Richard Wayne Penniman, a Seventh-day Adventist and musician best known as Little Richard, passed to his rest May 9, 2020 at the age of 87. Controversial for his role in creating rock ’n’ roll music in the 1950s, the Oakwood University alumnus retained his Adventist faith and publicly returned to it in his later years.
A son, Dan Penniman, said his father died of cancer. Little Richard was said to be in poor health in recent years following hip surgery in 2009. And in 2017 he told a 3ABN audience he’d been confined to a wheelchair “for 20 years.” News reports indicated he died at his home in Tennessee, surrounded by family.
The image of a wheelchair-bound Penniman was in sharp contrast with the hyperkinetic performer who brought what was once called “race music” to a wider American audience during the boom years a decade after the end of World War II. A Depression baby who grew up in a family of 12 children, Penniman took his church-singing experience and translated it to the recording studio and stage.
Writing about him at nbcnews.com, reporters noted, “Starting with ‘Tutti Frutti,’ Little Richard cranked out hits like ‘Long Tall Sally,’ ‘Rip It Up,’ ‘Lucille,’ ‘Jenny Jenny’ and ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly,’ making [him] one of the world's most popular acts and leading to his being known as a founder of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Penniman appeared to have struggled with personal demons for much of his life. He quit rock to enroll at what is now Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, a Seventh-day Adventist institution. He got married. Yet a 1962 arrest in the men’s room of a Los Angeles bus station ended his marriage and sidetracked his nascent career as a gospel music singer.
For a while, he returned to the rock scene, with a then little-known band called The Beatles as his opening act at one point. Even during those days, he retained an interest in Bible study, with John Lennon recalling Penniman backstage at a concert reading the Scriptures. In later life, Penniman told congregations at Seventh-day Adventist churches of handing out copies of Steps to Christ by Ellen G. White at concerts and personally to rockers such as Paul McCartney.
It is unclear whether Penniman, occasionally described in news reports as an “ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister,” actually had been ordained. But Penniman’s faith commitment was evident to many church members who saw him at worship services or crusade events such as a 1981 “Your Bible Speaks” campaign in Oakland, California, featuring Adventist evangelist G. H. Rainey.
Perhaps his most heartfelt testimony came in 2017 when, without the bouffant hairstyle and makeup, sitting in a wheelchair before a camp meeting crowd at 3ABN’s fall event, Penniman — decidedly not Little Richard in that moment — spent the better part of an hour encouraging people to “sell out” to Jesus Christ.
“All I can say in times like these, we need a Savior. In times like these, we need an anchor. We need Jesus. There’s never been a time in our life as it is today where we need God so much. Without Him we could see that we’re doomed. Without Him, there’s nothing,” Penniman began.
He added, “I'm gonna tell you something, brothers and sisters: Get on your knees, and talk to Jesus. Don’t you go to bed another night, another day, without giving a commitment to God. The world is getting ready to end. Jesus is getting ready to brush the clouds away. Please, please give your life to Jesus.”