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Mick Jagger, Elton John and Bob Dylan are among the plethora of musicians who paid tribute to the late Little Richard who passed away from bone cancer on Saturday, May 9. He was 87.
The man dubbed "The Originator" and "The Architect of Rock and Roll" passed away after years of battling poor health, his son Danny Penniman confirmed to Rolling Stone on Saturday.
In a statement, Richard’s agent, Dick Alen, said:
"Little Richard passed away this morning from bone cancer in Nashville. 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.'"
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Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, on December 5, 1932. He was the third of 12 children. His mother, Leva Mae, was a homemaker and a member of Macon's New Hope Baptist Church. His father, Charles "Bud" Penniman, sold bootleg moonshine and owned a nightclub in Macon called the Tip In Inn.
Richard began singing in church at a young age. He was a mischievous child who played pranks on his neighbors. He had an unusual walk because one of his legs was shorter than the other. He was teased by other children for his walk and his effeminate ways.
Richard said in 1984 that he only played with girls as a child and his father brutally beat him when he caught him wearing his mother's makeup and clothing.
Richard was a below average student at Macon's Hudson High School. He learned to play alto saxophone and joined his school's marching band in the fifth grade.
Richard's early musical influences were Mahalia Jackson and his favorite singer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who paid him to sing at one of her shows.
He stated he was inspired to play the piano after he heard Ike Turner's piano intro on "Rocket 88." Richard left home to perform in a traveling music revue and vaudeville acts. He also performed in drag under the stage name "Princess LaVonne".
After moving to Atlanta, Richard signed with RCA Victor and recorded his first hit song, a blues ballad entitled "Every Hour". The single was a regional hit and helped reunite Richard with his father, who regularly played the song on his nightclub jukebox.
In February 1952, Richard left RCA Victor. That same month his father was killed in a violent confrontation outside his nightclub.
Richard struggled in poverty for the next 2 years, eventually landing a job as a dishwasher for Greyhound Bus Lines back in Macon.
While in Macon, he met Esquerita, a fellow gay, Black singer and pianist, whose flamboyant onstage persona and dynamic piano playing would deeply inspire Richard.
Openly gay musician Billy Wright, befriended Richard and taught him to wear pancake makeup and to style his hair in a long pompadour similar to his own.
"I wore the makeup so that white men wouldn't think I was after the white girls," he told Jet magazine in 2000.
Richard dated both women and men earnestly. He was intrigued by heterosexual couples having sexual intercourse. A female friend would drive him around Macon at night and pick up men who allowed him to watch them have sex in the backseat.
His obsession with voyeurism got him arrested after a gas station attendant reported sexual activity in a car Richard was occupying with a heterosexual couple. He spent 3 nights in jail and was temporarily banned from performing in Macon.
Richard met his only wife, Ernestine Harvin, at an evangelical rally in October 1957. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1964 due to his celebrity status and sexual lifestyle.
In 1957, Richard withdrew from Oakwood College after exposing himself to a male student. In 1962, he was again arrested for spying on men urinating in toilets at a Trailways bus station in Long Beach, California.
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Despite his obvious sexual proclivities, Richard denied being gay during an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982. He said:
"God gave me the victory. I'm not gay now, but, you know, I was gay all my life. I believe I was one of the first gay people to come out. But God let me know that he made Adam be with Eve, not Steve. So I gave my heart to Christ."
In 1955, Richard landed a recording contract with Specialty Records and recorded a dirty blues track titled "Tutti Fruitti." The record label owner thought the song had potential but he hired a songwriter to tone down Richard's raunchy lyrics.
"Tutti Fruitti" became an instant hit, eventually selling 1 million copies. Richard helped shatter the color barrier on the music charts, joining Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in bringing what was once called "race music" into the mainstream.
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His captivating combination of energetic piano playing, howling vocals and outrageous style made him an implausible sensation, and the first openly gay, Black man celebrated across America for his flamboyance and art.
Following his breakthrough hit, Richard recorded "Long Tall Sally" which landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Best-Sellers chart. He scored 15 more top-selling singles, including "Good Golly Miss Molly", "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Lucille."
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Richard also influenced countless music legends, from The Beatles to David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Prince. Icons tweeted their heartfelt condolences to the rock pioneer.
"I'm so saddened to hear about the passing of Little Richard, he was the biggest inspiration of my early teens and his music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid 50's," Mick Jagger wrote on social media.
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"When we were on tour with him I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience and he was always so generous with advice to me. He contributed so much to popular music. I will miss you Richard, God bless."
Elton John added that Richard was, "Without a doubt — musically, vocally and visually" his biggest influence, noting: "His records still sound fresh and the opening few seconds of "Tutti Frutti" are the most explosive in music history."
"He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy," added Bob Dylan. "His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do."
Paul McCartney admitted: "I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He would say, 'I taught Paul everything he knows'."
And former Beatles bandmate Ringo Starr wished "peace and love" to one of his "all-time musical heroes."
Former First Lady Michelle Obama, and filmmakers Ava DuVernay and John Waters were among the stars who also shared tributes to the late musician.
"I served soul food brunch to Little Richard every Sunday for a year while waitressing at Aunt Kizzy's Back Porch in LA," DuVernay tweeted on Saturday. "I was a college student. He tipped me a crisp $100 bill each week on a $75 breakfast with friends. This was 30 years ago. Helped me so much. God rest his soul."