Joe Van Langenberg

Following the passing of Little Richard, the music industry has been, as many times before, plunged into an abyss of sadness & shock.

Richard Wayne Penniman, affectionately known as Little Richard, was born on December 05th, 1932 in Macon, Georgia USA. He is said to have lost his grip on life, as a result of what some have indicated to have been due to liver cancer; while other reports have stipulated bone cancer to have been the most likely cause of death.

Regardless of the conflicting reports pertaining to his demise, the fact remains that the voice of a musical genius who lived & breathed music, has been stilled for all eternity. Little Richard was an American singer, songwriter & musician; who was a Gulliver among Lilliputians.

He was an influential figure, who strode the popular musical & cultural landscapes like a colossus for seven decades. Nicknamed “The Innovator” by some of the most demanding & exacting music critics, for been able to evolve with changing music trends & his unique ability to keep constantly reinventing himself, Richard was bestowed with the prestigious title of “The Originator & Architect of Rock ‘N’ Roll, both of which he wore like badges of honour.

Born in the slums, Richard like the mythical El Luther, experienced more often that not, only the dark side of life. His father brought home limited amounts of “bacon”, with the meagre earnings he raked in from the illicit sale of a whiskey, which was brewed under questionable conditions. Richard’s home life was far from satisfactory.

Often said to have been both ignored & marginalised by his dad, who was constantly inebriated, Richard found himself on the receiving end of frequent physical abuse, which he later said, bordered on the sexual. a claim which has not been hitherto validated or authenticated. Be that as it may, the fact remained that Richard’s parental home was insecure & deeply fractured. No mention of his mum has been made thus far. Life’s ebbs notwithstanding, it was the determination to stay alive & let his love for music take him to another time & place, which would be beneficial to his future well-being; that proved to be the catalyst young Richard was hoping for.

Losing no more time feeling sorry for himself & wallowing in self-doubt, Richard pressed pedal to metal; releasing in 1957, Long tall Sally, followed by Good Golly Miss Molly, Rip it up, Let the good times roll & later Tutti Frutti; one which was covered by the late Elvis Presley & which had the distinction of been inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2010; which stated that Richard’s unique vocabulary over the irresistible beat, heralded a new era in music. Elvis who covered many of Richard’s hits, paid him the highest compliment by saying that he was “the greatest”. Little Richard was honoured by many institutions.

He was inducted into the Rock’N’ Roll House of Fame in 1976, the Songwriters’ House of Fame & was the Recepient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues (R&B) Foundation. Additionally he received a Rhapsody & Rhythm Award from the National Museum of African American Music, for his key role in the formation of popular music genres & helping in no small measure, to put an end to the music charts’ racial inequality, not to mention helping to destroy the vestiges of apartheid & flush out residual hatred between blacks & whites, when racial segregation, of which Richard had been no stranger to, was more the norm than the exception. Richard’s contemporaries included Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent & Eddie Cochran; who all covered his songs & emulated his strong work ethic, which was second to none.

Known for his colourful stage outfits embellished by glittering beads & sequins,, Richard’s pelvic gyrations, combined with sexually-charged lyrics, suggestive movements & raspy vocals, which at times bordered on the risque; endeared him to an amalgam of audiences, while simultaneously incurring the wrath of many others, who seemingly considered his songs rightly or wrongly; to be either crude, hyperbolic, or a desperate cry for help; given his insecure childhood; which according to those who knew him best, said it made him feel like nobody’s child. Since adolescence, Little Richard was confused about his sexuality.

As he told a reporter in one of his rare interviews, ” I fancied both men & women, but later grew out of it. It was only an illusion” Little Richard may not have been cut from the same cloth as that of Beethoven or Mozart. Nonetheless, his songwriting skills bordered on the genius. He was arguably one, who served as a template for future musicians, aspiring to grasp the Holy Grail. His musical savvy was profound, his raucous laugh was infectious & his smile contagious; not to mention his “I do not give a tinker’s curse” attitude.

Elvis may have been the King of Rock’N’Roll, while Bill Hayley may have added a grain of salt to enhance the flavour. But it was factually Little Richard, with his tender caress of the ivories, combined with his signature vamping & thumping; which transformed him from the depths of relative mediocrity, to the pinnacle of prominence. He died on May 09th 2020 aged 87, leaving behind his wife Ernestine Campbell & son Danny.

May his immortal soul rest in eternal peace in his Celestial Domain. Thank you Little Richard for the precious memories & for the joy you ushered into the lives of millions worldwide!

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