Obituary: Why the sad face for Little Richard, a man who epitomized the joy of rock and roll?

Little Richard

Little Richard poses for a portrait in circa 1957. Photo: Michael Ochs.

Little Richard will forever be responsible for my daughter’s name.

The same could be partially said for Charles Schulz, Lucille Ball’s parents and the person who named my grandmother’s cousin—who, not coincidentally—was terribly nice to me when I was a kid.

But the man who sang “Lucille” was the clincher. The way I saw it, it was one of the coolest songs ever written. It was one of the greatest vocal performances ever. It was certainly made famous by one of the most energizing, bold and enduring pillars of rock and roll–the fuel that has powered generations of human spirit.

Little Richard died Saturday of bone cancer at the age of 87. I won’t get into a re-telling of his life—that’s what the New York Times is for. But, like everyone else with a pulse and a social media account, I heard the news and initially and deeply felt my solemn responsibility as a human to proclaim his death an awful tragedy that makes me sad and how the world is a little less wonderful today because if it.

But then I thought … did these people ever see Little Richard in action?

He was the epitome of rock and roll’s wild spirit. Screaming, shaking, howling … the man did everything but personally explode on stage simply celebrating life for the rest of us. That’s, at its core, what rock and roll is really all about. He was funny, he was demanding, he said what was on his mind … he was someone we all wanted to be at one time or another. He brought races together.

He lived until he was 87, which is about 60 years longer than a typical lifespan of a rock and roll titan.

What’s to be sad about?

He could play, he could sing–he was rock and roll. He was the pace-setter typifying the earliest version of rock and roll; the most powerful and constant force in so many lives. And when I call my daughter “Lucille”–which makes sense, because that’s her name–I almost always hear Little Richard singing the word in my head. I sing it out loud. My kid doesn’t know there’s any other way to say her name than in her father’s ugly imitation of Little Richard.

I figured if you’re going to name a child after the chorus of a song of which you’ll constantly be singing the next 40 or 50 years, it better be a good one. Plus, it was always fun to sing “please come back where you belong” when my crazy little toddler used to run off somewhere, giggling like a maniac. That made a Little Richard song perfect as her personal theme.

There was so much to like and admire. He maneuvered social complexities as a God-loving, self-proclaimed “omni-sexual” black man who came up through segregation and triumphed. There may have been no James Brown, Prince or Michael Jackson without Little Richard. Mick Jagger may have never worn eyeliner without Little Richard. The way he brought races together prompted a desperate music industry to try placating fans by whitewashing his music through Pat Boone.

OK … that is sad.

Little Richard probably packed twice as many regular-person years of living into his 87. The man was pure joy, at least on the outside and to the rest of us. He didn’t come up through easy times, but he died representing the best thing in the world for so many of us: rock and roll. That he is on so many minds today after an 87-year life is worth celebrating.

Follow music critic Tony Hicks at

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