the third of 12 children, to Leva Mae (née Stewart) and Charles “Bud” Penniman,a church deacon and a brick mason,who sold bootlegged moonshine on the side and owned a nightclub called the Tip In Inn. Initially, his parents had intended on naming him “Ricardo”, but an error resulted in “Richard” instead.
Due to a slight deformity,that left one of his legs shorter than the other,Richard had an unusual gait,and he was bullied because of this during his childhood.He grew up in Pleasant Hill,and his family being very religious,was involved in various churches including A.M.E,Baptist and Pentecostal churches.
Penniman attended Macon’s Hudson High School,where he was a below-average student. He eventually learned to play alto saxophone, joining his school’s marching band while in fifth grade.While in high school, he got a part-time job at Macon City Auditorium for local secular and gospel concert promoter Clint Brantley where he sold Coca-Cola to crowds during concerts.
In October 1947,at 14 years old,Penniman opened for Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the Macon City Auditorium,after she overhead him singing one of her songs. Tharpe paid him, inspiring him to become a professional performer.
Before entering the tenth grade, Penniman left his family home and joined Dr. Hudson’s Medicine travelling Show in 1949.During one of his performances,he sang Louis Jordan’s Caldonia, the first secular R&B song he learned, since his family had strict rules against playing R&B music, which they considered “devil music.” Penniman also performed in drag during this time as Princess LaVonne.
In 1950, Penniman joined his first musical band, Buster Brown’s Orchestra, where Brown gave him the name Little Richard. Performing in the minstrel show circuit, Penniman, in and out of drag, performed for various vaudeville acts such as Sugarfoot Sam from Alabama and Broadway Follies.
Having settled in Atlanta, Georgia, Penniman began listening to rhythm and blues and frequented Atlanta clubs,where he saw performers such as Roy Brown onstage. Inspired by Brown and Wright, Penniman decided to become a rhythm and blues singer and he became friends with Wright.
Impressed by his voice, Wright put him in contact with Zenas Sears, a local DJ,who recorded Penniman at his station, backed by Wright’s band. The recordings led to a contract that year with RCA Victor,with whom he recorded a total of eight sides, including his first single and hit in Georgia Every Hour.
However,in February 1852,after an year with RCA Victor, Penniman left the label, as his records there failed to become national hits.That same month, tragedy hit and his father Bud was murdered after a confrontation outside his club.
Penniman continued to perform and Clint Brantley agreed to be his manager.He moved to Houston,and there he formed a band called the Tempo Toppers, performing as part of blues package tours in Southern clubs.
In February 1953,Penniman signed with Don Robey’s Peacock Records, recording eight sides, including four with Johnny Otis and his band that were unreleased at the time.Once again, none of his singles charted despite his growing reputation and in 1954,he moved back to Macon.
Struggling to make ends meet,Penniman settled for work as a dishwasher for Greyhound Lines. While there, he met Esquerita, whose flamboyant onstage persona and dynamic piano playing would deeply influence how he performed.
That year, he disbanded the Tempo Toppers and formed, the Upsetters. Together they toured under Brantley’s management. Around this time, Penniman also signed a contract to tour with fellow R&B singer Little Johnny Taylor.
At the suggestion of Lloyd Price, Penniman sent a demo to Price’s label, Specialty Records, in February 1955. In September the same year, Specialty owner Art Rupe loaned Penniman money to buy out of his Peacock contract and set him to work with producer Robert Blackwell.
Upon hearing Penniman’s demo, Blackwell sent him to New Orleans where he recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios, with several of Domino’s session musicians. In November 1955,Penninman released Tutti Frutti,which became an instant hit.
Penniman had come up with the song while relaxing with Blackwell at the Dew Drop Inn nightclub. Blackwell later hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie who replaced some of Penniman’s sexual lyrics with less controversial words. Tutti Frutti reached No. 2 on Billboard magazine’s Rhythm and Blues Best-Sellers chart crossing over to the pop charts in both the United States and overseas in the United Kingdom. It reached No. 21 on the Billboard Top 100 in America and No. 29 on the British singles chart, eventually selling a million copies.
His next hit single, Long Tall Sally 1956 was also a big hit and Like Tutti Frutti, sold over a million copies. Following his success, Penniman built up his backup band, The Upsetters, with the addition of saxophonists Clifford “Gene” Burks and leader Grady Gaines, bassist Olsie “Baysee” Robinson and guitarist Nathaniel “Buster” Douglas.
Like most early rock and roll shows,Penniman’s performances resulted in integrated audience reaction during an era where public places were divided into “white” and “colored” domains, and his popularity was helping to shatter the myth that black performers could not successfully perform at “white-only venues.” By the time he left Specialty in 1959, Penniman had scored a total of nine top 40 pop singles and seventeen top 40 R&B singles.
Penniman later admitted his reasons for leaving were more monetary and complained that the label had cut the percentage of royalties he was to earn for his recordings despite making millions for the company.Specialty continued to release Penniman’s recordings and after the contract came to an end in 1960,Penniman agreed to relinquish any royalties for his material.
Return to secular music
In 1962, concert promoter Don Arden persuaded Little Richard to tour Europe as his records were still popular. Thinking it was a gospel tour,during the show, he sang some of his gospel music which received negative response from fans who had expected him to sing rock and roll hits.The following night, Penniman performed his old rock music and the crowed was ecstatic.
Hearing of Penniman’s shows, Brian Epstein,the Beatles manager, asked Don Arden to allow his band to open for Penniman on some tour dates. In November, they, along with Swedish singer Jerry Williams and his band The Violents,opened for Penniman at the Star-Club in Hamburg.
In 1964, now openly re-embracing rock and roll, Penniman released Bama Lama Bama Loo on Specialty Records. Later in the year, he signed with Vee-Jay Records to release his comeback album, Little Richard Is Back,although his new releases were not well promoted or well received by radio stations.
In November 1964, Jimi Hendrix joined Penniman’s Upsetters band as a full member and in the Spring of 1965, Penniman took Hendrix and Billy Preston to a New York studio where they recorded I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me), which became a number 12 R&B hit.
Hendrix and Penniman however fell out,Hendrix citing underpayment. In July 1965,Richard’s brother Charles fired Jimi,although in a letter written to his father,Jimi claimed he had quit and Penniman still owed him $50 dollars.
Penniman later signed with Modern Records, releasing Do You Feel It? before leaving for Okeh Records in early 1966 where he recorded The Explosive Little Richard and Little Richard’s Greatest Hits Recorded Live!, which put him back on the charts.
In 1967, Penniman signed with Brunswick Records but after clashing with the label over musical direction, left the label the following year.By 1968, he ditched the Upsetters for his new backup band, the Crown Jewels.
In 1970, Reprise Records signed Penniman and he released the album, The Rill Thing, with the philosophical single, “Freedom Blues”, becoming his biggest charted single in years. To keep up with his finances and bookings, Penniman and three of his brothers formed a management company, Bud Hole Incorporated.
By 1977 due to drugs and alcohol abuse,Penniman’s performances begun to suffer and once again he quit rock and roll and returned to evangelism, releasing a gospel album God’s Beautiful City, in 1979.
In 1984, Penniman filed a $112 million lawsuit against Specialty Records,Art Rupe and his publishing company, Venice Music and ATV Music for not paying royalties to him after leaving the label in 1959. The suit was settled out of court in 1986 and according to some reports, Michael Jackson allegedly gave him monetary compensation for his work when he co-owned (with Sony-ATV) songs by the Beatles and Penniman.
In 1985, Charles White released the singer’s authorized biography, Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard, which returned Penniman to the spotlight.
Penniman also played a role in the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills,and together with Billy Preston penned the faith-based rock and roll song Great Gosh A’Mighty for its soundtrack. Penniman won critical acclaim for his film role, and the song was also a hit, leading to the release of the album Lifetime Friend (1986) on Warner Bros. Records.
Throughout the 1990s, Penniman performed around the world and appeared on TV, film, and tracks with other artists. In 1992 he released his final album, Little Richard Meets Masayoshi Takanaka featuring members of his then current band.
In 2000, Penniman’s life was dramatized for the biographical film Little Richard, which focused on his early years, including his heyday, his religious conversion and his return to secular music. Penniman was played by Leon, who earned an NAACP Image Award nomination for his performance in this role.
In 2004–2005, he released two sets of unreleased and rare cuts, from the Okeh label 1966/67 and the Reprise label 1970/72. Included was the full Southern Child album, produced and composed mostly by Richard, scheduled for release in 1972, but shelved.
In 2006, Penniman was a guest judge on the TV series Celebrity Duets. Penniman and Lewis performed alongside John Fogerty at the 2008 Grammy Awards in a tribute to the two artists considered to be cornerstones of rock and roll by the NARAS.
In 2009, Penniman was Inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame in a concert in New Orleans, attended by Fats Domino.
In September 2013, Rolling Stone published an interview with Penniman who admitted that he would be retiring from performing.
In 2016, a new CD was released on Hitman Records, California (I’m Comin’) with released and previously unreleased material from the 1970s, including an a cappella version of his 1975 single release, “Try To Help Your Brother”
On October 23, 2019, Penniman addressed the audience after receiving the Distinguished Artist Award at the 2019 Tennessee Governor’s Arts Awards at the Governor’s Residence in Nashville, Tennessee.
Around 1956, Penniman became involved with Audrey Robinson, a 16-year-old college student. Penniman claimed in his 1984 autobiography that he invited other men to have sexual encounters with her in groups and claimed to have once invited Buddy Holly to have sex with her,claims that Robinson denied.
Penniman proposed marriage to Robinson before he converted to Christianity but Robinson refused. She later went by the name Lee Angel and became a stripper and socialite. Penniman reconnected with Robinson in the 1960s, though she left him again after his drug abuse worsened.During an interview for Richard’s 1985 BBC documentary on The South Bank Show,Robinson revealed that Penniman would use her to buy food in white-only fast food stores as he could not access them due to the color of his skin.
Penniman met his only wife, Ernestine Harvin, at an evangelical rally in October 1957 and got married on July 12, 1959 in California.Together they adopted Danny Jones,from a late church associate. However they divorced in 1964,Harvin claiming that her Husband’s celebrity status made life difficult for her. Penniman would claim the marriage fell apart due to neglect and his sexuality but both Robinson and Harvin denied Penniman’s claims that he was gay.
During his childhood,Penniman struggled with his sexuality as his father punished him whenever he caught him wearing his mother’s makeup and clothing.His fathers hostility went as far as him kicking Penninman out at 15,for getting sexually involved with both sexes.
In 1955,he got arrested at a gas station after an attendant reported sexual activity in a car Penniman was occupying with a heterosexual couple. Cited on a sexual misconduct charge, he spent three days in jail and was temporarily banned from performing in Macon.
Penniman withdrew from Oakwood where he was studying theology after exposing himself to a male student. In 1962, he was arrested for spying on men urinating in toilets at a Trailways bus station in Long Beach, California.
In 1995, Penniman told Penthouse that he always knew he was gay. In 2007, Mojo Magazine referred to Penniman as “bisexual” and In October 2017, Penniman once again denounced homosexuality in an interview with Three Angels Broadcasting Network, calling homosexual and transgender identity “unnatural affection” that goes against “the way God wants you to live”.
Penniman died on May 9, 2020 in Nashville,Tennessee from bone cancer.He was 87