Written By: Ben Cosgrove
These photographs of Little Richard, taken by LIFE’s Ralph Morse in 1971, are a little mysterious. None of these pictures ever ran in LIFE, and there’s no indication in the LIFE archives of why they were taken. Morse, for his part, doesn’t remember making them (“I have no idea who that guy is,” Morse told LIFE.com when shown a few of the photos before his passing in 2014.) The photos might have been part of an impromptu photo shoot perhaps at the Time & Life Building in New York, or maybe backstage at a concert. Perhaps the pictures of the flamboyant performer were never meant to appear at all.
What’s certain is that, four decades after they were made, these portraits of the Macon, Ga., native (he was born Richard Wayne Penniman on Dec. 5, 1932) capture at least a small part of the unnerving, unhinged charisma of the man many credit as the true originator of rock and roll. Little Richard, who died on May 9 at age 87, was the first true, living, breathing, screaming bridge between R&B and rock. Legions–Keith Richards, John Lennon and so many others—were inspired and influenced by him. An ordained minister whose immediate and extended family is strongly evangelical, Penniman also preached the Gospel to small rural congregations and to stadium-sized audiences of thousands.
By the time Morse made the pictures in this gallery, with Rock-n-Roll ascendent, Little Richard was more likely to thrill those who came to his concerts, then to shock them,. And right to the end of his performing life—he delivered Tutti Frutti to a Las Vegas crowd in 2013—his signature, wild-eyed polysexual look was still something to behold.