RIP Little Richard, the ‘Self-Proclaimed King and Queen of Rock & Roll’

CIRCA 1956: Musician Little Richard performs onstage in circa 1956. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Richard Penniman, best known to the world as Little Richard, passed away on May 9 at the age of 87. In 2015, David Ramsey wrote this lyrical profile of Richard for Oxford American in which he notes that Little Richard’s big break came after he recorded “Tutti Frutti,” a song reworked from a bawdy “ode to sodomy” played in the “dodgier clubs” of the chitlin’ circuit. The song’s lyrics were rewritten and recorded with 15 minutes left in the session. It was a “wild, sexy nonsense song that changed music forever.” “I created rock & roll, didn’t even know what I was doing,” Richard said.

Little Richard has always been attuned to signs. At the height of his fame, on tour in Australia in October 1957, he saw a big ball of fire in the sky above the stadium. This was his second vision of fire. On the flight over, the glow of the engines appeared to him as flames and he pictured yellow-haired angels holding the plane aloft.

The message, to Little Richard, was clear. He had to leave show business, quit singing the devil’s music, and get right with God.

“It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads,” he later told his biographer, Charles White. “It shook my mind. . . . I got up from the piano and said, ‘This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.’” And he did. He ditched the tour—leaving half a million dollars’ worth of canceled bookings, with multiple lawsuits to come. The change in plans kept him off a scheduled flight that crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The Lord wasn’t messing around.

A star who mistook a satellite for a ball of fire. And we might pause here to note that whether or not it was a message from God, something like a miracle was afoot. A freaky-deaky bisexual black man who grew up poor in the Jim Crow South in Macon, Georgia, singing a wild, sexy nonsense song that changed music forever, everywhere—even in a packed stadium halfway around the world, as shrieking Australian teenagers nearly started a riot, scuffling to touch the man’s discarded clothes. Fire in the heavens and fire on earth.

For all of us, actuarially speaking, sooner or later the end is nigh. So let us dance: black and white, man and woman, believer and heathen. And everything in between. Let us dance, all of us, while we are still able, while we still can.

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