On May 9, 2020, the day Little Richard died, at age 87, I had all but completed my book The Big Life of Little Richard. It was a volume originally intended as a picture-heavy tribute to the man whose big life defined all that rock was, could be, and will always be. But even before he died, the book wanted more. For me, a hopelessly addicted biographer, an elemental truth became evident: as much as I thought I knew about Little Richard, I didn’t know him at all.
Richard Wayne Penniman was a native son of the Jim Crow South, growing up in Macon, Georgia, where hanging trees were common and homosexuality kept strictly under wraps. His father, Bud, was a minister, bootlegger, and tavern owner who saw the devil lurking in the overheated rhythm and blues his son sang. He kicked Richard out of the house for that and his effeminate behavior. (They had just reconciled when Bud was later murdered outside his saloon.)