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Little Richard

1932–2020

John Partipilo ©2018

The museum mourns the passing of Richard Wayne Penniman, known as Little Richard, who died in the early hours of May 9 in Nashville at age 87. Penniman had been living in the downtown Hilton, and had resided there for a number of years. The hotel’s front doors and the windows of Penniman’s residence look out on the museum, with its piano-keyboard façade, which sits across a small park opposite the hotel.

Little Richard began to establish a professional reputation by working clubs in Nashville in the early 1950s. His dynamic vocal delivery, his outstanding piano work, and his unrivaled showmanship would become the foundation for rock & roll. His influence would be felt in the work of the major artists of the genre, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Prince, and Michael Jackson. When he came to Nashville, he played nightspots such as Club Revillot and the New Era Club. When the museum examined the city’s R&B legacy in its exhibit Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945–1970, Little Richard’s role was highlighted. “I used to work in Nashville quite a bit when I was young,” he told museum staff. “That’s where I really made my $100 a week at. I didn’t make $100 a week nowhere but [Nashville], really.”

Little Richard frequently cited the role Nashville radio station WLAC played in advancing his career. Penniman had solid affirmation that he had a national hit with “Tutti Frutti” when he heard WLAC disc jockey Gene Nobles say, “This is the hottest record in the country. This guy Little Richard is taking the record market by storm.”

Because of his close association with Nashville, both personal and professional, Little Richard was honored at the 2019 Tennessee Governor’s Arts Awards, at the same ceremony the museum received the Arts Leadership Award. Museum staffers had a chance to visit with Penniman and congratulate him on his honor.

Little Richard was one of the leading lights. His greatness goes beyond any estimation of what he achieved.

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