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‘Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ Little Richard dies aged 87

Little Richard, one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, has died at the age of 87.

His son, Danny Penniman, confirmed his death to Rolling Stone, and Bill Minson, a close friend and pastor, told the Associated Press news agency that the star died on Saturday morning.

The self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll”, Little Richard was famous for hits including Good Golly Miss Molly, Long Tall Sally and Tutti Frutti in the 1950s, and was one of the first inductees into the Rock Hall Of Fame in 1986 – alongside Chuck Berry, James Brown, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.

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Little Richard – Long Tall Sally & Tutti-Frutti

Little Richard built his ground-breaking sound and flamboyant stage presence with a frenzied blend of boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues and gospel – his songs and style influencing everyone from The Beatles and Elton John to Prince and David Bowie over the years.

He sold more than 30 million records worldwide.

Richard’s bass guitarist, Charles Glenn, told celebrity website TMZ the musician had been ill for two months and that he died at his Tennessee home, surrounded by his brother, sister and son.

Describing the star as like a father to him, Glenn said they spoke on 27 March and he had wanted to visit, but was unable to due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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No cause of death has been given.

Born Richard Penniman, the singer was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding fathers and helped shatter racial segregation in the music charts at his peak in the 50s and early 60s – joining Berry and Fats Domino in bringing what was once called “race music” into the mainstream.

“I’ve always thought that rock ‘n’ roll brought the races together,” he once said in an interview. “Although I was black, the fans didn’t care. I used to feel good about that.”

US rock legend Little Richard performs on the stage of the Terre Neuvas festival, 08 July 2006 in Bobital, western France
Image: Little Richard, pictured in 2006, was the self-proclaimed ‘architect of rock ‘n’ roll’

(L-R) Little Richard, Stevie Wonder's mother Lula Mae Hardaway, Stevie Wonder and Chuck Berry at the Grammy Awards in Hollywood, 2nd March 1974
Image: (L-R) Little Richard, Stevie Wonder’s mother Lula Mae Hardaway, Stevie Wonder and Chuck Berry at the Grammy Awards in 1974

Few were quicker to acknowledge Little Richard’s seminal role than Richard himself, with the star claiming he paved the way for Elvis, provided Mick Jagger with his stage moves and conducted vocal lessons for Paul McCartney.

“I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll!” he famously shouted at the 1988 Grammy Awards, to a standing ovation. “I am the originator!”

In his personal life, the star, who was gay, had a complex relationship with religion and his sexuality.

Musician Little Richard and singer Cher at the 50th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the Staples Center on February 10, 2008 in Los Angeles, California
Image: Pictured at the 2008 Grammy Awards with Cher and on stage at the ceremony (below) with John Fogerty and Jerry Lee Lewis

Musicians Little Richard, John Fogerty and Jerry Lee Lewis perform onstage during the 50th annual Grammy awards held at the Staples Center on February 10, 2008 in Los Angeles, California

One of 12 children, he grew up in a religious family in Macon, Georgia during the Great Depression, and sang in local churches when he was younger.

He was performing with bands by the age of 14, but faced problems at home over his sexuality, which he himself struggled with through the years.

Tutti Frutti, his first big hit, was recorded in 1955, with the lyrics toned down by a New Orleans songwriter. It went on to sell more than a million records in the year that followed.

However, he quit the entertainment business in 1957 to enrol in a theological school and get married, although his records remained in the charts.

In 1962, he was arrested for lewd conduct in a bus station toilet, which led to his divorce and also a return to performing. He toured in England with both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles supporting him in the following years.

Jagger, McCartney, Brown, Bowie, Otis Redding and Rod Stewart all cited Little Richard as an influence, and Jimi Hendrix – who played in the star’s band in the mid-1960s, but was fired after reportedly being late for the bus on too many occasions – said he wanted to use his guitar the way Richard used his voice.

Stars including Nile Rodgers, The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt and Bette Midler are among those paying tribute on social media.

Rodgers described the star as “a true giant”, while Van Zandt said he had conducted his wedding ceremony and that he was “lucky to know him”.

“Little Richard was a genius, pure and simple,” said Midler, who appeared alongside him in the 1986 comedy Down And Out In Beverly Hills.

“He paved the way for (code for he was ripped off by) so many artists. Watch his YouTube performances to see what I mean. I met him on ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’, in which he was hilarious. What a legacy. God bless you, Richard.”

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