Little Richard

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Little Richard Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 4/11/15

Little Richard, one of rock’s most distinctive and influential performers, set aside his wigs, mascara and bejewelled jump suits in 2013, announcing his effective retirement from the music industry after a career spanning sixty five years.

Troubled by sciatica and a degenerating hip, Little Richard had performed sparingly in the preceding years, struggling at times to play up to his usual standards. In an interview with ‘Rolling Stone,’ the legendary recording artist admitted – just a few months shy of his 81st birthday – that he was hanging it up as a performer. “I am done, in a sense,” he told the magazine, adding, “I don’t feel like doing anything right now.”

I’m not surprised – it’s been an outrageous life!

“Little Richard” Penniman, known as “The Georgia Peach,” undoubtedly remains one of the primary innovators and original architects of rock and roll.” From 1956 to 1957 he recorded a string of hits before renouncing show business to enter the seminary. He returned to the stage in 1962 and continued performing until 2013. In 1986, he was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the mid-1950s, his wildly energetic rhythm-and-blues records crossed over to the pop charts and made him one of the first rock stars. His pounding piano, screaming vocals, and exuberant stage persona have been emulated but rarely matched by several generations of rock musicians. The eyeliner and enormous bouffant wigs would only hint at his latent homosexuality, and his rationale for such orientation makes for interesting reading. “Homosexuality is contagious. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s contagious…The gay thing really came from me being with a guy called Bro Boy, who was a grocery boy. Bro Boy really laid me into that—he and Hester. It started with them and it growed.” Richard’s views are perhaps not so far off the mark, for a controversial 2015 twin study would suggest that environmental changes could trigger homosexuality. The scientific findings were highly controversial, suggesting that some men are not born gay, but are turned homosexual by their surroundings. Research findings by the University of California were based on the study of 37 sets of identical male twins, born with the same genetic blueprint, in order to tease out which genes were associated with homosexuality. In each pair, one of the twins was gay. Significantly, only 20 percent of identical twins are both gay, leading researchers to believe that there must be causes which are not inherited.

Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon on December 5, 1932, Little Richard was one of twelve children. His father, Bud, worked as a brickmason, sold moonshine, and operated a juke joint called the Tip In Inn. Despite the business interests of Penniman’s father, the family was deeply involved in the church. Penniman’s mother, Leva Mae, met his father at a church revival, and Penniman’s grandfather and uncle were preachers. Penniman first performed in a family gospel group that often competed against other quartets in local contests. A part-time job at the Macon City Auditorium gave him the opportunity to study many leading rhythm-and-blues and gospel acts. Penniman was a manic, unruly youngster whose flamboyant mannerisms and gay friends often put him in conflict with his father. He was fascinated by the traveling medicine shows that came through town, and at fourteen he left home with one. By the age of fifteen he was performing with a minstrel show and had adopted the stage name Little Richard.

Little Richard soon gravitated to Atlanta, a focal point for the national rhythm-and-blues scene. At the 81 Theatre, he would meet and be influenced by the singer Billy Wright, whose big hair, heavy stage makeup, and gospel-styled blues shouting made him a local favorite. Through WGST disc jockey Zenas Sears, Wright helped Little Richard secure a record contract with RCA, and at age eighteen he had his first recording session. While the results were undistinguished, the song “Every Hour” sold well in Atlanta and Macon. Another RCA session was a commercial failure.

Little Richard’s music career came to a halt after his father was murdered. In order to support his family, he took a job washing dishes at a Greyhound bus station in Macon. Eventually, he was back on stage, dominating the Macon rhythm-and-blues scene with a new band, the Upsetters. Bumps Blackwell at Specialty Records in Los Angeles, California, heard a demo tape of the band and felt that Little Richard’s dramatic, “churchy” voice might compete with Atlantic Record’s latest hit-maker, Ray Charles.

In September 1955 Little Richard met Blackwell for a recording session, in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he attempted several typical blues numbers with studio musicians. Blackwell was puzzled by the discrepancy between Little Richard’s flamboyant appearance—his six-inch-high pompadour, eyeliner, and loud clothes—and his low-key singing. The frustrated producer called a lunch break, during which Little Richard began clowning around at the piano, energetically singing and shouting. Blackwell instructed Little Richard to repeat this performance once the session resumed, which resulted in the song “Tutti Frutti.”

In 1956 “Tutti Frutti” made it to number two on the rhythm-and-blues chart and, surprisingly, number seventeen on the pop chart. The song’s explosive rhythm, powerful vocals, and crazy humor set the pattern for an eighteen-month run of hits. “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’),” “Long Tall Sally,” “Ready Teddy,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” and “Keep a Knockin’” were all crossover successes, and his live shows and movie appearances established Little Richard as the wildest of the rock pioneers.

In 1957, in the middle of a tour of Australia, Little Richard walked away from rock and roll. Troubled by his excessive lifestyle and embittered by song-royalty conflicts with his record company, he left show business to enter the seminary. A short-lived evangelical career met with limited success, and in 1962 he returned to rock music, touring Great Britain and Germany with The Beatles, who idolized him and performed their own versions of many of his songs.

Further hit recordings eluded Little Richard, but throughout the 1960s and 1970s he regained momentum as a live performer, starring on rock-and-roll-revival bills, selling out shows in Las Vegas, Nevada, and making television appearances. Following a period of drug abuse, he turned again to the church and became a preacher and Bible salesman. In 1984 the publication of a startlingly frank biography of him prompted yet another musical comeback.

Little Richard was among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1993 he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and performed at U.S. president Bill Clinton’s inaugural gala. Having seemingly reconciled his religious beliefs with his love of rock and roll, entertaining crowds would remain his primary focus for another twenty years.

Recommended listening

Here's Little Richard (1957)

Little Richard (1958)

The Fabulous Little Richard (1959)


Little Richard