As if there wasn’t enough sorrow in the world right now, the news arrived Saturday morning that Little Richard died from bone cancer. The rock pioneer was 87. “A lot of people call me the architect of rock and roll,” he told Rolling Stone in 2004. “I don’t call myself that, but I believe it’s true.”
It’s not hard to justify that claim. Starting with “Tutti Frutti” in 1955, the flamboyant piano player unleashed a series of classic singles – including “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” – that defined the genre and influenced countless artists that followed in his wake, including the the Beatles, Elton John, Prince and too many others to mention.
Just a little over a year after he broke through to mainstream success, Little Richard was invited to appear in the 1956 movie Don’t Knock the Rock alongside Bill Haley & His Comets, The Treniers, and Dave Appell and the Applejacks. Haley may have gotten top billing, but as you can see from these back-to-back performances of “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti,” Little Richard stole the show. Introducing him is DJ Alan Freed, who is widely credited with popularizing the term “rock and roll” as a musical genre.
Just one year after this performance, Little Richard stepped away from his career to attend the Alabama Bible school Oakwood College and devote his life to God. He recorded gospel music beginning with 1959’s God Is Real, though by the mid-1960s he returned to secular work and made a very comfortable living on the oldies circuit.
Mobility issues slowed him down in recent years and he stopped appearing in public, but when Rolling Stone spoke to him in 2017 after his longtime friend Fats Domino died, he was still in great spirits. “God has been good to me,” he said. “And every Saturday I’m in church, every Saturday. I never miss a Saturday. Every Friday I open the Sabbath. I just feel wonderful.”