Little Richard – “Long Tall Sally” – from “Don’t Knock The Rock” – 1956
Little Richard performing, in Austin, Texas, in March 2007
Richard Wayne Penniman (born December 5, 1932), known by his stage name Little Richard, is an American pianist, singer and songwriter, considered key in the transition of music from rhythm and blues to rock and roll in the mid-1950s. Penniman’s hit songs of that period, such as “Tutti Frutti” (1955), “Long Tall Sally” (1956), “Keep A-Knockin’” (1957) and “Good Golly Miss Molly” (1958), were ground-breaking musically and generally characterized by playful lyrics underpinned with sexually suggestive connotations. Penniman’s innovative boogie-woogie-inflected rhythm and blues music, charismatic showmanship, and distinctive vocals, which ranged from raspy shouts to screams, moans, croons, wails, and other emotive expressions unprecedented in popular music, laid the foundation for rock and roll music, shaped the future sound of rhythm and blues, and was pivotal in his influence and inspiration in relation to at least two R&B subgenres: soul and funk. Penniman and his mid-1950s road band, The Upsetters, were credited by James Brown for being “the first to put funk in rhythm”, thereby inspiring the development of funk music. Penniman was also cited by Otis Redding and Sam Cooke as being an early contributor to the development of soul music. Penniman would go on to inspire and influence generations of performers in genres from soul to funk and rock to rap.
Born to a religious family in a dirt-poor section of Macon, Georgia, Penniman began singing in church. He made his first public performance with his favorite singer at that time, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, in 1945 at the Macon City Auditorium when he was twelve years old. Dropping out of high school at an early age, Penniman joined several traveling vaudeville shows and performed rhythm and blues on the road, gaining a reputation for his high-voltage onstage performances, when he was discovered by musician Billy Wright, who helped Penniman land a deal with RCA‘s Camden label in October 1951. Penniman’s recordings with Camden, and later Peacock Records, failed to generate any major success. His contract with the latter label was bought out by Specialty Records, after hearing a demo of his music in early 1955. “Tutti Frutti” – a song Penniman devised from club performances – was recorded in September 1955. Released two months later, in November of the year, the song became an instant hit reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Chart and selling over a million copies. Penniman became an established star, releasing several hit singles in a span of less than three years. Penniman also enjoyed a lucrative touring career and film appearances to his name. But in October 1957, Penniman suddenly quit show business amid a concert of major cities in Australia to follow a life in the ministry. Believing rock and roll music was evil, Penniman recorded only gospel music for various record labels between 1959 and 1963. After initially intending to perform gospel music during his first tour of Europe in the early 1960’s, Penniman eventually gave in to the demands of fans and returned to rock and roll. Subsequently afterwards, Penniman recorded a series of secular rock and soul material during the middle part of the decade with various record labels producing modest success. Penniman returned to major celebrity status in the late 1960s and early 1970s after performances at rock and roll revivals. Eventually after a period in which he suffered from drug addiction and alcoholism as well as other elements of his wildstyle, Penniman again quit show business in 1977 returning to evangelism, focusing primarily on that until after the release of Charles White‘s well-received 1984 biography, The Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard, which returned Penniman back to the spotlight. Believing rock and roll could be used for good or evil and coming to terms with his dual lifestyles of ministry and rock and roll music, Penniman began recording rhythmic music with a faith based lyrical emphasis, releasing the 1986 album, Lifetime Friend, which featured the hit “Great Gosh A’Mighty.” After a period of refusing to perform his classic hits, Penniman relented in 1989 during an AIDS benefit concert.
Penniman was among the first group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 with the comment that he was responsible for “laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona.” Penniman received the Pioneer Lifetime Achievement at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation award ceremony in 1994. Penniman has been listed in severalRolling Stone “Greatest of All Time” lists including being ranked eighth on its 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Three of his songs made The Hall of Fame’s list of 500 songs that shaped rock and roll including “Tutti Frutti”, “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” In 2007, a diverse panel of renowned artists and songwriters voted “Tutti Frutti” as the number one song on UK music magazine Mojo‘s list of the top 100 Records That Changed The World, hailing the song as “the sound of the birth of rock and roll.” Three years later, the same song was included in the Library of Congress‘ National Recording Registry, claiming the song’s “unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music.”
Richard Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia on December 5, 1932, to Leva Mae (née Stewart) and Charles “Bud” Penniman. His father was a church deacon, who sold bootlegged moonshine on the side. His mother, who married Richard’s father when she was sixteen, was a member of Macon’s New Hope Baptist Church. Leva Mae would later tell an autobiographer that she had wanted to name her child Ricardo but her son’s birth certificate read “Richard.” The third child of twelve, Penniman and his family grew up in the dirt-poor section of Macon’s Pleasant Hill street. Penniman, whose childhood nicknames included “Lil’ Richard” and “Bro”, was sometimes deemed a mischievous child, who often played pranks on neighbours. Penniman was the only one of his siblings to have a deformity, with one leg shorter than the other, which made him the butt of people’s jokes. When Penniman was a child, his mother had him baptized at her church in New Hope, where Penniman began singing in the local church choir. Penniman eventually started forming vocal groups, often singing with his brothers. Penniman’s main musical influences included Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams. Penniman recalled his first public performance at the Macon City Auditorium with Sister Rosetta Tharpe when he was around twelve years old. According to Richard later on, their duet performance resulted in cheers and Penniman recalled afterwards that Tharpe gave him “more money than [he] had ever seen”, saying that this inspired him to pursue a professional music career.
Penniman attended Macon’s Hudson High School and played alto saxophone in the school’s marching band. However, troubles at home with his father led him to drop out of the school at fifteen. In 1948, Penniman joined a traveling vaudeville show named Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show, where he performed Louis Jordan‘s “Caldonia” and helped in hawking snake oil products. While performing for the show, Penniman frequented a Macon nightclub called the Tick Tock Club where its owner, Ann Johnson, discovered him. After learning of him being kicked out of his father’s home, Johnson took Penniman to live with her and her husband, Enotris, where they housed several other children. Around 1949, Penniman joined a blues band named Buster Brown’s Band. It had been suggested that Penniman joined the group after the band’s lead singer, I.A. Harris, had failed to show up for a performance. Due to being underage and his skinny frame, he was given the nickname Little Richard. Penniman’s tenure with the band lasted several months and in 1950, Penniman left to join a popular vaudeville group named Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam where he performed in drag acquiring the nickname, “Princess LaVonne.” Moving to Atlanta, Penniman gained more attention from audiences after giving out performances in other traveling shows such as the King Brothers Circus.] Returning to Macon, Penniman earned $10 a week performing with the Tidy Jolly Steppers and later joined Broadway Follies. Around this time, Penniman had begun listening to musicians such as Roy Brown and Billy Wright, becoming heavily influenced by their music. Penniman was soon performing as a solo artist in various Atlanta nightclubs and venues outside of Georgia as part of the TOBA (Theater of Black Owners) circuit, or the chitlin’ circuit. Penniman would meet Billy Wright during a performance in Atlanta in 1950, becoming friends. Wright’s flamboyant persona and showmanship was a heavy influence on Penniman.
Music career – Beginnings
After a performance in Houston in 1951, Wright brought Penniman to Atlanta where he put Penniman in contact with his manager, Zenas Sears, a local radio deejay in Atlanta. Sears recorded Penniman at his radio station with Wright’s band backing him up. Penniman eventually won a deal with RCA‘s Camden subsidiary that October. Penniman recorded eight sides for Camden, including blues ballads such as “Every Hour”, which became his first local single, and jump blues songs such as “Gonna Get Rich Quick.” The release of “Every Hour” improved Richard’s relationship with his father, who began playing the song regularly at his nightclub, the Tip In Inn.
Following the release of “Every Hour”, Penniman fronted Perry Welch and His Orchestra, playing at clubs and army bases sometimes being offered $100 a week. During this time, Penniman learned how to play piano from another teenage musician named Esquerita. In February of 1952, Penniman suffered a tragedy when his father was suddenly killed after a confrontation outside his club. Penniman left Camden as a result and settled for work as a dishwasher for Greyhound Lines. Penniman hired Clint Brantley as his manager in 1953 and formed his first band, the Tempo Toppers that same year. Penniman and his group often toured as part of blues package tours and moved from performing at clubs such as New Orleans’ Tiptina Club to Houston’s Club Matinee.
Penniman signed with Don Robey‘s Peacock Records in October 1953, recording eight sides with the label. Least two of the sides had Penniman backed by Johnny Otis‘ band, the Johnny Otis Trio, including “Little Richard’s Boogie”, a jump blues side that only hinted at Penniman’s trademark rock and roll musical style. Penniman had a contentious relationship with Robey and soon afterwards, found himself disenchanted with the record business and with his earlier band, disbanding the Tempo Toppers at the end of 1953. Earlier the following year, Penniman formed a rougher-sounding R&B band that he called The Upsetters. Its band members originally included drummer Charles “Chuck” Connor and saxophonist Wilbert “Lee Diamond” Smith. By early 1955, Penniman had rounded out his road band by adding saxophonists Clifford “Gene” Burks and Grady Gaines, who became the band’s leader, along with bassist Olsie “Baysee” Robinson and guitarist Nathaniel “Buster” Douglas, completing the new lineup.
In February of 1955, at the suggestion of Lloyd Price, Penniman sent a two-song demo for Art Rupe‘s Specialty Records for whom Price was recording. Six months passed before Penniman got a call to audition for the label. Rupe set Penniman up to work with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Blackwell and Rupe felt Penniman was their answer to Ray Charles, however, Penniman preferred the sound of Fats Domino. As a result, Penniman was sent to Cosimo Matassa‘s J&M Studios in New Orleans in September of 1955 to record there with several of Domino’s studio session musicians, including drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen. Initial sessions with the musicians failed to produce anything inspiring and Penniman and Blackwell decided to take a break, entering a club called the Dew Drop Inn, which Penniman frequented. While there, Penniman performed a risqué song he had improvised, called “Tutti Frutti“, which he had been performing in the club circuit for several years. The song had a loud, unique acapella introduction that Penniman wrote based on a drum rhythm he imagined in his mind. Blackwell felt the song could be a hit and hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to replace some of Penniman’s sexualized lyrics with more innocent sounding words. Recorded in three takes, “Tutti Frutti” would be released in November of 1955.
Initial success and conversion
A lot of songs I sang to crowds first to watch their reaction. That’s how I knew they’d hit.
“Tutti Frutti” became an instant hit, crossing over to the Billboard Top 100 pop chart around January of 1956, and reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart and No. 17 on the Top 100, eventually selling a million copies. Penniman’s next hit single, “Long Tall Sally“, became his first to reach the top ten of the pop chart, and also sold over a million copies, becoming the first of three singles to reach number-one on the Hot Rhythm and Blues Best-Sellers chart. Following his success, Penniman began performing with other performers in a series of package tours across the United States, often performing last after everyone else. Penniman’s performances were a hit with mixed audiences during a time when public places were divided into “white” and “colored” domains. As Penniman himself later explained, when the shows started, black and white audiences were divided but by the end of it, would mix in together to dance alongside to Penniman’s songs. Despite threats from local racist groups such as the North Alabama White Citizens Council warning of the “dangers” of rock and roll, including the mixing of races, Penniman’s popularity was helping to shatter taboos of the notion that black performers couldn’t successfully perform at “white-only venues.” Penniman’s shows often started with the singer showing up in sequined capes under flickering stage lights. During these shows, Penniman’s outrageous showmanship thrilled fans as he sometimes ran on and off the stage, winging his jacket and whipping audiences into a frenzy. As a response to Penniman’s onstage antics, fans were inspired to react in similar ways. During a show at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore in June of 1956, several fans had to be restrained from jumping off the balcony. Cops drafted for the show stopped the tour twice during Penniman’s appearance to stop fans from jumping onstage and ripping off souvenirs of Penniman’s. During the same show, a woman threw a pair of her underwear onstage at Penniman, resulting in other female fans repeating the action.
Penniman later had hits in 1956 with “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Rip It Up“, while also having modest hits with other songs such as “Ready Teddy” and “The Girl Can’t Help It“. Most of Penniman’s earlier hits would inspire covers by the likes of Pat Boone, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, with Boone finding the most success. Described as having “electrifying movie-star looks”, Penniman accepted brief roles in movies such as Don’t Knock the Rock, Mister Rock and Roll and The Girl Can’t Help It. Penniman’s success continued in 1957 as he had hits such as “Lucille“, “Jenny, Jenny” and “Keep A-Knockin’“. In May of that year, Penniman released his first album, Here’s Little Richard, which reached thirteen on the Billboard Top LPs chart, then a rare feat for a rock and roll artist at the time. Penniman’s success resulted in him being a millionaire and in late 1956, Penniman settled at Los Angeles, purchasing a mansion at a wealthy, predominantly white section of the city, where his mansion was next door to boxer Joe Louis.’ He had also engaged in a serious romance with a teenage college student named Audrey Robinson, who later became known under her stage name, Lee Angel. Penniman followed up his past successes with hit singles such as “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Ooh My Soul!”, eventually scoring a total of eighteen hit singles in less than three years. By October 1957, Penniman had become an established star with a successful lucrative touring career and several film appearances to his name. That month, Penniman embarked on a package tour in Australia with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, when during the middle of the tour, Penniman shocked the public by announcing a retirement from show business at the height of his popularity to follow a life in the ministry. Penniman later explained that during a flight from Melbourne to Sydney that he had saw the plane’s red hot engines and felt angels were holding it up from an accident. Later during the Sydney performance, Penniman saw a bright red fireball flying across the sky above him and was shook by the scene. He took the event, later to be told to him as the launching of the first artificial Earth satellite Sputnik 1, as a sign from God to repent from performing secular music and his wild lifestyle and go into the ministry. Returning to the states ten days earlier than originally scheduled, Penniman later learned the plane that he was scheduled to return on had crashed into the Pacific Ocean solidifying his belief he was doing what God wanted him to do.
Penniman had one “final” performance at the Apollo Theater on October 15 and a final recording session with Specialty before enrolling at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama to study theology. Fueling his decision to leave the music business was due to Penniman feeling he hadn’t received enough remuneration from Specialty. Upon ending his contract with Specialty in 1959, Penniman reluctantly agreed to give up on receiving any royalties he would earn from his material. A month after his conversion, while speaking at an evangelical convention in November 1957, Penniman met and began a courtship with Ernestine Campbell, a secretary from Washington, D.C.. He married her on July 11, 1959. In 1958, he formed the Little Richard Evangelistic Team, traveling across the country to preach. In 1959, Penniman began recording a series of gospel albums for a variety of record labels, but finding only little success with songs such as “He’s Not Just a Soldier”, “Crying in the Chapel” and “He Got What He Wanted”, which peaked at the top 40 in the UK. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, one of Penniman’s heroes, acknowledged Penniman’s gospel efforts during this period and after hearing him sing at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Los Angeles recalled, “he sang gospel the way it should be sung.” After working with Penniman on the Mercury album, King of the Gospel Singers, Quincy Jones remarked that he was blown away by Penniman’s performance during the recording.
Secular music return
“I heard so much about the audience reaction, I thought there must be some exaggeration. But it was all true. He drove the whole house into a complete frenzy… I couldn’t believe the power of Little Richard onstage. He was amazing…..Mick Jagger“
By early 1962, rock and roll record sales in America were in a slump but Penniman’s records were still selling well overseas. Penniman was convinced to tour Europe by concert promoter Don Arden, who booked him as the headline artist with Sam Cooke second on the bill. Penniman tried performing his gospel material during the first show but was not received well by the audience, who had assumed Penniman was performing his rock and roll hits. Cooke’s arrival to the first show had been delayed by storms. After Cooke made the second show, Penniman emerged onstage in darkness, while his keyboardist Billy Preston warmed him up. Afterwards, a spotlight appeared on Penniman at a grand piano and Penniman played the first lines of “Long Tall Sally” driving the crowd wild. Penniman’s entire show had the crowd at its feet with near hysterical girls in the aisles. Penniman soon walked offstage to a thunderous standing ovation. Similarly received hysterics would be repeated at every UK venue Penniman performed at. A show at Mansfield‘s Granada Theatre stopped early after delirious fans tried ripping off Penniman’s clothing. Another show in Brighton resutled in Penniman throwing off articles of his clothing, including his jacket and shirt, causing girls to rush to the stage to touch him despite warnings from hall management. Penniman finished the Brighton show dripping in sweat and wrapped in a bathrobe. Penniman’s headline-grabbing performances inspired Beatles manager Brian Epstein to have his band back Penniman up as a vehicle to promote them. Penniman agreed to have the Beatles open for him at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton on October 12 and then at The Empire Theatre in Liverpool on October 28 with Gerry and the Pacemakers. Penniman then agreed to a series of Arden-booked concerts at the Star-Club in Hamburgthe following month, with the Beatles opening for him on the various dates. Throughout this period, Penniman would give the group advice on how to perform his songs and taught member Paul McCartney his trademark vocalizations.
Penniman’s new popularity and celebrity status brought an end to his marriage. In 1963, Penniman secretly recorded a series of rock and roll recordings with his old band, the Upsetters, for H.B. Barnum‘s Little Star Records, with Barnum issuing them under the name, “The World Famous Upsetters”, as Penniman wanted to still keep his options open in the ministry. In the fall of 1963, Penniman returned to the UK where he performed with Bo Diddley, The Everly Brothers and the then-unknown Rolling Stones. The tour was capped off by a UK TV special Penniman shot titled The Little Richard Spectacular, which became a ratings success for Granada Television and led to two rebroadcasts due to over sixty thousand letters of enthusiastic responses from fans. Much of the footage was shown in remnants around the world, highlighting the frenzy associated with rock and roll music. Following his return to the states, Penniman re-signed with Specialty and recorded a total of five songs, including the charted single, “Bama Lama Bama Loo”, which peaked at #20 at his so-called “adopted home” in the United Kingdom, but only peaked at #82 back home on the Billboard Hot 100, which left him “devastated.” Starting in mid-1964 (reports vary dates either from March or September of the year), guitarist Jimi Hendrix joined Penniman’s Upsetters band and would record and perform with them through mid-1965. Following his brief return to Specialty, Penniman signed with Vee-Jay Records, issuing the album, Little Richard Is Back (And There’s A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!), which included his version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On“, which Penniman promoted with a raucous performance on the show, Shindig!. In 1965, Vee-Jay closed down and several of Penniman’s recordings with the label would be issued on other labels over the years. In November of 1965, Penniman scored his first top 20 hit on the R&B chart in nearly a decade with Don Covay‘s “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me)”, featuring Hendrix on guitar and Preston on organ. Between 1965 and 1968, Penniman would record for the labels Modern, Okeh and Brunswick, with minimal chart success.
Penniman later recounted that he often complained to producers that he felt unappreciated as producers tried to push him to a horn-oriented soul direction and felt he wasn’t being treated for the artist he was. Penniman’s tenure with Hendrix in his band ended when Hendrix’s tardiness led Penniman’s brother Robert, who served as Richard’s tour manager, to let Hendrix go in the summer of 1965. Penniman’s Okeh albums would be produced by longtime friend Larry Williams and the live album, Little Richard’s Greatest Hits: Recorded Live!, became only Penniman’s second album to hit the Billboard charts, while the song “Poor Dog” from his Okeh studio album, The Explosive Little Richard peaked at forty-one on the R&B chart. Penniman often performed in dingy clubs and lounges to scrape by without much support from the record industry. Penniman adapted a wilder, flamboyant and androgynous image that, while a hit with audiences, became a problem for record labels to promote his music to conservative R&B music scenes. Angered by his decision to “backslide” from his ministry, clergymen in the South forced radio disk jockeys to not promote Penniman’s work. Penniman’s need to perform in front of mixed audiences prevented him from receiving airplay in black Los Angeles areas following the Watts Riots. By 1969, he had stopped seeking record deals and focused on his career as a concert performer. According to a Songwriters Hall of Fame biography on Penniman, it was stated that by 1968, despite his recording struggles, Penniman’s record sales had reached 32 million worldwide. Penniman soon found offers to perform at bigger venues and casinos in Las Vegas, New York City and Los Angeles, winning audiences with his androgynous persona and flamboyant showmanship. Penniman then returned to the national spotlight after stealing the show from performers such as Janis Joplin and John Lennon at the Toronto Peace Festival in 1969, resulting in him appearing in talk shows such as the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and the Dick Cavett Show, making Penniman a major celebrity again. In 1970, Penniman signed with Reprise Records and released the album, The Rill Thing, which featured the top fifty pop hit, “Freedom Blues”. Penniman’s follow-ups to repeat this success including 1972‘s The Second Coming, however, failed to match its success. Following the advice of his contemporary peer, Elvis Presley, Penniman began appearing and performing as a guest musician in sessions with numerous rockers such as Delaney and Bonnie, Joe Walsh and Joey Covington. His sessions with Canned Heat and Bachman-Turner Overdrive led to hit success, including the duet “Rockin’ with the King” and the hit single, “Take It Like a Man” respectively. In August 1971, Penniman and three of his brothers formed the management company, Bud Hole Incorporated, named after their late father.
After leaving Reprise in 1973, Penniman briefly charted for independent labels including a Manticore Records single titled “In the Middle of the Night”, which proceeds were later donated to charity, while a single for Mainstream Records, “Call My Name”, was distributed by Motown and barely charted after its release in 1976. In 1976, after re-recording some of his classic hits, some of them managed to chart successfully in England. Following a period of wild living, including parties, sexual orgies and drug and alcohol dependence, Penniman’s concerts and TV appearances became more erratic. Following the death of a close brother, Tony Penniman, and a near-fatal encounter with Larry Williams over a drug debt, Penniman again left rock and roll and his secular lifestyle, returning to a life of evangelism.Between 1978 and 1984, he launched several evangelical campaigns and in 1979, recorded and released the album, God’s Beautiful City. After recording a couple more gospel tunes in 1981, Penniman stopped recording for four years and left show business behind.
Comeback and later years
In 1984, Penniman’s mother, Leva Mae, died after a long illness. Prior to her death, Penniman had promised her that he would remain a Christian. Not long afterwards, Charles White released his authorized biography on Penniman titled Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard. The book returned Penniman back to the spotlight after being reviewed in a number of major magazines and newspapers. Around the same time, Penniman filed a $112 million lawsuit against Specialty Records, Art Rupe and his publishing company Venice Music and ATV Music, for not paying him any royalties he was forced to give up on after he left Specialty in 1959. The suit was settled out of court two years later in 1986. According to reports, following his purchase of ATV, Michael Jackson, following advice given to him by his mother Katherine, gave Penniman monetary compensation from his work. After the release of Quasar of Rock and the positive press response, Penniman decided to return to the music business, for the first time reconciling his roles as evangelist and rock and roll musician, later saying that rock and roll music could be used for good or evil.
Recording what he would later call “message music” and “messages in rhythm.” Penniman and Billy Preston co-composed the faith-based rock song, “Great Gosh A’Mighty”, which was later featured in the soundtrack of Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Penniman earned critical acclaim for his role in the film. The song became Penniman’s first hit single in fifteen years, reaching number 42 on the Hot 100. After finishing recording of his album, Lifetime Friend in England, which included a track that was an innovative blend of rap and rock and roll, Penniman returned to the US to film a scene for Miami Vice. Following this, Penniman suffered a car accident, that left him impaired for months. Following his recovery, Penniman released Lifetime Friend, on Warner Bros. Records in 1986. The album became a minor hit yielding the modest UK sellers, “Operator” and “Somebody’s Comin'”. Penniman described that his music during this period was called “messages in rhythm.” Regaining popularity among audiences as an elder statesman of rock music following his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and several other accolades, Penniman took advantage of his comeback by beginning to appear as a guest on various TV shows, films and on many albums and soundtracks. Penniman didn’t start performing his classic secular hits again until 1989 when he performed “Lucille” at an AIDS benefit concert, hosted by Cher. In 1992, Penniman recorded the children’s album, Shake It All About, which sold a quarter of a million copies. In 2000, Penniman’s life was dramatized for the biopic, Little Richard, starring Leon as Penniman, who received an NAACP Image Award nomination for his role as the musician. Penniman also became known as a minister at weddings for celebrities, and once officiated at a wedding of 20 separate couples in 2006.
Penniman made headlines in 2006 after appearing in a humorous television advertisement for Geico. Penniman continued to perform and record periodically throughout this later period. However, in November 2009, Penniman had to have replacement surgery on his left hip. Penniman returned to live performing and recording the following year and was still performing as of October 2012. His shows continue to be received well by packed audiences. Penniman is scheduled to perform as one of the headliners of Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend in Las Vegas in March of 2013.
Personal life – Religion
Penniman was brought up into a family with deep evangelical (Baptist and AME) Christian roots, including two uncles and a grandfather that were preachers. During this period, Penniman also took part in Macon’s Pentecostal churches mainly due to the music, the charismatic praising and worship in those services, dancing in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. Penniman, at ten, was so taken by the Pentecostal churches that he imitated being a faith healer, singing to neighbors and touching their heads and hands. Penniman later wrote that he was amazed at neighbors’ reactions, with people telling him that they felt better after he prayed for them, resulting in sending Penniman money. Inspired by singing evangelist and gospel performer Brother Joe May, Penniman aspired to be a preacher during this time.
After his born again conversion in 1957, Penniman attended college at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama to study theology, eventually being ordained a minister after graduating from the college in 1970. After a period of evangelizing and recording only gospel music, Penniman was lured back to secular music in the early 1960’s carrying on until the late 1970s. He repented from his wayward lifestyle in 1977 and began to evangelize again. Penniman represented Memorial Bibles International and sold their Black Heritage Bible, which highlighted the many black people in the Bible. As a preacher, Penniman evangelized to crowds of as few as 250 in small churches to packed auditoriums of 21,000 through the remainder of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. His preaching focused on bringing the races together and lost souls to repentance through God’s love. Penniman has used his experience as a minister to officiate several weddings and has on brief occasions preached at funerals, including for friends such as Wilson Pickett, Billy Preston and Ike Turner. Penniman has described himself these days as deeply spiritual.
Penniman’s sexual orientation has long been a topic of debate in his life. Born with one leg slightly shorter than the other, Penniman often walked in a way that made neighbours and family members believe he was homosexual and excused it as effeminatebehavior. Penniman himself would say during his formative years that he felt more feminine than masculine and wanted to play with girls. Penniman would often play with his mother’s makeup and wear her clothes. As a result of this, he suffered several whippings from his father, who later kicked him out of their home at fourteen because of his effeminate mannerisms. Prior to this, at thirteen, he lost his virginity to an older woman. By his young adult years, he experienced his first homosexual encounters. Around 1950, influenced by the flamboyant style of his idol and mentor at the time, jump blues singer and pianist Billy Wright, Penniman began wearing flashier suits, styled his hair in a curled-up pompadour, shaved his mustache into a pencil-thin shape and used Wright’s favorite brand of makeup, Pancake 31. Penniman later explained in 1984, “I wore the make-up so that white men wouldn’t think I was after the white girls. It made things easier for me, plus it was colorful too.” Penniman took part in voyeurism in the early 1950s, often watching heterosexual couples have sex in their cars. In 1955, Penniman would be arrested for this and was cited for lewd conduct, which led him to be temporarily banned from performing in Macon clubs for a year, leading Penniman and his band, the Upsetters, to perform outside Macon.
In the mid-1950’s, during his initial period of success, Penniman began a romantic relationship with a young woman named Audrey Robinson, then a sixteen-year-old college student. Robinson, who a couple years later became a stripper by the pseudonym of Lee Angel, would be described as a lifelong soulmate of Penniman’s. Penniman has stated that he would invite other men, including Buddy Holly, to his parties to have threesomes or orgies with him and his girlfriends. Robinson would later dispute that she took part in these orgies, however, claiming Penniman “has a wild imagination” and that Penniman wouldn’t let any other man touch her besides himself. Penniman’s born-again conversion in the late 1950’s resulted in the end of his relationship with Robinson. According to Robinson, he wanted to continue to see her but she felt uncomfortable because of his becoming a preacher and her being a stripper. In more recent years, Penniman and Robinson would become close again. A month after his spiritual conversion, in November 1957, while preaching at an evangelistic convention, Penniman met and began a courtship with Ernestine Campbell, a secretary from Washington, D.C.. Penniman married Campbell on July 11, 1959. During his Bible college tenure, Penniman stated that he had a male co-worker “show himself” to him. Later the co-worker revealed this to his father, who was a deacon in the church. The incident resulted in a church board meeting where the matter was discussed. Penniman was embarrassed by this and withdrew from the college, not returning for years. In 1962, Penniman adopted Danny Jones, a one-year-old son of a church associate who had passed away. He and his son have remained very close. That same year, Penniman was arrested again for lewd conduct after he was caught masturbating while viewing a couple have sex near a bathroom. This incident was alleged to have led to the demise of Penniman’s marriage to Campbell. Both Penniman and his ex-wife, however, have both refuted this allegation. Ernestine Campbell later stated that she and Penniman had a happy marriage at first and normal sexual relations but Penniman’s celebrity status, even after becoming a preacher, made life for her too difficult. Penniman stated that they grew apart because he was a neglectful husband. He and Ernestine have, however, grown closer in recent years.
Penniman would go back and forth in his views of his sexuality. Penniman described homosexuality in his biography as “unnatural” and “contagious”. Charles White later explained that when he wanted to discuss Penniman about his sex life during interviews for the book, Penniman described his orientation as being “omnisexual“, which caught White off guard. Penniman would tell John Watersduring their interview that he felt he was “the founder of the gay” due to him being open about his homosexuality during his secular periods. Eight years later, in 1995, Penniman would tell Penthouse magazine that he always knew he was gay. While Penniman discussed gay elements of his sex life, his only acknowledged relationships were with women. And during his mid-1950s heyday, female fans of Penniman’s would leave behind their phone numbers and naked pictures of themselves. While being interviewed by Jet in 2000 for his views of his television biopic, Little Richard, Penniman stated that during the 1950s, he had girlfriends and “a stack of women who followed me and traveled with me. I figure if being called a sissy would make me famous, let them say what they want to.” Penniman has sometimes been described as either openly homosexual or openly bisexual. Penniman once described himself as heterosexual and said he was attracted to blondes. In Charles White’s book, Penniman told White during the 1970s all he wanted to do was get high and have sex with numerous women. Despite having being thought of as gay, his only wife maintains that he was quite straight, so the issue of Penniman’s sexuality seems to be one resolved as bisexual in nature.