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Rock 'N' Roll Pioneer Little Richard Dies, Aged 87

Little Richard, the self-proclaimed "architect of rock 'n' roll", who built his ground-breaking sound with a boiling blend of boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues and gospel, has died at the age of 87.

Richard, whose electrifying 1950s hits such as Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally and flamboyant stage presence influenced legions of performers, succumbed to cancer, according to Rolling Stone who spoke with his son Danny Penniman.

Dick Alen, his former agent, confirmed the US musician died at his home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Little Richard has died, aged 87. Image: Getty

Richard's bass guitarist, Charles Glenn, told celebrity website TMZ the musician had been sick for two months and that he died surrounded by his brother, sister and son.

Glenn told TMZ he spoke with Richard on March 27 and the singer asked him to visit, but he could not because of the pandemic. He said Richard was like a father to him, and would sometimes tell him, "Not to take anything away from your dad, but you're my son."

Little Richard pictured circa 1957. Image: Getty

At his peak in the 1950s and early '60s, Richard shouted, moaned, screamed and trilled hits like Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally and Good Golly, Miss Molly all the while pounding the piano like a mad man and punctuating lyrics with an occasional shrill "whoooo!".

Time magazine said he played "songs that sounded like nonsense... but whose beat seemed to hint of unearthly pleasures centred somewhere between the gut and the gutter."

The music drew in both young black and white fans at a time when parts of the United States still were strictly segregated. Many white artists, such as Pat Boone, had their own hit versions of Richard's songs, albeit considerably toned down and "safer" for the pop audience.

"I've always thought that rock 'n' roll brought the races together," Richard once told an interviewer. "Although I was black, the fans didn't care. I used to feel good about that."

Richard's career took a turn in 1957 when he decided to abandon rock in the middle of a two-week tour of Australia.

Richard told a biographer that he saw a fireball shoot across the sky during an outdoor performance in Sydney and took it as a sign from God to change his life. He said he later determined the fireball was the launch of Russia's Sputnik satellite.

A few months later, however, Richard was a student at a Bible college in Alabama. For a while he played only gospel music but slipped back into rock 'n' roll, sharing a bill with the young Beatles in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962.

It was a pattern that persisted for years as Little Richard moved between rock 'n' roll, alcohol, cocaine and heroin abuse and Christianity and gospel music.

He would go on to become an ordained Seventh Day Adventist minister and eventually worked gospel and rock both into his shows, along with a little preaching.