HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Little Richard was remembered not just as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer but a man of generosity and faith at a memorial service at his alma mater where he was laid to rest Wednesday.
Mourners gathered at Oakwood University to pay their respects, many wearing face masks and standing a few feet apart at the outdoor service at the school's cemetery.
“What I really remember about Richard was not his stage performances, which were certainly formidable, but what I remember most about Brother Richard, not Little Richard, but Brother Richard, was his incredible kindness and his generosity to people,” said university President Leslie Pollard, who knew Little Richard personally.
“I remember those of us riding around with him in Los Angeles, and he’d have money in the trunk of his car. Why he had money in the trunk of his car, only he knew, but he would take money out and give it to homeless people,” Pollard said. “He was a very generous and giving person.”
He also spoke of the thoughtfulness of the singer, who throughout his career sold more than 30 million records and notched a string of hits including “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly" and “Keep a Knockin'.”
“Once Richard met you and he knew you, he never forgot you,” Pollard said. “He remembered your family, your mother, your father, your sisters, your brothers, whose birthday was it ... He had a genuine interest in people.”
Richard died on May 9 following a battle with bone cancer at 87.
His pastor, James Owens, said he re-baptized the legend a year ago.
“We thank you, Lord, that he gave his life to you,” he said. “We are so thankful that now he is buried, being laid to rest on these hallowed ground of the historic campus of Oakwood University, where so much of African American talent has come out of, including his own. And we thank you, Lord, for his desire to share the word, to use his fame, to spread the name of Jesus Christ.”
Born Richard Penniman, Little Richard was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding fathers who along with Chuck Berry and Fats Domino helped shatter the color line on the music charts and brought what was once called “race music” into the mainstream. His hyperkinetic piano playing, coupled with his howling vocals and hairdo, made him an implausible sensation — a gay, black man celebrated across America during the buttoned-down Eisenhower era.
In his personal life, he wavered between raunch and religion, alternately embracing the Bible and outrageous behavior and looks — mascara-lined eyes, pencil-thin mustache and glittery suits.
For decades he's influenced other musicians, everyone from The Beatles (Paul McCartney imitated Richard’s signature yelps) to David Bowie. More than 40 years after the latter charted, Bruce Springsteen was still performing “Good Golly Miss Molly” live.
For his final resting place, Richard chose Oakwood University, a historically black Seventh-day Adventist college in the northern Alabama city of Huntsville.