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 in the first place. Morse, for his part, doesn’t remember making them (“I have no idea who that guy is,” Morse, who was 96 years old and still sharp as hell, told LIFE.com when shown a few of the photos before his passing in 2014. This suggests that 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 picture of the flamboyant performler were never meant to appear in the magazine 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, his backers argue, was the first true, living, breathing, screaming bridge between R&B and rock.
An ordained minister whose immediate and extended family is strongly evangelical, Penniman has 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, Little Richard’s ability to shock audiences had long since been surpassed by acts like Alice Cooper (good-natured vaudeville ghoul) and the Stooges (chaotically drug-addled Motor City lost boys). But decades after he became a star, his signature, wild-eyed polysexual look was still something to behold.