Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as rock and roll pioneer Little Richard, passed away on May 9 at the age of 87, from bone cancer.
Penniman was born in 1932 in Macon, Georgia, into a religious family. He first performed in churches, and became well-known as a gospel musician. He moved into secular music, and for several years performed in drag. He was eventually noticed by R&B performers, and in 1956 he had his first major hit with “Tutti Frutti,” followed by “Long Tall Sally.” He was converted after experiencing a frightening flight while touring Australia in 1957. After a farewell performance at the Apollo Theater, he enrolled in Oakwood College to study for ministry, and in 1958 started the Little Richard Evangelistic Team. In 1959 he married and he and his wife adopted a son, Danny Jones Penniman. The marriage ended in 1964, which Penniman blamed on his homosexuality.
Through his life he moved between popular music and gospel music, and between personal secularity and piety. Says an Associated Press story, “In his personal life, he wavered between raunch and religion, alternately embracing the Good Book and outrageous behavior and looks—mascara-lined eyes, pencil-thin mustache and glittery suits.” Though initially a teetotaler, he would later suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol. He cited his drug problems and homosexuality, both of which he would renounce publicly from time to time, as the reasons for his returns to religion.
Penniman was known for being outrageous in music, appearance and lifestyle, a bold self-promoter, and also a friend to other performers. He helped many in their careers, and participated in benefit concerts for issues he believed in. He was admired by and influenced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, and many others. He crossed over between black and white musical worlds, and his concerts were known for attracting integrated audiences long before that was generally accepted, which he complained caused his music to be sidelined by radio stations in certain markets. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1968. He sold 30 million records in his life, and once announced to a Grammy Awards crowd, “I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll! I am the originator!”—a statement that few disputed.
Penniman claimed to have been ordained in 1970, which allowed him to officiate at many celebrity weddings. There is no evidence, however, that he was ordained in the Adventist church. The late Gerry Chudleigh of the Pacific Union Conference wrote in Spectrum in 2009 that “it may very well be true that he is ordained, Seventh-day Adventist, and a minister” but not an ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister. He had relationships with many churches and pastors, but always considered himself a Seventh-day Adventist, even recording some songs unique to Seventh-day Adventists such as “The Captain Calls for You.” Though his participation in the church was sporadic, he sang for E.E. Cleveland’s evangelistic series as late as the 1980s. According to Adventist pastor Bobby Mitchell, Penniman attended a Seventh-day Adventist church most weeks “at the Breath of Life church in Los Angeles, the University church in downtown Los Angeles, or whatever Adventist church he is near when he is on the road.”
In his later years, even in secular concerts he would lapse into preaching. “I know this is not Church, but get close to the Lord. The world is getting close to the end. Get close to the Lord,” he said in 2012. In 2013 he said from the stage, “God talked to me the other night. He said He’s getting ready to come. The world’s getting ready to end and He’s coming, wrapped in flames of fire with a rainbow around His throne.” His apocalyptic statements generated both snickers and cheers, to which Penniman responded, “When I talk to you about [Jesus], I’m not playing. I’m almost 81 years old. Without God, I wouldn’t be here.”
In 2017 he gave a lengthy televised interview to 3ABN and later shared his testimony at 3ABN camp meeting.