Little Richard struggled for decades with his sexuality, faith

UPDATE: Little Richard documentary sheds light on his struggle with his sexuality.

Little Richard kept audiences bopping more than 60 years to his rump shaking rock ‘n’ roll of pounding piano, uptempo rhythms, and howling vocals.

One of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard was a musical force to be reckoned with: A gay black man who helped shatter the racial divide on the music charts and introduce black R&B to mainstream white America during the hyper conservative 1950s.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Little Richard owes his career to another historic rock ‘n’ roll figure. In the 1984 biography “The Life and Times of Little Richard,” the singer said Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, inspired him to become a musician.

In October 1947, Sister Rosetta Tharpe overheard the then 14-year-old singing her songs before a performance at the Macon City Auditorium. Tharpe invited the teenager to open her show. Afterward, Tharpe paid him, inspiring teen singer to become a professional performer.

Little Richard died Saturday after a battle with bone cancer. He was 87.


‘Tutti Frutti’

Little Richard’s smash hits and signature songs included “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “Tutti Frutti,” all of them released between 1955 and 1958.

The original lyrics of “Tutti Frutti” included references to a gay man:  “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.”

During those few years, Little Richard charted an impressive 18 hit songs. But by the end of the decade, Little Richard said God had a different path for him, and Little Richard left secular music and studied theology. But it wasn’t long before Little Richard returned to rock ‘n’ roll.

Little Richard

Directly From My Heart” is a collection of Little Richard’s greatest hits from the 1950s and 60s.

60 years of music

For the next six decades, Little Richard’s faith would share the spotlight with his wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom signature music. He embraced the Good Book and wild, bawdy behavior, including  mascara-lined eyes, pencil-thin mustache, and glittery suits.

Little Richard’s impact on the music scene was massive: He sold more than 30 million records worldwide and influenced numerous musicians, from the Beatles and Otis Redding to Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie.

In 1986, Little Richard was one of the 10 original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1993, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.

Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga., Dec. 5, 1932, Little Richard often acknowledged his life as a gay man, but he had a complicated relationship his sexual orientation and his faith.

Sexuality, faith

Here are some examples of his decades-long public struggle with trying to reconcile his religious beliefs and his identity.

  • In the 1984 biography “The Life and Times of Little Richard,” Little Richard reflected on the sexual experiences from his young life that formed his sexual identity. At one point, he says, “Homosexuality is contagious. It’s not something you’re born with.”
  • In 1987, filmmaker John Waters interviewed Little Richard for Playboy. Waters recalled that interview in 2010 to The Guardian. Waters said he quoted Little Richard as saying,  “I love gay people. I believe I was the founder of gay. I’m the one who started to be so bold tellin’ the world! You got to remember my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother’s curtains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wearing makeup and eyelashes when no men were wearing that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere. If you let anybody know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn’t care what nobody thought. A lot of people were scared to be with me.”
  • In 1995, Little Richard proudly told Penthouse magazine, “I’ve been gay all my life, and I know God is a God of love, not of hate.”
  • In a 2012 profile in GQ, Little Richard candidly discussed participating in orgies with men and women, and described himself as “omnisexual”: “We are all both male and female. Sex to me is like a smörgåsbord. Whatever I feel like, I go for.”
  • In 2017, during an interview with the Christian-tied Three Angels Broadcasting Group, Little Richard seemed to denounce gay and transgender people. One of the hosts asks Little Richard about gay men and men wearing dresses. “God, Jesus — He made men, men. He made women, women, you know? And you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live. All of these things, so much unnatural affection. So much of people just doing everything and don’t think about God. Don’t want no parts of him.”
  • Later in the interview, Little Richard said God loves you no matter who you are. “Regardless of whatever you are, he loves you. I don’t care what you are. He loves you, and he can save you. All you’ve got to do is say, ‘Lord, take me as I am. I’m a sinner.’ But we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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