The Sunday Magazine

Remembering Little Richard, a pop star like no other in the early days of rock and roll

Little Richard, who died on May 9, 2020 at 87, was a chameleon and musical shapeshifter in his long, colourful life. When rock and roll was in its infancy, though, Little Richard was a supernova — magnetic, subversive and explosive. York University musicologist and Grammy Award-winning music writer Rob Bowman talks about the man, his music and the enormous impact he had on popular culture.

‘There had never been sounds like this before … Richard took things to another level’

Little Richard, rock 'n' roll pioneer, dead at 87

1 year ago
Little Richard was the self-proclaimed 'architect of rock 'n roll' whose piercing wail and pounding piano inspired countless musicians, including Canadian blues legend Colin James.  6:07

Little Richard, the self-described king, queen and architect of rock and roll, died on May 9, 2020 at age 87 — a grand old man of rock, but also eternally young.

He was a pop star like no other in the early days of rock and roll — black, openly gay and utterly wild, with a deep connection to the church. He taught the Beatles how to sing; he once fired Jimi Hendrix from his band; he attended divinity school; he became a celebrity wedding officiant; and he battled a $1,000-dollar-a-day drug habit.

"Little Richard was the quasar of rock and roll. He might as well have come from a different planet," said Rob Bowman, a Grammy-Award-winning music writer and professor of musicology at York University. "There had never been sounds like this before … Richard took things to another level."

This is game-changing stuff, and we're all better for it.- Rob Bowman

Bowman said Richard's voice was key to his magic as a performer. "Part of it was the sheer volume his voice was recorded at, but that wouldn't have mattered if he didn't have that incredible rasp and intensity to his voice. He basically put pressure on his larynx … It's a voice that can cut through molten lead," he said.

Little Richard influenced generations of performers, from the British Invasion bands to James Brown to Prince.

"Little Richard's legacy is really [being] one of the four or five founding fathers of rock and roll, and for my money, being the most intense, the wildest, the most exciting," said Bowman.

"This is game-changing stuff, and we're all better for it. You can argue that everything that's come since then, in the world of rock, owes something to Little Richard."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.

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