Little Richard: His ‘Tutti Frutti’ Journey Back to Jesus

young Little Richard (in color)

He was one of the most gifted and flamboyant pop stars of his era. But now the wild wigs, pancake makeup, and crazy costumes are gone. Little Richard has turned his back on rock and roll to pursue holiness in Christ during his final years.

“I believe that Jesus is coming soon,” he told Danny Shelton and Yvonne Lewis with Three Angels Broadcasting Network (3ABN) in a September interview.

Despite achieving the greatest fame the music world can offer, the 84-year-old legend has one regret. “If I had my life to do over again, I would be ‘Little Richard the Preacher,’ standing out on street corners,” declaring God’s Word.

In the course of a nearly two-hour interview, he could barely contain his zeal to preach, spontaneously breaking into sermonettes with the cadence of the best African American preachers of his generation.

Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman, grew up poor in Macon, Georgia, the third of 12 children born to Leva Mae and Bud Penniman.

“My daddy was a bootlegger and he sold moonshine whisky,” he told 3ABN. His father verbally abused Little Richard for being effeminate and kicked him out of the house at 15.

“He said he wanted seven boys, and that I had spoiled it, because I was gay,” he told GQ Magazine in 2012.

Little Richard’s father died at 39 after a friend of Little Richard’s shot him to death.

“My best friend killed my daddy,” he told 3ABN. “He robbed my daddy’s nightclub…really a juke joint. I came home and mama told me he was dead. There was a raincoat outside covered with blood. It shook my mind.”

Growing up, Little Richard experienced both poverty and prejudice. “It was hard just to eat. You would go to people’s houses and there was no furniture. They would be sleeping on the floor,” he recounted to 3ABN.

His family didn’t have indoor heating so his mother wrapped up a hot iron and placed it in the sheets at the foot of the bed. “We had big bags of rice. When they finished with the bag they made a dress for my sister out of the bag,” he recalled.

“You couldn’t stop at a white restaurant to eat because you wasn’t allowed in there. You could wash dishes in there but you wasn’t allowed to eat in there.”

Little Richard attended New Hope Baptist Church with his mother and his grandmother’s AME Church. “We had to go to both churches or we couldn’t go to the movies,” he said.

In 1947, gospel singer Rosetta Tharpe heard 14-year-old Little Richard sing two of her gospel recordings prior to her concert in Macon. Impressed by his vocal abilities, she invited him onstage, where his rendition of one of her songs brought a huge response from the crowd.

He was smitten by the desire to perform, and began to sing with traveling shows that came through town, but an unfortunate incident had the unforeseen consequence of catapulting him into the wider world.

Little Richard was arrested after a gas station attendant in Macon reported sexual activity in a car he occupied.

“The police in Macon came to me…and they told me, “We’ve got to lock you up,” he told 3ABN.

“For what?” he asked.

“You had a white woman in your car.”

“No I didn’t.”

“We heard that you did.”

He spent three days in jail on a sexual misconduct charge. “They took me before the judge and said, ‘This n____ here is going to leave town and he ain’t ever coming back.’”

“They’re right your honor,” Little Richard replied. “I’m leaving here and I’m not coming back here no more.”

Little Richard didn’t return to Macon for decades. (Now they name streets in the city after him.)

Little Richard’s first big hit came in 1955 with “Tutti Frutti,” a song that quickly rose to the top of the charts and some critics later hailed as “the sound of the birth of rock and roll.” The original lyrics, about homosexual sex between two men, had to be cleaned up by a songwriter brought in by Specialty Records.

His next hit single, “Long Tall Sally,” went to No. 1 on the R&B chart and established him as a rising star.

Within three years he had 18 hit singles, including “Lucille” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” which made him a millionaire.

In late 1957, on a tour of Australia, Little Richard had an encounter with God that changed his life. On a flight from Melbourne to Sydney God gave him a vision of angels holding up the plane’s engines and wings.

While performing in Sydney, he saw a brilliant red fireball shoot across the sky above the concert and he was deeply shaken.

It was the Russian satellite Sputnik 1, which Richard interpreted as a sign from God to repent from his sinful lifestyle.

The seeds of truth planted in childhood by his mother and grandmother finally sprouted. Little Richard was born again and shocked the public by announcing in the middle of his tour that he would leave rock and roll to pursue Christian ministry.

As a result, he returned to the U.S. 10 days earlier than originally scheduled. The flight he was previously booked on, Pan Am Flight 7, crashed into the Pacific Ocean between Honolulu and San Francisco with all 44 passengers and crew members killed.

He took it as further confirmation to get right with God.

Due to the influence of his uncle, a Seventh Day Adventist minister, Little Richard enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study theology. In 1958, he formed the Little Richard Evangelistic Team, traveling across the country to preach.

While speaking at an evangelical convention, he met Ernestine Campbell, a secretary from Washington, D.C. and the two married the following year.

But the allurement of fame and money proved irresistible to him, and he accepted an offer to tour Europe, which led to performances with the Beatles and Rolling Stones – with both bands opening as second billing to Little Richard!

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SOURCE: God Reports – Mark Ellis