The "Good Golly Miss Molly" singer, whose career spanned over six decades, has died

By Joelle GoldsteinAlexia Fernandez and Janine Rubenstein
Updated May 09, 2020 11:15 AM
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Little Richard, the rock and roll trailblazer known for his electrifying stage presence and lively piano skills, has died. He was 87.

The "Good Golly Miss Molly" singer's agent of 40 years, Dick Alen, confirmed the musician's death to PEOPLE.

"Little Richard passed away this morning from bone cancer in Nashville. He was living with his brother in Nashville," Alen tells PEOPLE. "He was battling for a good while, many years. I last spoke to him about two or three weeks ago. I knew he wasn’t well but he never really got into it, he just would say 'I’m not well.' He’s been suffering for many years with various aches and pains. He just wouldn’t talk about it much.”

Kelvin Holly, a longtime member of the musician's band, shared a touching tribute on social media. "Rest in peace Richard. This one really stings. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of my bandmates and fans all over the world. Richard truly was the king!"

Little Richard
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Born Richard Wayne Penniman, the musician rose to fame in the 1950s and quickly became a prominent figure in the rock and roll scene for his energized performances behind the piano.

With major hits including "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally" and "Good Golly, Miss Molly," his raspy voice, signature six-inch coif, mascara mustache, and manic behavior earned him the title of one of the most influential musicians in history.

Since Tutti Frutti (with the iconic lyric "a wop bop a loo bop, a wop bam boom!" lyric) in 1956, he has sold more than 30 million records. No performer deserves more credit for the metamorphosis of black rhythm and blues into rock’n’roll. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley all credited him as a seminal influence.

Onstage, his act was far ahead of its time: He tore off his clothes, leaped upon the piano and embraced androgyny long before the likes of Mick Jagger, Elton John, and David Bowie.

Little Richard

The third of 12 children, he grew up in Macon, Georgia. His father, a bricklayer who was embarrassed by his son’s affectations, was shot to death in a fight in 1952. In hopes of curing Richard’s birth defect — his right leg was three inches shorter than his left — his mother, Leva, sent him to the New Hope Baptist Church every Sunday.

There he discovered a talent for singing. At the age of 10, Richard started a group called the Tiny Tots Quartet, which put on gospel music shows at churches and old folks’ homes—and took its pay in sweet potatoes.

"There wasn’t any rock’n’roll at that time," he recalled to PEOPLE years ago. "So we sang gospel. Everybody around us was singing gospel—the women hanging out the wash, the old men on the porches at night, everybody."

A ninth-grade dropout with dreams of becoming as popular as the singing evangelist Brother Joe May, known as "the Thunderbolt of the Midwest," Richard skipped town with a traveling medicine show. Later, between jobs as a dishwasher and janitor at a bus station, he peddled his talent.

His act went through several phases and names before he settled on Little Richard and the Upsetters in the early ’50s. "We used to upset everybody," he explained, "because we all wore makeup and acted weird."

Little Richard
CBS via Getty Images

Then came "Tutti Frutti" in 1956, and he was a national celebrity. "I wanted attention," he said. "I always had a big head. I wasn’t that interested in money. I wanted to be famous and have a Cadillac. Where I was born the only time you rode in a Cadillac was after you were dead."

Richard toured steadily in the mid-’50s, performing all over the world, while issuing one hit single after another — "Ready Teddy," "Send Me Some Lovin'," "Ooh! My Soul," and "Kansas City."

During that time, he also dabbled in drugs, including acid, chipped heroin and took pep pills and angel dust. Richard later admitted to perceiving his on-stage antics as equal parts affectation, impetuousness, and drug-induced lunacy.

"Man, they think they just discovered that stuff, but it ain’t nothing but elephant tranquilizer and it’s been around for years," he previously told PEOPLE.

Then in 1957, in the first of his religious conversions, he abruptly dropped from sight to study theology at Oakwood College in Alabama. He never got a degree, but, "ordained by God," he toured the South delivering a stock sermon called "Why I left show business."

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Flagging sales of his gospel records led to a 1963 comeback — and eventual star billing at rock revivals and in nostalgic films like Let the Good Times Roll.

He continued his music career through the '70s, but he eventually took a break again due to health problems and his desire to return to Evangelism.

Little Richard
J. Shearer/WireImage

By the late '80s, he was back in the spotlight performing, and in 1986, Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2000, his life was played out in a historical drama called Little Richard.

Nine years later, "Tutti Frutti" was added to the U.S. Library of Congress National Recording Registry

Richard continued performing until 2016, collaborating with artists including Jon Bon Jovi and Elton John, and headlined shows across the country.

On April 28, 2016, Richard's friend Bootsy Collins wrote on Facebook in a since-deleted post that the musician was "not in the best of health" and needed "all the Funkateers to lift him up," according to Rolling Stone.

At the time, the reports were denied with Richard's lawyer William Sobel explaining that the singer was frustrated with the rumors.

"Not only is my family not gathering around me because I’m ill, but I’m still singing. I don’t perform like I used to, but I have my singing voice, I walk around, I had hip surgery a while ago but I’m healthy," Richard told Sobel, according to Rolling Stone.

Richard then remained out of the spotlight, living in downtown Nashville, until his final days.