Music legend and Lynchburg resident Little Richard dies at 87

Written by Tabitha Evans Moore, Editor

“I met him coming out of the post office in 2009,” said local Chuck Clark. This is the photo he took that day.

Founding father of rock and roll, R&B legend, Hall of Fame member, contemporary of Elvis, influencer of Prince and the Beatles, and sometime resident of Lynchburg, Richard Wayne Penniman, or as most knew him, Little Richard, passed away in his sleep on Saturday in Tullahoma. He was 87 years old.

He was born in Macon, Georgia to Bud and Leva Mae Penniman as the third of 12 children. His daddy was a church deacon, a bootlegger, and a club owner planting in his son the seeds of God, and sin, and music that he nurtured at different points throughout his life.

Born with a right leg that was slightly shorter than his left, Little Richard literally sashayed both on the stage and through life. His distinctive gait, pompadour wigs, pancake make-up, and flamboyant clothes became his signature style … one that many tried to emulate.

Jimi Hendrix once famously said he wanted to do with his guitar what Little Richard did with his voice.

It ends where it all began

It’s fitting that his life ended where his career as a musician began … Tennessee. In the 1950’s Little Richard made a name for himself in the R&B nightclubs on Jefferson Street in Nashville. He signed his first record deal with RCA in 1951 but it was the song “Tutti Frutti” that launched his 65 year career in 1956. Little Richard often recounted how he heard himself for the first on WLAC, a 50,000 watt Nashville radio station.

Sometime in mid-2000’s, Little Richard moved back to Tennessee and purchased a 5,900 square foot house and 13.9 acres off Highway 50 in Moore County for his sister. From then until his death, he split time between Lynchburg and Nashville. The fact that Little Richard lived in a hotel penthouse suite near his Music City Walk of Fame Star was one of the worst kept secrets in Nashville.

Lynchburg remembers

Ask anyone from Lynchburg and they’ve probably got a Little Richard story. He showed up in public often in full wig and makeup but was always gracious, friendly, and approachable.

“I met him while working at Woodards,” says local Jonah Deal. “He didn’t get out … a couple of guys came to get his things. I waved through the window. He later sent in a little devotional book and a signed picture to me.”

Devotionals and Little Richard sightings went hand-in-hand. Almost anyone he spoke to got a “God bless you” and a devotional.

“The last time I saw him was at Woodard’s,” says Linda Sullenger. “He told me his hip was causing him a lot of pain and was going to have surgery on it. He was such a kind man. Always spoke and also gave me a devotional. I can see him now with a smile on his face.”

Another local, Shannon Williams, even got a big hug from him at a local restaurant.

“I smelled like his cologne for the rest of the day,” she says. “He was such a nice down-to-earth man.”

My own story adds a bit of humor to the mix. One afternoon as I headed to the Lynchburg Post Office, I saw Little Richard’s black Escalade pull up and his bodyguard jump out to retrieve the singer’s mail. It happened a lot, so I wasn’t fazed. I waved and smiled as I walked in front of the vehicle. He smiled and waved back. As I got almost all the way back to the newspaper office, I heard a, “Good golly Miss Molly … whooooo.” I jerked around, eyes wide, mouth open and Little Richard died laughing. Even his body guard cracked a smile. After that, anytime he rode past the newspaper office he honked and waved. It always made my day.

In recent years, Little Richard made it back to Lynchburg infrequently. Back pain and complications from hip surgery had confined him to a wheelchair since 2009. He didn’t like being photographed that way and often avoided the public eye.

One things for sure, Little Richard made an impression in a town that sees its fair share of famous faces … but not as a tourist. He was one of our own … as neighbor and friend … and he will certainly be missed. •

{The Lynchburg Times is an independently owned and operated newspaper that publishes new stories every morning. Covering Metro Moore County government, Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Nearest Green Distillery, Tims Ford State Park, Motlow State Community College, Moore County High School, Moore County Middle School, Lynchburg Elementary, Raider Sports, plus regional and state news.}

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