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Little Richard Digital Cover: The Wild Heart of Rock & Roll

From the moment Little Richard shouted “A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom!” in 1955, the world was never the same. His life was full of painful internal conflict, but no one better defined the freedom and raw energy of rock & roll
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

H e was born the third of 12 children in Macon, Georgia, on December 5th, 1932, though he sometimes said it was December 25th, perhaps to honor Christ his savior, perhaps to burnish his own legend, or more likely both. His parents wanted to call him Ricardo, but the birth certificate said Richard, his maternal grandfather’s name. It was a sign from the start that he was no one thing, had no one identity.

He was different, born that way: His right leg was shorter than the left. He walked with short steps. “The kids didn’t realize I was crippled. They thought I was trying to twist and walk feminine,” he told Charles White in The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock, an authorized biography. “The kids would call me faggot, sissy, freak, punk. They called me everything.”

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And in return, he became everything, an omnibeing who contained multitudes, whose art refracted, critiqued, and remade American identity, drawing its explosive charge from multiple consciousnesses: male, female; white, black; straight, gay; the pleasures of the flesh and the word of God. He sang in tongues, in codes. He wore makeup, teased his hair a foot high. He used masks to both conceal and reveal, to enact his truth in plain sight. If you knew, you knew. And if you didn’t, no matter. He did, and his knowledge gave his music world-conquering power.

He was, above all, a king in an America that wanted to define him as anything else, that wanted to deny him not just his crown, but his humanity. And so, again and again, he spelled it out: He was beautiful, the Georgia Peach, the Emancipator of Soul, the architect of it all, the originator, the King of the Blues, and later, the King of Rock & Roll. And, he sometimes added, the Queen as well.

This was not, strictly speaking, the truth. (Nor was he the only African American hero to elevate braggadocious rhyming into an art form — or as a sideman put it on a 1967 live album, “C’mon, Cassius Clay.”) But almost every time he ran his mouth — which was almost all the time — it was a mix of entertainment, revelation, and political speech. He proclaimed himself the king in the same way as he proclaimed his beauty: to rebalance a system that stole from him, time and again. A system that had proclaimed white men the kings of black art forms: Paul Whiteman the King of Jazz, Benny Goodman the King of Swing, Elvis Presley the King of Rock & Roll.

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Little Richard, photographed in Nashville in 2012 Mark Seliger

Perhaps no one can claim to truly be the originator of a sound that came from so many places — from so many hands and hearts — at once. But the startling power of Little Richard’s art resulted from a combination of risks, innovations, and signifiers that was as unprecedented as it was dazzling. The makeup, the eyeliner, the hair. The winking references (if celebrating a woman named Miss Molly who sure liked to ball can be said to be a wink). The pounding beat. Did he really look that way, say those things, sound like that?

In 1955, at a time when Elvis had only recently started recording with drums, Little Richard’s music pushed rhythm over melody. It was louder and faster than anything around it, and everything but his voice functioned as a drum — though as he established from the opening “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom” of “Tutti Frutti,” his voice could deliver the gospel of the beat as well. “A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom” was a freedom cry, a doctrine of liberation that made Little Richard the first rock star, as R. Meltzer would later say of Bob Dylan, “to free man by rescuing him from meaning, rather than free man through meaning.”

Richard’s impact was different from that of his peers in other ways as well. No other star of the Fifties offered more hands-on instruction to those around him, or those who followed. Before they were pioneers of funk and soul, James Brown and Otis Redding learned his moves well enough to be sent on the road as Little Richard imitators with his band. Bob Dylan’s first aspiration was to be him, playing his songs at high school talent shows, but the Beatles and the Stones had the chance to learn from him directly, opening for him early in their careers. Not long after that, Jimi Hendrix soaked up inspiration while playing guitar in his band. “He didn’t mind looking freaky, like I don’t mind it,” Richard said. “I know when he saw me, it gave him confidence” — though he could also have claimed Hendrix’s feedback as an extension of his own ecstatic howls.

His shadow was long: Fourteen years after Richard recorded “Keep a Knockin’,” John Bonham — who would have first heard it as a nine-year-old child  —  started playing it at a jam session, perhaps just for fun, or perhaps in hopes of unlocking the way its rapacious energy demolishes and then rebuilds the space around it at the same moment. Led Zeppelin kept at it until it became “Rock and Roll,” the second song on the band’s fourth, and best, album.

His influence on the greatest artists of the Eighties was just as clear: Prince built his image around Richard’s pompadour, mustache, and androgynous wild freedom; more than a decade before Michael Jackson pulled on a sequined glove, Richard performed in a mirrored jacket, a living disco ball; and Madonna could have taken the credo she distilled into a single line in “Vogue” (“it makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl”) from Richard’s very existence. Without him, the doors they slid through as they united audiences and styles might have remained closed.

“Wherever you are, I’ve been there,” he once said. “Wherever you’re going, I’ve gone.” His art both enacted and resolved deep conflicts, within and without, at least for 180 seconds at a time. The rest of the day and the night, those conflicts seemed to eat at him, and he renounced his crown if not himself, first in the Fifties, again in the Eighties, and then once more three years before his death on May 9th, at 87, from bone cancer.

“When you really look at it, there’s only one way you can start,” Bob Dylan once said. “You can draw a line in the sand. Mark it ‘Tutti Frutti’ on one side of the line and that’s rock and roll. On the other side of the line is everything else.” We all live on the other side of that line, in the world that Little Richard built.

Richard told White that he grew up near the borderline of the black and white communities of Macon, though he could also have said he grew up on the borderline of old and new, rural and urban. His family’s house was on a dirt road, but paved roads were nearby. His father made sure their house had electric lights when others were still using gas lamps. He remembered marveling at his grandfather’s electric stove, so sleek compared to wood-burning ovens.

Playtime was an early experience of white privilege and power. His father had built swings and slides for his growing family, and when Richard’s brother and sisters would be having fun, white kids would come from a few streets over — across the borderline — to find out what the commotion was. “They see you doing something they want to do, they’re going to come over and do it,” he said. “But you couldn’t go over there! That’s where the line was. You couldn’t go over to that side and play with them, that was different. If you weren’t aware of prejudice, people would make you aware.”

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Onstage in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962 © Imago/ZUMA

He was a cutup at school, a troublemaker and a trickster. Sometimes he’d defecate in a shoebox and wrap it as a gift for someone, then hide until he heard the shrieking when it was opened. When his mother found a jar of preserves full of feces tucked away on a shelf, she knew exactly who to yell at. Later, he’d name his band the Upsetters.

His paternal grandfather was a preacher, and so was his uncle. That was his first ambition: to be a singing evangelist. He loved to sing and had a gospel quartet with two of his brothers and a friend, called the Tiny Tots. One of his uncles drove them to nearby towns and camp meetings to perform, and around Macon they’d sing spirituals on the stoops of houses, banging on the steps. “Sometimes they’d pay us cos they enjoyed us,” he told White. “Sometimes they’d pay us to leave!” At church he sang loud enough to earn the name War Hawk, and caused enough of a disruption that sometimes they asked him to stop.

From a young age, his gender identity seemed fluid. “I felt like a girl,” he told White. He’d watch his mother powder her face, then sneak in to do the same and splash himself with her rosewater, just as he’d later apply Pancake 31 makeup and a cloud of Tweed cologne. “I just felt I wanted to be a girl more than a boy.” His sexuality was fluid as well, and early on he had experiences both straight and gay. He was a target of homophobic bullying. “If I ever went out to friends’ houses on my own, the guys would try to catch me, about eight or twenty of them together,” he said. They resented him for who he was, as well as his close friendships with the girls who accepted him. “They didn’t like my action.”

Macon was a transportation hub, sometimes known as the Central City. It sprung up in the early 19th century along the Ocmulgee River, at the site of a military fort about 90 miles to the south of Atlanta. At least half a dozen train lines intersected there, and the sprawling Terminal Station on Fifth Street — designed by Alfred Fellheimer, the architect of Grand Central Terminal in New York — took up 13 acres. During the Civil War it was the official arsenal of the Confederacy. During World War II there were four army bases nearby.

All of which meant a thriving nightlife, including the black-owned Douglass Theatre, not far from Terminal Station. Richard’s father supplemented his income as a brick mason by selling moonshine, and eventually had a club called the Tip In Inn. As for Richard, when he was a boy he’d sell Cokes at the Macon City Auditorium, working for local promoter Clint Brantley. Because Macon was the Central City, there was a constant stream of stars performing or waiting to leave for the next town. As White writes, Richard was immersed in the living history of African American music: trumpeter Hot Lips Page, who’d played with Bessie Smith; Cab Calloway, the zoot-suited bandleader and master entertainer; Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel great whose guitar playing brought the blues into her worship songs; Cootie Williams, who’d left the Duke Ellington band to play trumpet with Benny Goodman; and later, in Atlanta, Chuck Willis, the turban-wearing King of the Stroll. There may be no real relation between Williams’ instrumental “Slidin’ and Glidin’” and Richard’s “Slippin’ & Slidin’ (Peepin’ & Hidin’)” or Willis’ “Keep a Knockin’” and Richard’s song of the same name except Richard’s remarkable ability to absorb tradition, challenge it, and extend it.

There were also other traditions to absorb: carnivals, tent shows, and minstrel shows. As a teenager, he worked with Doctor Nobilio, who wore a turban and a cape and played the part of Macon’s town prophet. Richard would sing to draw a crowd and then Doctor Nobilio would prophesize to them.

Around this time, Richard clashed with his father, who, angered over his running with a gay crowd, hit him, denounced him as “half a son,” and threw him out of the house. Richard told two different stories of leaving home at 13 or 14: He went to live with Ann and Johnny Johnson, a white couple who ran Macon’s Tick Tock Club; or he left town with Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show, where he sang and Dr. Hudson peddled snake oil for two dollars a bottle. What’s clear is that by 14 or 15, he was on the road with a string of acts, learning as he went: B. Brown’s Orchestra, Sugarfoot Sam From Alabam, King Brothers Circus, the Tidy Jolly Steppers, the L.C. Heath Show.

He mastered every way of capturing an audience’s attention, including dancing with a table and chair balanced on his chin. It was with Sugarfoot Sam From Alabam that he began performing in drag as Princess Lavonne, and he did drag with many of the other shows as well. During this period he met two crucial mentors: Billy Wright and Esquerita. Wright was an influential blues singer, gay and stylishly dressed. He recorded R&B and steady rolling ballads like “Stacked Deck.” The Pancake 31 makeup that Little Richard adopted was one of Wright’s trademarks. Esquerita was even more flamboyant and helped Richard develop his pounding piano style, as well as showing the singer how to throw his voice into a falsetto leap Esquerita called an “obligato holler.” (Richard also said gospel singer Marion Williams was an influence.) The pompadour Richard began to wear was one of Esquerita’s trademarks. He was assembling a persona that offered both expression and protection.

Working with Wright’s band, Richard cut his first sides for RCA in 1951, an undistinguished set of jump blues. He had yet to find his voice, but “Every Hour” got local airplay in Macon and allowed Richard a rapprochement with his father, who had the song on the jukebox at his club. It did not last long — in February of 1952, Bud Penniman was shot dead in a dispute at his club. Richard moved back home as the family’s main support, taking a job washing dishes at a Greyhound bus station. Because of segregation, he said, he could wash the dishes but he couldn’t eat off of them. The phrase “a wop bop a loo bop” became a coded of way of voicing his disgust with his job. “[I] couldn’t talk back to the boss, so instead of saying bad words, I’d say ‘wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom,’ so he didn’t know what I was thinking,” he said.

But with the help of Clint Brantley, the promoter he once sold Cokes for at the Macon City Auditorium, Richard kept his music career going, assembling a barnstorming band and building up a reputation that led to a contract with Houston label Peacock Records, owned by Don Robey, a tough customer known as the Black Caesar. The sessions found Richard trying his hand at honking and shouting R&B, and went nowhere. Worse, Richard and Robey clashed — and when Richard wouldn’t back down, Robey beat him savagely. Richard’s distrust of labels was lasting.

In 1954, in search of a more hard-driving sound, Richard put together a new band, the Upsetters, pulling in drummer Charles Connor and tenor sax and keyboard player Wilbert Smith from the backing group of New Orleans duo Shirley and Lee. He took Connor to Macon’s Terminal Station on Fifth Street and had him play along with arriving train traffic. “I want your drumming to sound like a choo-choo train,” Richard explained. Out in the clubs, Connor had to do double duty. “We were playing without a bass, and Chuck would have to bang his bass drum to get a bass-fiddle effect,” Richard said. Added Connor: “I had to create a much more powerful, soulful, down-home, drivin’ beat.”

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With the Beatles, backstage in New Brighton, England, on October 12th, 1962 © Apple Corps Ltd.

Richard made the Upsetters in his own image — like him, they wore Pancake 31 makeup. They played hits by Fats Domino, B.B. King, Roy Brown, and Billy Wright, but also one song that hadn’t been recorded and began with the hipster glossolalia Richard used to curse out his boss: “Tutti Frutti.” It was a wild and lewd number about the joys of “good booty” — too raunchy to record — and Richard used to crack up white crowds. “If it don’t fit, don’t force it,” he sang. “You can grease it, make it easy.”

Out in the streets of Macon, Richard was certainly getting his own good booty. His sex life was varied — he once called himself omnisexual — and he enjoyed voyeurism, so he’d drive around town with a woman, they’d pick up guys, and he’d watch her have sex with them. After a gas-station worker reported their activities, Richard landed in jail. When he got out, he was told he better get out of town for a while. So the Upsetters went on the road.

And that’s where they were — Fayetteville, Tennessee, to be precise — when Richard got word that Specialty Records wanted to send him to New Orleans for a recording session.

The drummer Earl Palmer remembers the day Richard arrived at J&M Amusement Service, a 16-by-18-foot studio in the back of Cosimo Matassa’s record shop on North Rampart Street in New Orleans. “He walked into J&M like he was coming offstage,” Palmer said, “that thick, thick powder makeup and the eyeliner and lipstick and the hair everywhere in big, big waves. Walked in there like something you’d never seen.”

Palmer turned to sax player Red Tyler and said, “What the fuck is this?” Tyler looked back at Palmer knowingly and replied: “Wow! Go on in there, child!” Everyone in the room understood Richard was gay. And Richard turned that to his advantage. “Richard was so infectious and so unhiding in his flamboyancy, he sucked us right in,” said Palmer. “We got laughing with him instead of at him.”

Specialty — a Los Angeles label that had scored hits with swinging blues from Roy Milton and Joe Liggins, as well as gospel from the Soul Stirrers and Dorothy Love Coates — had brought Richard to J&M in New Orleans because the band there was rock & roll’s first great studio unit. The space was small, but the sounds that came out of it were huge: Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” a Top 20 R&B hit in 1947; Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” a million-seller in 1949; Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” a Number One R&B hit for Specialty in 1952. It was Price who had recommended Richard get in touch with Specialty when the two met in Macon.

Both Specialty’s owner, Art Rupe, and his A&R man, Bumps Blackwell would later say that they knew Richard had something special when they heard the demo he sent in February 1955, though Richard claimed they only listened to it because he called them so incessantly. In truth, the demo — two blues recorded with the Upsetters at the studios of Macon radio station WMBL — doesn’t even hint at what’s to come. But Rupe and Blackwell heard enough potential that Specialty bought out Richard’s contract from Don Robey for $600 — a less exciting development once it was clear the money would be deducted from Richard’s future earnings.

Blackwell was new to Specialty and had something to prove. He was conservatory-trained (though whether he’d spent more than a few weeks at a music conservatory was up for debate), and had worked with Ray Charles when both were still in Seattle. Charles was then tearing up the airwaves with “I Got a Woman,” and Blackwell, who’d decided the public was responding to feel over sophistication, thought Richard could fill that same space for Specialty. Except at J&M on September 13th, 1955, he wasn’t getting much feel from Little Richard.

“I’d heard Richard’s stage act was really wild, but in the studio that day he was inhibited,” Blackwell told Charles White. Maybe that was because he was singing, but not playing — there were better pianists on hand, including Huey “Piano” Smith. Slow blues followed slow blues, with Richard finding a pleading, floating style that was interesting, but not captivating. “The problem,” Blackwell said, “was what he looked like and what he sounded like didn’t come together. If you look like Tarzan and sound like Mickey Mouse it just doesn’t work out.”

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Richard with manager, songwriter, and producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, 1970 House Of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When they reconvened at J&M the next day, Blackwell was worried he’d have nothing much to show for his trip to New Orleans. He had Richard and the band try a few tunes, and then, frustrated, he broke for lunch at a nearby club, the Dew Drop Inn. “And, of course, Richard’s like any other ham,” said Blackwell. “The girls are there, the boys are there, and he’s got an audience.” Richard got onstage behind the piano and began banging away. When he let out the “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom” of “Tutti Fruitti,” at last Blackwell heard something startling rather than imitative. Blackwell knew the lyrics were too filthy for the radio, so he sent for a songwriter named Dorothy LaBostrie, whose “I’m Just a Lonely Guy” they had cut earlier in the day, to clean them up some.

When they returned to the studio, they cut two takes in about 15 minutes. Richard was at the piano and had found his voice. The impossibly overdriven vocals, the falsetto swoop, the yowling whooo — for the first time they were there, and once they were, they were all you heard. Even in its cleaned-up version, the song was charged by libidinal energy, and other, deeper secrets, all suddenly unlocked. The girls Richard name-checked — Daisy and Sue — were coded drag references. Those outside the life that Richard lived might not hear them as such. But as scholar W.T. Lhamon Jr. points out, “the singer knew, Blackwell knew, and so did the musicians in Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio.” That knowledge hit the recording like an atom bomb.

“The first time I felt like a page was being turned,” said Palmer. “I hadn’t heard anything like this before. He went into that ding-ding-ding-ding at the piano and I thought, ‘This sumbitch is wild!’” (Not everyone shared Palmer’s enthusiasm. “Hit on the piano and go, ‘Bunga! Bunga! Bunga!” sneered Huey “Piano” Smith. “I guess since they started callin’ that playin’ the piano, that’s when he became a pianist.”) After the session, Blackwell wrote to Rupe in Los Angeles, comparing “Tutti Frutti” to a hit that had been released a few months earlier, in July: Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.”

But “Maybellene” would be the bigger hit, reaching Number One on Billboard’s R&B chart and Number Five on the pop chart, while “Tutti Frutti” would peak at Number Two on R&B and not get past Number 21 on pop. That’s largely because of a cover by Pat Boone, a squeaky-clean Nashville-based singer who was making a career out of whitewashing black creativity, having already taken a flat-footed retelling of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” to Number One. Boone — who hesitated to record “Tutti Frutti” because it made no sense to him — smoothed over Richard’s shouts and sanitized the lyrics even further, changing the open-ended suggestion “Boy, you don’t know what she do to me” to the anodyne “Pretty little Suzy is the gal for me.”

In later years, Richard talked about how covers of his songs by Boone and Elvis opened doors for him. But he also remembered that in 1955, he was furious. “I said, ‘I’m going to Nashville to find him.’ I wanted to get him at that time, because to me, he was stopping my progress. I wanted to be famous, and here’s this man who came and took my song.” When they went to J&M to record a follow-up, Blackwell and Richard upped the tempo of “Long Tall Sally,” pushing it faster and faster to thwart a cover attempt. “When it was finished, I turned to Richard and said, ‘Let’s see Pat Boone get his mouth together to do this song,’” Blackwell said. Boone did, and took it to Number Eight, though this time Richard’s version beat him, rising to Number Six. It is doubtful Boone understood that the baldheaded Sally being snuck through the alley was another of Richard’s coded celebrations of drag. But again, Richard did, his musicians did, and the knowledge filled the world with a freedom song clear in its intent if not identity.

In the sessions for “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” a pattern was established: The material came from disparate sources (a young girl handing Blackwell a scrap of paper with a few words about cheating Uncle John in the case of “Long Tall Sally,” a 25-year-old Italian American named John Marascalco who heard “Long Tall Sally” on a Saturday night and flashed on the idea for “Rip It Up” — which begins “Saturday night and I just got paid” — in church the next morning); Richard would then transform and encode it in his image; the J&M studio pros and Blackwell would elevate it further in sessions defined and controlled by Richard’s vision and overwhelming presence.

“Richard always knew just what he wanted to do, and we knew how to do it,” said Palmer. “What I remember about those sessions was how physical they were.” Richard would pound the piano, turning a symbol of European concert halls into a percussion instrument in an act of reverse colonization. “He was such a powerful player,” said Blackwell. “He was the only guy I knew who would beat the piano so hard he’d break an 80-gauge piano string. He did it several times.”

Palmer — a theory-trained rhythm master who’d backed up everyone from Fats Domino to Ornette Coleman — is credited with establishing the basic beat of rock & roll on “Lucille,” when he shifted from a shuffle (or accented swing time) to a straight beat. To hear him tell it, the music of Little Richard couldn’t be played another way. “The only reason I started playing what they come to call a rock & roll beat came from trying to match Richard’s right hand,” he told Tony Scherman in Backbeat. “I don’t know who played that way first, Richard or Chuck Berry. . . . But with Richard pounding the piano with all 10 fingers, you couldn’t go against that.”

What happened next was pandemonium, a hurricane both musical and cultural that could never be sustained, and that showered Richard with the money and power to enact his wildest fantasies only to leave him wondering who or what was in control of not just his life, but the world. When it was over — no, when the first of several hurricanes his 10 fingers would summon was over — he recorded a song that told the story, a hip-shaking mix of horns, choir vocals, and rocking piano that was meant as gospel testimony: “He Got What He Wanted (But He Lost What He Had).”

In roughly 16 months, Richard cut nine Top 40 hits for Specialty — recording in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. — and also appeared in three movies. The best of them — 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It, directed by former Looney Tunes animator Frank Tashlin — dramatized Richard’s already-understood modernizing impact by starting in black and white, with a brief orchestral overture, before shifting to color and letting a jukebox playing Little Richard’s title track drown out the narration.

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Backstage at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in 1956 Alamy

He toured relentlessly, playing seven nights a week, two or three shows a night. The makeup, flash, and showmanship he’d acquired over the years might not have been new to tent shows or drag clubs, but it was to his audiences. “It had all been used in show business, but he brought it to our world,” said H.B. Barnum of the Robins, who went on to work with Richard. “Richard was totally out of this world, wild, and it gave people who wanted to scream a chance to go ahead and scream instead of trying to be cool.”

Those people were both black and white, and they did indeed lose their cool. “They’d want to get to me and tear my clothes off,” Richard said. “It would be standing-room-only crowds, and 90 percent of the audience would be white. I’ve always thought that rock & roll brought the races together.”

The music wasn’t the only thing. In May of 1955, the Supreme Court had issued its second ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education, mandating school desegregation. Think of it: Months after the government had ordered that a system of racial suppression be dismantled, here were audiences of white teenagers screaming their approval and desire for a black, gay man. It did not go unnoticed. Upsetters drummer Charles Connor said the police in El Paso, Texas, stopped Richard’s show, and put him in jail. “He had this long hair, and he was shakin’ about up on the stage, you know? Elvis Presley was due to be coming into that town a couple of weeks later, and the police told Richard, ‘If you see that guy Elvis Presley, tell him we’re gonna lock him up, too, ’cos he has long hair.’ Real rednecks.”

“I did get arrested for long hair,” Richard confirmed when he sat for an interview alongside Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry for Taylor Hackford’s 1987 Berry documentary, Hail, Hail Rock & Roll. “They said, ‘Why did you have all that stuff you had on?’ They didn’t know it was just natural beauty underneath.” When Richard let loose a cackle at his own joke, Berry said, “You have been laughing since 1955.” Richard’s reply laid out his worldview for rising above the abuse he’d suffered: “Where I’m from in Georgia, you had to laugh or you had to cry. I wanted to laugh.” Then he told a story about the police in Augusta, Georgia, hauling him offstage and beating him with blackjacks for playing “nigger music to white kids.”

Those white kids saw him as a hero. “I used to feel good about that. Especially being from the South, where you see all the barriers, having all these people who we thought hated us, showing us all this love.” And money. “The river was running,” Richard said. “The river of loot.” At their height, Richard and the Upsetters were playing for a $2,500 guarantee (about $24,000 in today’s money), which their piece of the gate would drive up to $10,000 or more.

He bought a house in Los Angeles and moved his mother and brothers and sisters there. He’d come back from tour with a suitcase packed with cash. One night, James Brown and the Famous Flames found themselves sharing a New Jersey bill with Richard and asked for funds to get back to Georgia. Richard opened the trunk of his car, which was full of money, reached in without looking, and handed over a fistful of bills.

Sex, like money, was plentiful on tour. Richard liked to watch his band going at it, and in Savannah he met Audrey Robinson, who danced under the name Lee Angel. She would become his companion, off and on, for many years to come. They told different versions of their romance. Richard said they had threesomes (including one that began when Buddy Holly walked into his dressing room “while I was jacking off with Angel sucking my titty”), and he said that she would gladly have sex with other men while he watched. He also claimed that she never knew he was gay. For her part, Angel said that though she nearly fainted when she first met Richard, her initial reaction to hearing he’d asked to see her was, “Is he aware that I am a girl?” As for the threesomes and orgies, she insisted he would never let another man touch her. “Richard has a wonderful imagination.”

But though pleasure and cash were abundant, satisfaction was not. Richard was making money from his shows, but not his records, and his irritation with Art Rupe and Specialty grew when they wouldn’t allow him to record with the Upsetters, whom he considered a razor-sharp outfit.  He insisted on three sessions with the band in Los Angeles, only to see Specialty delegate just one track, “She’s Got It,” to a B side. In January 1957 he knocked out “Keep a Knockin’” and “Ooh! My Soul” with the Upsetters in Washington, D.C., between shows at the Howard Theatre. Speciality considered them demos (though later they’d both be issued as singles).

By the summer of 1957, Billboard was noting he was on an “evangelistic kick.” (And also that he wanted to start a perfume called Princess Cheri.) Richard had been praying with Joe Lutcher, who himself had recorded for Capitol and Specialty before becoming an evangelist for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In October, Richard was flying to Australia for a two-week tour with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. The plane had mechanical difficulty, and Richard looked out the window and saw death: an engine glowing red-hot. In his mind, he pictured angels holding the plane up. Then in Sydney, on the fifth night of the tour, he looked up to the sky and saw something glowing. It was Sputnik, the Russian satellite, but to him he’d seen death again, and it was a ball of fire, a sign of the apocalypse.

The next day on a ferry he told his band he was leaving show business. They didn’t believe him, so he took off a gold ring and tossed it in the water. He was done with Babylon. He was ready for the Lord.

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Studying the Bible, 1958 Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When Richard showed up at Oakwood College — a Seventh-day Adventist religious institution and historically black college in Huntsville, Alabama — some months later, he was following a holistic diet as the church instructed and was already involved in a courtship with Ernestine Harvin, a recent high school graduate. He was also driving a yellow Cadillac, which was not exactly church doctrine.

His renunciation of show business and the preaching he began in 1957, like the marriage he finally went through with in 1959 and the gospel albums he began recording, may have been more than an earnest attempt at salvation. Oakwood gave him refuge from the relentless touring, the racism he encountered on the road, and the music business itself — which was perhaps his intent all along. “I stopped and went to school,” he said in 1982. “I was making $15 a week in Macon, and all of a sudden I was making $10,000 an hour. So I went back to school to learn how to count, to read, because I didn’t know how. I needed to know how to handle the money.” While he was at Oakwood, Specialty continued to issue singles mined from his sessions over the previous 16 months. But he also won freedom from a contract he’d grown to hate.

There was another kind of freedom in gospel as well. The music was a refuge for gay men and lesbians. “In the neighborhood, they made you ashamed of being gay, but in the church you were almost proud to be part of the gay elite of musicians,” said Billy Preston, who joined Richard’s band in 1962, when he was 16, to play gospel. Preston called the gospel circuit “a sex circus,” and one without a closet. “Everyone knew that my mentor James Cleveland, who became the King of Gospel, was gay,” he told David Ritz. “James had his own church and a national following. So many other of the major figures — like Professor J. Earle Hines out of Los Angeles and Professor Alex Bradford out of Chicago — were gay.”

However accepting the world of gospel may have been, Oakwood was less so when a young man there reported that Richard had asked him to expose himself. Richard’s conflict over his own desires seems to have tortured him throughout his life. When he was with Ernestine, he said, he was thinking of men. And the end of the marriage may have been sealed in 1962, after he was arrested in a Los Angeles bus station men’s room, where he was indulging his voyeurism.

The arrest came during the sessions for his third gospel album, produced by Quincy Jones for Mercury, where Bumps Blackwell was now an A&R man. Richard, however, hadn’t entirely given up secular music — Specialty had enough in the vault to continue releasing singles until 1959, and in 1960 he sat in on an Upsetters session in New York, though the two Fats Domino covers that would be issued didn’t include his name.

So when he was booked for a 1962 U.K. tour with Gene Vincent and Sam Cooke, he was promoted as a “rock artist” — presumably without his agreement, since he played the first show of the tour in a robe, singing gospel. But once a delayed Sam Cooke showed up for the late show, Richard’s competitive side took over, and he gave the audience exactly what they’d come for.

The shows became increasingly wild, with Richard adding theatrical bits. He’d fall to the ground after playing “Lucille,” and the backing band would look shocked and ask if there was a doctor in the house. When a concerned hush had fallen over the room, Richard would spring up and begin to play “Tutti Frutti.” As the tour drew to a close in October, Brian Epstein managed to book two dates with the Beatles opening. “We were knocked out,” said Paul McCartney. “We’d been to Hamburg several times, and we were really popular on Merseyside, and everyone was telling us we were going to make it big. But I never thought I’d ever meet Little Richard. He was my idol.” Richard said the band would come to his dressing room after the shows, and he sat side by side at a piano with McCartney, teaching the Beatle the obligato holler.

The following summer, Richard was back in England on a bill with Bo Diddley and a band that would soon be billed as England’s Newest Hitmakers: the Rolling Stones. “I’d heard so much about the audience reaction that I thought there must be some exaggeration,” said Mick Jagger, who, like McCartney, had grown up performing Richard’s songs. “But it was all true. He drove the whole house into a complete frenzy.” One night Richard asked to borrow a shirt from Jagger, who then watched the audience tear it to shreds. When Richard asked to borrow another shirt the following night, Jagger said no.

Richard returned for a third U.K. tour in 1964, bringing along his brother Marquette — who hadn’t known about the first two. Richard finally told his family and the church that he’d returned to secular music, and soon enough he was back on the road, in the South, with a new guitarist: Jimi Hendrix, who played with the Upsetters long enough to record the slow-burning “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me” with Richard for VeeJay before being fired in July of 1965, when his love of after-hours jamming meant he’d missed the band bus one too many times.

The momentum Richard built on the road took him to Las Vegas, and on August 3rd, 1969, a few weeks before Woodstock, he closed out the Atlantic City Pop Festival, following a set by Janis Joplin. It was raining and the band was scared of being electrocuted, but Richard was ready to win over a crowd of people who, as he once had, took grief for wearing their hair long.

“You couldn’t really call it a comeback because most of the kids there had never seen him when he first appeared,” wrote David Dalton in a 1970 Rolling Stone cover story. “Some weren’t even born then. But it was a revival, a spontaneous generation of the rocking pneumonia.” After praising hippies as “real people” who defied the rules of an older generation, Richard told Dalton that he had grown up hearing the music of Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, wanting something more: “I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but I didn’t know where to find it. And I found it was me.”

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Onstage at the London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Arena, in 1972 Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images

Part of the reason for the story was that Richard had been signed to Reprise Records and was about to release a self-produced album called The Rill Thing, featuring some Muscle Shoals players. Outside of his breakthrough recordings for Specialty, it stands as Richard’s best studio work, and “Freedom Blues,” which mixed easy-flowing soul with funk guitar, became his most successful single since 1958, rising to Number 47.

Richard could not understand why it didn’t go higher. In 1972, he played to a packed Wembley Stadium on a bill with Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry. So why did the next two albums he made for Reprise go nowhere at all? They had their moments, and “Money Is,” a track produced by Quincy Jones for the soundtrack to the Warren Beatty movie Dollars, was as good a combination of old-school grit and Seventies strut as could be imagined. But when the music he was making failed to connect with the public, he blamed the label, or radio, or a system he felt was punishing him for not playing along.

If the system would not give him what he seemed to both want and need, there was something that would: cocaine. Fueled by coke, Richard slid into a protracted period of partying. Along for the ride was Keith Winslow, who Richard had met at Oakwood College when he was a boy — Winslow’s mother taught there. In 1969, Winslow joined Richard as his valet, and worked his way up to road manager. “We got high and did orgies every night after the show — never during the day or before the show,” Winslow told Charles White. “We stayed up all night and did most of our sleeping during the daytime.”

By the mid-Seventies Richard was missing gigs to get high. “My nose was big enough to put diesel trucks in,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “I was paying almost $10,000 a month for cocaine.” Not just coke. He was smoking pot laced with PCP. Mixing heroin with cocaine. “It was a terrible time for me.”

He bought some coke from Larry Williams, an old friend who had recorded “Boney Maronie” for Specialty in 1957 and produced a live album for Richard in 1967. When Richard didn’t come through with the money he owed, Williams showed up with a gun and threat. “I brought him to fame,” Richard said. “We were very good friends — but there he came to shoot me!”

Richard was terrified, but the bottom had yet to be reached. People around Richard began to die, and Richard felt darkness drawing in. He told White a story about a party after he’d returned from a gig in Miami. He was supposed to see his brother Tony, but instead he found a Hollywood hotel and a girl willing to let him and a few friends cover her body with cocaine. “We were crawling around about on the floor naked, like animals.” The next morning, he found out Tony had been stricken with a heart attack and was gone.

Once again, he was done with Babylon and ready for the Lord.

In 1977, Richard went from playing gigs for $10,000 a night to selling Bibles. He visited churches, sang gospel, and offered an Afrocentric edition of the good book called The Black Heritage Bible.

His brother Marquette told Charles White that Richard “didn’t have any trouble giving up drugs.” Maybe it was simply an act of willpower. Or maybe it was channeling his mania toward a higher power.

Faith and tolerance did not go hand in hand, though. “God gave me the victory,” he said on a David Letterman appearance in 1982. “I’m not gay now, but I was gay all my life. 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. … I’m a man for the first time in my life.”

White’s biography was published in 1984, the year that Prince — another Seventh-day Adventist who would struggle with a conflict between his faith and the sexuality his music celebrated — conquered the world looking like a cross between Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix. In White’s book, Richard talks about homosexuality as unnatural and a contagion. “It is not something you’re born with,” he says. He seems to be at war with both his heart and his art. He calls rock & roll — the music he helped bring into existence — “demonic.” “I believe that kind of music is driving people from Christ. It’s contagious.” And finally: “I have rejected homosexuality. I have rejected sex. Now I get my thrills from the ministry.”

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Richard in 1986’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills Touchstone/Kobal/Shutterstock

Over time, though, the secular world called him back. In 1986, he appeared alongside Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, and Richard Dreyfuss in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and met Bill Sobel, the lawyer he’d work with for the rest of his life. The soundtrack featured a song from his first new album in seven years, Lifetime Friend. The same year he was part of the first class of inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though recuperation from a car accident kept him from attending the ceremony.

By the time he spoke with Rolling Stone in 1990, he was performing rock & roll again. “What I feel about music now is that I love God, I will always love God, and I feel that I’m a messenger for him,” he said. “To me, rock & roll music is the only way I know how to make a living. I’m making people joyful, and I still spread my love for God. So I’m still the person that God has placed, but the music is my job.”

Something else had changed as well: He was no longer condemning homosexuality. “I’m not against it. I believe God gives every man a choice. Every man has a choice to do what he will, bad or good, right or wrong, black or white, rich or poor.”

In 1991 he contributed a track to a Disney album of children’s songs to benefit the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. A video of him singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” began playing regularly on the Disney Channel. (Richard began the song with a “whoooo” and the exclamation, “It don’t sound so itsy bitsy to me!” Perhaps it only seemed suggestive coming from the man who’d sung “Tutti Frutti.” Or perhaps Richard was ever the trickster.) A children’s album for Disney, Shake It All About, followed in 1992. He would make one more album in his lifetime, a collaboration with guitarist Masayoshi Takanaka, released in Japan the same year.

But rock & roll music was the only way he knew how to make a living, and so he continued to play shows. Guitarist Kevin Holly joined Richard’s band in 1994 and stayed with him for the next 18 years. Gigs came in short bursts — fly out on a Friday, play a weekend show, usually a package deal with Jerry Lee or Fats Domino or Chuck Berry or B.B. King, fly back on Sunday. They played arenas, casinos, clubs, or the occasional tycoon’s birthday party. Richard got paid before the show — cash money or cashier’s check — or he didn’t perform. Holly remembers a casino show where the money was slow in arriving. “We waited and waited and the crowd was getting a little unruly,” Holly tells Rolling Stone. “They came back with a cart full of one- and five-dollar bills and rolls of quarters.” And the band went on.

It was a big group. “We had two of everything,” Holly says. “Two drummers, two bass players, two guitarists, horn section, another keyboard player. It was a rocking band, really tight, really good. And it was loud.” Holly was stationed by Richard’s side, and if Richard’s raps started to ramble he’d rein him in by calling for the next song. “We never had any set list,” Holly says. “We’d start with ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and end with ‘Long Tall Sally’ and anything in between, anything goes.”

Holly says that offstage Richard was much like you saw him onstage, or on talk shows: shooting off one-liners, rhyming, laughing, making others laugh. He was generous, the kind of guy who’d send a bodyguard over to see what the trouble was if a woman was crying in an airport, then pull out his credit card to help her buy a plane ticket.

Over time, Richard stopped running onstage and climbing on a piano. “He was in a lot of pain,” Holly says. “He was born with one leg slightly shorter than the other. He always had problems.” And that automobile accident in 1985 left him with a steel rod in a leg. “He got banged up pretty good.”

Richard was 79 when Rolling Stone spoke to him backstage at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., in 2012. He’d had hip surgery a few years before, but it hadn’t gone well. So an old bit of stage business that saw him carried onstage in a throne was now a necessity. “I’m in pain 24 hours a day,” he said from the stage. Still, he played his songs — though he had to stop during “Tutti Frutti.” “Jesus, please help me,” he said. “I can’t hardly breathe.”

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With Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and the Temptations at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, 1989 Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

“Stay close to Jesus,” he said backstage. “The world is getting close to ending very soon.”

“If I die while I’m in my sin, I know that Jesus won’t let me in,” he sang in a 1960 song called “I’m Quitting Show Business.” Perhaps that was his feeling in October 2017, five years after that Howard Theater show, when he appeared on the Seventh-day Adventist television network, Three Angels Broadcasting, to offer his testimony. Dressed in royal-blue pants and a matching shirt, he wore an ornately patterned jacket and tie and sequined cowboy boots. He sat in a wheelchair and held forth for most of an hour.

He spoke about the recent passing of Hugh Hefner, whose magazine Playboy had signaled shifting American mores two years before “Tutti Frutti.” “He was a good friend,” Richard said. “But he represented another book, but we represent the Bible.” He told the story of how the Seventh-day Adventist Church first entered his life. He grew up going to both Methodist and Baptist services in Macon, but one of his sisters went to hear an Adventist preacher, Elder Ward. “His wife was playing the piano, and the girls was going to the tent because Elder Ward was a good-looking guy. He was handsome! And they was all going to the meeting, trying to get this woman’s husband!” There was a laugh from the audience — Richard was still an entertainer. “They thought they had him. And he was just smiling with them — he got them with the truth!” A little homily that showed how music and desire could lead you to the truth.

Richard’s truth was powerful but riddled with conflict. The man who’d once said he felt he wanted to be a girl more than a boy had denounced trans identity and homosexuality as “unnatural affection” a month earlier, in another Three Angels interview. Now he told the audience that “rock & roll is not a part of Jesus.”

At those moments when he felt death was near — in Australia, in 1957, when he was ready to quit show business; in Los Angeles, in 1977, when he was ready to quit drugs; on that Three Angels Broadcast, in 2017, when he was in pain and felt his time was nigh — he drew close to the lord and made clear he was no longer in his sin.

But sin was part of his gift, and his gift lives on. The last words are Little Richard’s, a bit of a sermon extolling unity and self-love from his 1971 album, King of Rock & Roll. He’s about to begin his version of  “Joy to the World,” and he speaks of using his music and his message to bring “God’s bouquet” to everlasting happiness: “We got everybody here tonight. We got black folk. We got white folk. We got red folk. We got brown folk. We got yellow folk. We got real folk. We got love folk. I want you all to know that I’m here tonight, and I’ve been talking about love for a long time. Because, honey, I’m the man that started it all. The Emancipator of Soul and the King of Rock & Roll, from Macon, Georgia. I want you to know that I’m here to be offered tonight in the fullness. That the beauty is still on duty. Let it all hang out with the beautiful Little Richard from down in Macon, Georgia. I want you all to know that I am the Georgia Peach. Let all the womenfolk say, Whooooo! Let all the men say, Ugh! Oooh, my soul. A man walked up to me yesterday and said, ‘Little Richard, don’t you know that James Brown can beat you dancing?’ I said, ‘Beat me dancing? But have you ever thought about that he don’t look like me?’ Shut up! I am the star. And don’t you ever forget it.”