Little Richard stayed out of the public eye during his later years, but resurfaced in 2017 for his first television interviews in decades. He first spoke with the Christian network Three Angels Broadcasting Network, making headline-grabbing comments about homosexuality. A month after that interview, Little Richard stopped in Thompsonville, Illinois and spoke with the local ABC affiliate WSIL in what was likely his last televised interview.
In the brief interview with WSIL, he looked back at his music career, noting that he once thought "you could become bigger and bigger and make more money." The "Tutti Frutti" singer, born Richard Penniman, famously left the music business at the height of his fame and reconnected with his faith. He said this was one of the best decisions he ever made, adding it "didn't feel right anymore."
"I wasn't a part of the in-crowd anymore," Richard said, adding that this made him reconsider his place in the world. "I'd rather have Jesus than anything the world could afford today," he said at the time. Three Angels Broadcasting Network president Danny Shelton, who visited Illinois with Richard, praised the musician for influencing "millions for the cause of God" in his later years.
A month before the Illinois interview aired, Richard sat with Shelton and Yvonne Lewis in an interview that lasted almost two hours. The interview made headlines for a comment Richard made about homosexuality. Richard went back and forth on his stance on the subject, as many questioned his own sexuality due to his famously flamboyant performances.
"When I first came into show business, they wanted you to look like anybody but yourself," Richard told Shelton and Lewis. "And anybody come in show business, they’re going to say you’re gay. Are you straight? Are you a homosexual something? They’re going to say it. Jesus made men, men. He made women, women."
Lewis then asked Richard what changes he had to make when he joined the church. "It was hard. First of all I wasn’t used to dressing a certain way," he said. "I wasn't used to wearing plain clothes. Everything was flashy. I used to wear makeup on my face every day. I had to stop all that if I wanted to be saved. And I think my life was worth more than powder. A real man won’t wear no dress."
Richard made controversial comments about homosexuality before. In the 1984 biography The Life and Times of Little Richard, which he endorsed, he called homosexuality "contagious … it’s not something you’re born with," reports Rolling Stone. However, when filmmaker John Waters interviewed Richard for Playboy a few years later, he embraced gay people.
"I love gay people. I believe I was the founder of gay," Richard said, according to Waters. "I'm the one who started to be so bold tellin' the world! You got to remember my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother's curtains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wearing make-up and eyelashes when no men were wearing that. I was very beautiful; I had hair hanging everywhere. If you let anybody know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn't care what nobody thought. A lot of people were scared to be with me."
Richard died Saturday at age 87, his son, Danny Jones Penniman, told Rolling Stone. His lawyer, Bill Sobel, confirmed the cause of death was cancer. Richard was among the first inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and scored hits with "Tutti Frutti," "Lucille," "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Rip It Up."