He rocked to the east, he rocked to the west, he was the rock and roll piano impresario and legend we all loved best. On May 9, 2020, Rolling Stone reported that Little Richard, one of the founding fathers of American rock and roll as we know it, died of bone cancer at the age of 87.
While best remembered for earlier hits like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly”, he’s also perhaps equally remembered for his flamboyance as a performer. Additionally, he embraced gender-nonconformity and queerness, which laid the groundwork for groundbreaking musicians that came after, setting the course of rock and roll history for all of us.
Despite his decades-long career and his intermittent ability to talk about his queerness openly, it might surprise many that Little Richard was once married to a woman. So what’s the story behind his ex-wife? It’s a bit more complicated than you might think.
Little Richard's early years were fraught with conflict between religion and sexuality
Born Richard Wayne Penniman on Dec. 5, 1932, in Macon, Ga., per Rolling Stone, Little Richard’s oft-tempestuous struggle with his sexuality and his presentation when it came to his own expression of gender nonconformity continued to the very end.
As Billboard relayed, it’s apparent that his music and life are tightly interwoven with his battle to accept himself (for instance, per Billboard, even his hit “Tutti Frutti” was about a gay man before he revised it to the song we know and love today). Indeed, his flair for flamboyant androgyny set the stage for other rock icons, like David Bowie and Prince, to prosper: “his pompadours, androgynous makeup and glass-bead shirts — also set the standard for rock and roll showmanship,” wrote Rolling Stone of the foundational rock artist.
It’s true that as a queer person of color who came of age in mid-century America, the odds were considerably stacked against Little Richard when it came to his sexuality, his race, and upward mobility in the American social landscape. Compounding this was the musician’s deep relationship with Christianity — more specifically, within Baptist and Pentecostal churches, both of which have been historically and virulently homophobic — all of which ultimately created a lifelong conflict for the musician.
Little Richard almost quit music because of Sputnik and a religious revelation
A defining moment in his life — one which paved the way to Little Richard’s first and only marriage to a woman in 1959 — occurred in 1957, while the rocker was performing on a world tour in Sydney, Australia. As per Australia’s Daily Telegraph – in the words of Jerry Lee Lewis — Little Richard spied a “great ball of fire,” which became a religious revelation. In addition to the falling celestial body, the musician said he saw “angels” in the sky.
Though, in reality, the fiery ball was the newly-launched Russian satellite Sputnik, it did nothing to deter Little Richard, who was already growing tired of the rock and roll lifestyle, and was more apt to read pages of his Bible post-show than get up to any of his old hijinks (read: hyper-sexual activities, among which were orgies that would put Mick Jagger to shame).
After the sighting, according to the Daily Telegraph, there are reports that Little Richard “was on a ferry ‘leaving Sydney’, but another version says he was on the Stockton Ferry travelling to a show in Newcastle when he told his band he was quitting show business and threw thousands of dollars in gold rings into the river.” This marked the beginning of a “dark age” in which he left the music industry for years — a period that also included his only marriage. Instead, he pivoted to church-based gospel music, and even went so far as to study ministry at a biblical college in Alabama, according to Rolling Stone.
Little Richard's religion clashed more with his sexuality more often than not
In addition to his brief attempts to adhere to a heteronormative lifestyle, a teenage Little Richard was kicked out of his house by his father after it was discovered that the “Good Golly Miss Molly” singer participated in gender-nonconforming activities — such as wearing his mother’s clothes — and that he was attracted to members of the same sex, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Little Richard’s own take on his sexuality also seemed to evolve over the years. “I’ve been gay all my life and I know God is a God of love, not of hate,” the rock star said in a 1995 interview with Penthouse (via GQ). However, years later in a 2012 interview with GQ, Little Richard preferred to describe his sexual orientation as that of an “omnisexual.”
“We are all both male and female,” the pianist said, seemingly conflating both his sexual orientation and gender identity into a personal, catch-all term, “Sex to me is like a smörgåsbord. Whatever I feel like, I go for.”
Unfortunately, some of the last words he gave publicly on the matter of his queerness seemed to repudiate it entirely.”Anybody that comes in show business, they gon’ say you gay or straight,” he said in a 2017 interview on the Christian network Three Angels Broadcasting (via Billboard), in which he deemed queerness and the LGBTQ community “unnatural.”
“God made men, men and women, women,” he said during the segment. “You’ve got to live the way God wants you to live … he can save you.”
Little is known about Ernestine Campbell, Little Richard's ex-wife
His lifelong struggles with his understanding of religion in relation to his queerness created a maelstrom that set the stage for his marriage to his first and only wife. So who was she?
Unfortunately, very little is known about Ernestine Campbell, the woman who called Little Richard her husband for three or four years (reports tend to vary), wedding in 1959 and divorcing in the early 1960s. According to the U.K.’s Metro, Campbell cited “her husband’s sexuality as one of the reasons for the split.”
The only other tidbit about the only woman Little Richard ever married was that their home during their years together tended to be a party epicenter for celebrities, especially those who, like the couple, were people of color. According to the Los Angeles Times, the home Campbell and Little Richard shared in LA’s Lafayette Square neighborhood sold for $1.9 million in June 2019, a Spanish-revival manse nicknamed the “Tutti Frutti” house, whose litany of iconic guests once included James Brown, Jackie Williams, and Etta James.
Ernestine Campbell wasn't Little Richard's only female paramour
While Ernestine Campbell might have been the only person Little Richard ever married, she wasn’t his only cisgender female paramour. Dancer Lee Angel (real name Audrey Robinson) also dated the irresistible piano-playing hellion. On recalling her first meeting with Little Richard, who had an assistant approach her on the street to arrange the meeting, Angel recalled to LA Weekly in 2018: “I said, ‘Does he know I’m a girl?'” — a reference to the open secret of his sexuality.
“Curiosity kicked in, as usual, and I walked in that room, took one look at Richard, and we’re still close 68 years later,” she added. Though Angel and Richard were reportedly in a relationship for a time, their union seemed to veer more on the side of creative collaborators rather than romantic partners, and she left the musician for the opera-trained “I Put a Spell on You” crooner Screamin’ Jay Hawkins soon after.
Despite Little Richard’s lifelong battle with accepting his sexuality — or finding an equilibrium between faith, God, and the people he romantically longed for — music and our culture at large wouldn’t be the same without him, and will never be the same again.
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