Founding father of rock-and-roll Little Richard dies at 87

The rock pioneer put "wop bop a loo bop" onto a generation's lips and inspired musicians from The Beatles to Prince.
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/ Source: NBC News
By Corky Siemaszko

Little Richard, a flamboyant founding father of rock-and-roll who injected "wop bop a loo bop" into popular music and influenced musicians from The Beatles to Prince, has died at age 87.

His pastor confirmed the death on Facebook and to The Associated Press. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

With his piano-pounding performances, wild vocals, bouffant hair and makeup, Little Richard burst onto the musical scene in the 1950s and shook up the stuffed shirts with a string of his hit songs that got both black and white people dancing.

Little Richard during At The Apollo Theatre 2006 Spring Gala and Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Apollo Theatre in New York.Theo Wargo / WireImage for Consilium Ventures

Starting with "Tutti Frutti," Little Richard cranked out hits like "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up," "Lucille," "Jenny Jenny" and "Good Golly, Miss Molly," making the bootlegger's son one of the world's most popular acts and leading to his being known as as the king of rock-and-roll.

But in 1957, at the height of his success, the gender-bending wild man gave up his career for Jesus. It wasn't until 1964 that he returned to rocking with a band that included a then-unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.

In 1986, he was among the first 10 performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Little Richard poses for a studio portrait in 1965.Gilles Petard / Redferns

Along the way, Little Richard battled alcohol and drug addiction and survived a stroke, hip surgery and heart attacks. He spent his final years in his hometown of Macon, Georgia.

There had been rumors for years that Little Richard was at death's door, including in 2016 when legendary bass player Bootsy Collins posted on Facebook, "He is not in the best of health so I ask all the Funkateers to lift him up."

Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, Little Richard was third of a dozen children and got his start singing at church where his father served as a deacon, when he wasn't peddling moonshine at his club.

His parents dubbed him "Little Richard" because he was skinny and small.

Little Richard was kicked out of the family home at age 16, reportedly after his father caught him using his mother's makeup. He went on the road, sometimes playing clubs in drag.

But success eluded Little Richard until 1955 when he found himself onstage at a Houston nightclub improvising a raunchy song he called "Tutti Frutti."

His producer friend Robert “Bumps” Blackwell heard gold in the song and after cleaning up the lyrics they released the single and Little Richard was launched into stardom.