For more than six decades, Little Richard kept people bopping to his signature style of uninhibited rock ‘n’ roll. Besides his music, Little Richard has been known for something else throughout his expansive career: his complicated relationship with his sexual orientation, and his faith’s effect on it.
In a 2017 interview on the Christian-oriented Three Angels Broadcasting Network, Richard reiterated a belief that homosexuality is “unnatural” while simultaneously reaffirming his strong Christian faith that has followed him for most of his life. “Anybody that comes in show business, they gon’ say you gay or straight,” he said. “God made men, men and women, women… You’ve got to live the way God wants you to live… He can save you.”
Those comments were the latest in a decades-long public struggle with reconciling his religious beliefs and his sexual orientation.
Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga., in 1932) often acknowledged his lifestyle as a gay man. Charles White’s 1984 biography The Life and Times of Little Richard weaves together anecdotes from Richard himself and people in his life — including a number of other artists — to tell the story of his rise from young Georgia gospel singer to the biggest pioneer in Southern rock ‘n’ roll. In it, he reflected on the sexual experiences from his young life that formed his sexual identity over the years.
From a young age he said he always felt feminine, wearing his mother’s makeup and clothes, before getting kicked out of the house at age 15 by his deacon father. He began performing at different venues around Atlanta and began traveling what became known as the Chitlin’ Circuit — a number of performance venues throughout the South that were safe and acceptable for black musicians, comedians and other entertainers to perform in during the segregation era.
Following his hit “Tutti Frutti” reaching No. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1956, Richard enjoyed a few years of success as a rock ‘n’ roll performer. (Interestingly enough, the original lyrics of “Tutti Frutti” were about another gay man: “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.”) His single “Long Tall Sally” reached No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1956, and another recognizable hit, “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” came out two years later. In a three-year span, Richard had racked up 18 hit songs. By the end of the decade, however, he felt God was telling him to turn away from secular music, and as a result, enrolled in Oakwood College to study theology.
Richard found pleasure in his biblical studies, becoming attracted to the idea of praising God through music. He believed he found peace with God, and that he should live as God intended him to. He also believed that he faced “devils” while there, too: he was caught asking a deacon’s son to expose himself and resented his “unnatural affections” that led him to hate who he was. In addition to his homosexual activity, he became involved in voyeurism in his 20s, paying men to let him watch them have sex with women, sometimes forcibly. “My whole gay activities were really into masturbation,” he said. “I’d always be mad after I finished. Be mad at myself, don’t want to talk about it, don’t wanna answer no questions.” His voyeuristic escapades eventually led to him being jailed for sexual misconduct after being found with a couple in a car in a Macon gas station.
Richard found himself performing secular music again in 1962 when he was persuaded to tour Europe under the impression that it was a gospel tour. After receiving a tepid audience response to his gospel music, Richard eventually found his way back to rock ‘n’ roll, enjoying three more decades of musical success. In 1995, he proudly told Penthouse, “I’ve been gay all my life and I know God is a God of love, not of hate.” In a 2012 profile in GQ, he candidly discussed partaking in orgies with both men and women, and described himself as “omnisexual”: “We are all both male and female. Sex to me is like a smörgåsbord. Whatever I feel like, I go for.”
It surprised some, then, to see him sing a different tune (no pun intended) in his interview with Three Angels Broadcasting. He commented on the state of pop culture, its acceptance of queer identities, and its lack of focus on faith: “All these things, so much unnatural affection. So much of people just doing everything and don’t think about God. Don’t want no parts of him.” Richard seemed to have found solace with God in regards to his sexuality, concluding on the matter saying, “Regardless of whatever you are, he loves you. I don’t care what you are. He loves you and he can save you. All you’ve got to do is say, ‘Lord, take me as I am. I’m a sinner.’ But we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
Regardless, Little Richard lives on as a legend in every sense of the word. “Tutti Frutti” is still regarded as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time — so much so that in 2007, Mojo declared the song as “the sound of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.” He straddled the line between secular and gospel music countless times throughout his long, illustrious career. And he became a queer icon for countless people, even inspiring drag impersonations.
Good golly, Miss Richard!