Few names mean as much to rock ‘n’ roll as Little Richard. This one of a kind entertainer came bursting onto the music scene in the mid-1950s, and changed pop culture forever. With his distinctively energetic and flashy act, he became an unparalleled force that inspired countless stars who have come along since. Little Richard passed in May 2020, and the entire music world mourned his loss. In honor of his memory, here are 50 flamboyant facts about the one and only Little Richard.
1. His Parents Had a Wild Side
The man we all know as Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia in 1932. While his parents were both deeply devout Christians, it seems they also liked to live on the edge in some ways. At the same time as Richard’s dad worked as a church deacon, he also owned a nightclub and sold bootleg moonshine.
2. His Name Was an Accident
The singer might easily have been known by an entirely different name if not for a fluke accident shortly after he was born. His parents had actually intended to name him “Ricardo,” but someone wrote the name “Richard” on his birth certificate by mistake. Rather than endure the hassle of trying to correct the document, his parents chose to stick with the new name.
3. He Came from a Very Big Family
Many successful singers are overwhelmed when they first experience big crowds, but in Little Richard’s case, he was probably already used to the feeling. He grew up in a busy household alongside a whopping 11 siblings. He was the third oldest of his parents’ children, and had six brothers and five sisters.
4. He Was Born with a Leg Problem
Thanks to complications during Little Richard’s birth, one of his legs ended up being slightly longer than the other. This was the origin of his very distinctive walk. As a child, people often bullied and made fun of him for this strut, as those around him considered it “effeminate.”
5. His Family Created His Famous Nickname
Though most celebrities who use stage names only create them once their careers begin, this was not the case for Richard. He was already going by “Little Richard” while still a child. His family gave him the moniker because of how skinny he was, never dreaming that the cute pet name would stick with him forever.
6. He Was Already Eccentric as a Child
Much like the larger-than-life character the public would one day know, Richard constantly engaged in wild behavior as a child. Much to the chagrin of his devoutly religious parents, he frequently participated in mischief and pulled pranks on the people around him. He was always a confident and attention-seeking child.
7. He Grew Up in a Difficult Time
Although his music was always upbeat and fun, it has a very painful origin. As a kid, one of Richard’s first experiences with music was singing gospel songs with fellow members of his childhood community, who would sing throughout the day to take their minds off the struggles of the segregation, discrimination, and poverty in which they lived.
8. His Singing Bothered the Neighbors
Young Richard loved singing—maybe even a little too much. Even back then, Richard sang in his distinctively loud and energetic manner, and not everyone who heard it appreciated it. In addition to complaints from neighbors about how loud he was, the congregation once forced him off the stage during a church performance for getting too rowdy.
Hearing a live Little Richard performance for free and complaining? These people had no idea how good they had it!
9. He Learned About Music from Working at a Theater
A teenage Richard had a job as a snack vendor at one of his hometown’s local concert halls. This exposed him to the music of many great stars who performed there while he was working, including names as big as Cab Calloway. He may have only been the kid selling the snacks, but big plans were brewing in Richard’s mind when he heard these performances…
10. His Showbiz Debut Was a Fluke
When gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe appeared in Richard’s hometown, the young man could hardly wait for the show to begin. He was singing her songs to himself as he waited, not realizing that the singer was right there and overheard the whole thing. She was so impressed by what she heard, she invited Richard on the spot to perform as her opening act for the evening.
11. One Moment Sparked His Career Ambitions
A stunned Richard happily accepted the impromptu invitation and opened Tharpe’s show that night. What came next changed the course of his life. After the show, Tharpe approached Richard and paid him for his contribution. Exhilarated by the discovery that he could actually earn money for doing what he loved, Richard decided right then and there that he wanted to become a professional singer someday.
12. His Parents Restricted What He Could Listen To
If Richard was to pursue his musical dreams, it would not be without hurdles—including from his family. From a young age, his parents strictly forbade him from listening to secular music, and especially R&B. They considered it “devil music.” As a result, even while dreaming of a career in music, Richard didn’t actually know a single secular song until he left home.
13. He Went on the Road to Chase His Dreams
Just before he was to begin the tenth grade, Richard decided to pursue his aspirations full time. He left home and joined a troupe of traveling musicians. One of his bosses during this era went by the name Doctor Nubillo. The Doctor would dress in flamboyant costumes that included capes and turbans. And I wonder where Richard’s future style came from…
14. His Father Threw Him Out
There may be more to the story of Richard’s leaving home than meets the eye. While he left to pursue music, he later claimed that he didn’t have much of a choice. Apparently, his dad had thrown him out of the house when he was fifteen years old due to his effeminate mannerisms and suspicions that he was gay.
15. His Sexuality Was All Over the Map
Richard’s sexuality was always very complicated. At times, he engaged in relationships with other men and openly identified as gay. Other times, he dated women and backtracked on his prior claims about his orientation. At one point, he identified himself as “omnisexual,” and claimed he was attracted to everyone. Regardless, this aspect of his life always remained somewhat of a mystery—perhaps even to him.
16. He Was a Drag Performer in His Free Time
While on the road and away from home for the first time, Richard also developed another hobby—dressing and performing in drag. Under the stage name of “Princess LaVonne,” Richard let his feminine side out on a regular basis and began opening himself up to a totally different lifestyle than the rigid one that he grew up in.
17. He Got His First Record Deal from Winning a Contest
The next big break in Little Richard’s career came in a rather unlikely way—he won a talent contest in 1951. Winning this contest landed him his first-ever record deal, a major step in any musical artist’s journey. Perhaps if this had happened about fifty years later, Richard would have been a winning contestant on American Idol!
18. His Father Tried to Profit Off Him
Although Richard’s parents disapproved of his lifestyle choices, his relationship with his father suddenly changed when he released his first minor hit song. This change was not because Pop was proud of his son’s accomplishment—it was because he realized he could now make money off him by playing Richard’s music in his nightclub.
19. His Father Lost His Life in a Nightclub Fight
Tragically, the sketchy saga of Richard’s father’s nightclub business did not end well. A violent confrontation broke out one night outside the club, and Richard’s dad passed as a result of the incident. Sadly, in addition to this big family losing its patriarch, this also meant that he would never live to see just how successful his son would become.
20. His Own Studio Head Knocked Him Out
While trying to advance his career, Richard signed with a small company run by a man named Don Robey. This turned out to be a terrible mistake. Not only did none of the recordings he made here chart, but Robey also didn’t pay him what he’d promised. When he confronted his new boss on this issue, the pair came to blows and Robey ended up knocking Richard unconscious.
21. He Once Gave Up on His Dreams
The collapse of his Robey contract was a major blow for Richard’s career—so much so that he actually gave up on music for a while. At this point, he was both disillusioned with the music industry and also struggling with poverty. He decided to return to his hometown and take a job as a dishwasher for Greyhound bus lines. But while he may have been down, he was far from out.
22. A Musical Star Believed in Him
An unlikely source caused the future star to reconsider pursuing his music career. Somewhere along his path, Richard encountered well-known singer Lloyd Price, who took a liking to him and recognized his innate talent. Price believed in Richard, even at a time when he didn’t believe in himself. Price eventually convinced him to send a new demo in for his record company to review.
23. He Overcame More Challenges
Richard sent a demo to Price’s label and hoped for the best. Even though he had Price’s support, things here still got off to a rocky start. It took him a while to hear back at first, his initial recordings didn’t receive any attention, and he was competing with the legendary Fats Domino for the label’s attention.
Luckily, though, Richard stuck to it this time—and that was about to pay off in a huge way…
24. Improvising for Fun Created His Signature Style
Annoyed over his latest setbacks, Richard and some colleagues went to hang out at a nightclub and blow off some steam. While there, Richard began playing around on a piano and launched into an aggressive, energetic composition. His colleagues were blown away and insisted that he record the song professionally.
He did just that. The song was called “Tutti Frutti,” and it became a smash hit. The song was so influential that it would one day be hailed as number one on a list of the “Top 100 Records That Changed the World.” Richard soon came out with a string of big hits in this same style, including “Lucille,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Long Tall Sally.” With that, a star was officially born.
25. His Original Lyrics Were Replaced
Although “Tutti Frutti” became a massive hit, the version that the public heard was not exactly the way Richard had originally written it. The original lyrics were a highly risque and explicit diatribe about homosexual relations. Recognizing that this subject matter would not fly with a 1950s audience, they brought in a professional songwriter to write a new set of tame and uncontroversial lyrics.
26. A “White” Version of His Song Was Promoted Over His Own
Because “Tutti Frutti” came out at a time when racism was very prevalent throughout much of American society, a common practice in the music industry was to have white artists create cover versions of songs by African-Americans. This way, the record company could profit off of good songs without risking offending some of their more hateful customers.
Little Richard’s case was no exception. They tasked Pat Boone with recording a milder version of the song “Tutti Frutti,” even though he didn’t much care for the song. While Boone’s more mainstream recording did achieve widespread sales, it also introduced a whole new audience to the music of Richard and others. The public would soon feel the impact of that fact…
27. His Concerts Made History
Little Richard quickly gained a major following amongst youngsters of all backgrounds, including both black and white fans. This meant that, at a time when many events were expected to be segregated, Richard’s concerts achieved a groundbreaking level of integration and progress by creating a space where everyone could come together and get along, regardless of external differences.
28. He Was Targeted by Hate Groups
Not everyone appreciated Richard’s defiance of the norms of segregation. In fact, some white supremacist groups launched a campaign of opposition to his concerts, angrily complaining about how Richard “brings the races together.” Some of these groups even purchased TV airtime to broadcast this ridiculous message to the public.
29. He Was an Insanely Intense Performer
According to many accounts, a Little Richard concert was an experience like no other. His energy and on-stage antics were the stuff of legends. He would often start taking his clothes and shoes off in the middle of a song and throw them into the audience. He even once impulsively threw an expensive mink coat into the audience in the heat of the moment.
30. He Helped Popularize the Beatles
While Richard was on a comeback tour in Europe, a then-unknown group called the Beatles was trying to gain publicity. Their manager, Brian Epstein, saw how much attention Richard’s concerts were receiving and realized it was a golden opportunity. He arranged for the young Beatles to become the opening act at Richard’s shows, gaining them tons of new exposure.
31. He Was Paul McCartney’s Singing Mentor
While performing with the Beatles during their early days, Richard became a mentor figure for a young Paul McCartney and spent time teaching him his own personal vocal techniques for rock ‘n’ roll singing. McCartney took every word to heart, and used these tips to become one of the greatest rock stars in history.
32. He Liked to Watch
The reemergence of Richard’s wild side began to cause some problems for him in the early 1960s. He developed an ongoing interest in voyeurism, and would frequently get together with a female friend who would drive around, pick up men, and then let him watch as they made love inside the car.
33. He Got into Trouble for His Voyeurism
These voyeuristic practices once landed Richard in jail, after authorities in Macon caught him watching a couple who were making love in their car. A gas station attendant had witnessed the incident and reported it, and authorities subsequently charged Richard for his behavior. They also banned him from performing in Macon for some time.
34. He Was Also in Trouble for Sleeping with a Man
Richard was once again taken in by authorities in 1962, when he was caught sleeping with a man in the restroom of a bus station. At this time, homosexual relations were still against the law in some parts of the country, and officers would intentionally stake out spots that gay men were known to frequent.
35. The Seminary Kicked Him Out
These were just a couple of the instances when Richard’s love life caused issues for him. Perhaps the worst one was back in 1957 when he first joined Oakwood College to become a minister. Allegedly, the reason that he left this seminary so soon was that he had gotten into trouble for exposing himself to a fellow student.
36. He Spied on Men Using Public Toilets
Richard was once again busted on an unusual charge in 1962, when he was spotted spying on men while they were urinating in the bathroom of a California bus stop. Needless to say, he was probably taking his voyeurism a bit too far at this point. Nevertheless, he continued to engage in this sort of behavior for several more years.
37. He Became Anti-Gay Later in Life
Unfortunately, despite his lifestyle in his youth and his status as one of the first openly gay celebrities in modern pop culture, Richard later went on to denounce homosexuality as “unnatural.” Citing his faith, he completely rejected his former behaviors and preferences, calling them contrary to God’s will.
38. He Discovered Jimi Hendrix
In the mid-1960s, Richard hired a then-unknown young guitarist to play in his backing band. This guitarist’s name was Jimi Hendrix. Yes, that Jimi Hendrix. It would be a few more years until he became recognized in his own right as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, but Richard was the first one to introduce him to the public.
39. He and Hendrix Didn’t Get Along
Despite introducing Jimi Hendrix to the rest of the world, Richard himself did not get along with the future guitar legend. In addition to the pair often fighting over the spotlight, Hendrix also alleged that Richard owed him money for his services. On top of that, Richard couldn’t stand Hendrix’s frequent tardiness and excessive on-stage antics.
40. James Brown Was His Body Double
Over the years, when Little Richard concerts were in high demand, the star would sometimes end up double booking himself by mistake. Since he couldn’t be in two places at once, he did the next best thing whenever this happened—he sent fellow singing legend James Brown (before he was famous) to put on a costume and impersonate him at one of the concerts while he took care of the other.
41. He Officiated at Celebrity Weddings
Beginning in the 1980s, Richard combined his status as a rock star with his role as a minister and began to officiate at celebrity weddings and funerals. Some of the stars whose events he presided over included Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Cyndi Lauper, Tom Petty, Stevie Van Zandt, Wilson Pickett, and Ike Turner.
42. He Adopted an Awesome Son
Little Richard adopted a son named Danny, whom he chose to raise after the child’s mother passed. Danny often served as his father’s bodyguard over the years. He also followed in his father’s musical footsteps, but not in the way that you’d expect. Rather than carrying on Richard’s rock ‘n’ roll legacy, Danny is a professional rap artist today.
43. He Abruptly Quit at the Height of His Success
Richard was at the height of his popularity in 1957 when he embarked on an Australian concert tour. During that tour, he dropped a sudden and shocking announcement one night in the middle of a show. He announced that he was retiring from the music business and devoting his life to religion. Nobody had seen that bombshell coming.
44. A Scary Experience Changed His Life
Apparently, this surprising decision was the result of an experience Richard had gone through during the tour. While on a plane from Melbourne to Sydney, his plane experienced some severe turbulence. He was very frightened and looked out the window for comfort. Just then, he saw a “bright red fireball” flying across the sky that appeared to be holding his plane up.
Richard took this as a sign from God, and decided on the spot to become a minister.
45. He Unknowingly Witnessed a Major Historical Event
Little did Richard know, the “bright red fireball” that he witnessed was actually something truly remarkable. The “fireball” wasn’t really a magical sign from God—it was actually the historic Russian satellite “Sputnik 1,” the first artificial satellite that humans ever successfully launched into space.
46. He Gave Up the Money His Songs Were Earning
When it came to quitting the music business, Richard wasn’t playing around. Not only did he subsequently stop recording and touring, but he even made the decision to relinquish his rights to receive royalty payments for the songs that he had already created. He wanted nothing to do with his prior self at this stage in his life.
47. He Walked on the Wild Side
Richard joined a traveling preaching troupe around this time and began looking for someone to settle down with. Not long before that, he had dated a teenage girl named Audrey Robinson, with whom he had a truly wild relationship. The couple often held wild parties, and they would frequently bring other men into their bedroom. Allegedly, they even once invited rock ‘n’ roll legend Buddy Holly to join them in one of these romps.
The relationship ended shortly before Richard’s decision to join the ministry. He had proposed marriage to her, and she turned him down. She later became a professional adult dancer, under the pseudonym of “Lee Angel.”
48. He Had a Short-Lived Marriage
Richard finally settled down in 1959 and married a woman named Ernestine Harvin. Unfortunately, the marriage ended in divorce just five years later. Richard believed this was due to his sexuality, while Harvin denied this and found their intimate life together “normal.” Instead, she claims things ended because she found it too difficult to cope with having a celebrity husband.
49. A Manager Tricked Him Into Coming Back
Richard did eventually resume his music career, though not exactly by choice at first. After becoming a minister, the star had begun creating gospel music. This became his new passion. Nevertheless, those in the secular music business wanted the Little Richard of old back. Somehow, a promoter convinced him to tour Europe in 1962—giving him the impression that he would be performing gospel-themed concerts rather than rock ‘n’ roll ones. He was in for a big surprise…
50. The Crowd Booed Him Upon His Return
When Richard arrived in Europe and took the stage for his first performance in several years, he began to perform his heartfelt gospel music—not realizing that the large audience was expecting the grand return of their favorite rowdy rock star. After a while, the crowd became impatient and actually booed their beloved singer over his refusal to sing his famous hits.
The next evening, Richard changed his tune—both literally and figuratively. After watching fellow singing star Sam Cooke perform to an excited audience, his competitive drive came roaring back. He stepped out on stage, began singing “Long Tall Sally,” and watched as the thrilled and surprised crowd flew into a total frenzy of excitement. Little Richard was officially back.