This past weekend the music world lost three of its giants.
Music executive Andre Harrell, singer Betty Wright and the King of Rock & Roll, Little Richard, all passed away, shaking the music industry and leaving behind a rich legacy of culture, timeless music and Black excellence.
A Harlem native, Harrell burst onto the hip hop scene as one half of the 80s hip hop duo, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. In 1983, he teamed up with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, first acting as vice president and then as general manager of the label. In 1986, he left to start his own label, Uptown Records, which would go on to create a whole new genre of hip hop and be an integral part of bringing Hip Hop and R&B to the mainstream. Harrell was responsible for molding the careers of legendary acts like Heavy D & The Boyz, Al B. Sure, Teddy Riley, Guy and Jodeci, all before he brought on a young intern by the name of Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Combs would be fundamental in helping Harrell mold the careers of new acts like Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, Harrell eventually switching from boss to mentor after firing a young Combs so he could be free to establish Hip Hop the way he saw fit. Uptown eventually joined the MCA family and in the mid-90s, Harrell became CEO at Motown. Over the years, Harrell continued to be a springboard, helping to launch legendary careers through music and film, where he developed several projects including soundtracks for the hit 90s show New York Undercover and Halle Berry’s Strictly Business.
He would continue to be a mentor to so many throughout his career, a champion for Black excellence and an architect of culture. Harrell was currently the Vice Chairman at Combs’ Revolt Media & TV and executive producer of a mini series about Uptown Records scheduled to air on BET this year, according to the NY Post. The network said that it is committed to finish out the project about the life of Harrell. “We are mourning the loss of a cultural icon, Andre Harrell, a chief architect of the modern hip-hop and R&B sound. Andre was tremendously excited about sharing the origin story of Uptown Records, and its pivotal role in the urban music landscape. With his tragic passing, BET is committed to ensuring that the Uptown limited series event tells both the Uptown story and Andre’s story – that of the incredible music innovator, man and friend to so many,” network president Scott Mills said in a statement to Variety.
The iconic music executive was 59 years old.
Singer Betty Wright was the mother of Miami. The native made a name for herself in the 70’s, pivoting from a family gospel group to singing grown folks music as a young girl, Yahoo reports. Her 1971 single “Clean Up Woman” hit the charts when she was just 18 years old. She defied odds as a female R&B artist, starting her own label, Mrs B Records and publishing company Miami Spice. Wright won a Grammy in 1975 for her single “Where Is The Love,” racking up six-nominations throughout her lifetime.
She transitioned with the times, often mentoring and collabing with new artists. She served as a vocal coach on Diddy’s hit MTV show Making The Band, and has been sampled by so many artists including Mary J. Blige, Beyonce and Chance The Rapper, CNN reports. She recently collaborated with fellow Miami native DJ Khaled, lending her vocals on his 2016 album “Major Key.”
“I love you so much Betty Wright. You are an angel! You one of my realest friends I have! You are like a mom to me! You had my back from the very beginning! We made beautiful music together. Betty Wright is an icon and the mother of Miami! Betty Wright is legendary! God loves you! Long Live Betty Wright! I love you,” Khaled wrote in a tribute to the late soul singer.
The beloved singer was 66 years old.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman, Little Richard was one of 12 children born in Macon, Georgia. He started his career singing in churches, eventually performing at various clubs and winning a talent show that landed him a record deal with RCA in 1951. The first few years would prove to be an uphill battle as Little Richard struggled to make his music career work while working as a dish washer helping his family after his father’s murder. While washing dishes, he wrote his first hit, “Tutti Frutti,” which peaked on the charts, skyrocketing the flashy, high squealing singer into fame.
“When I first came along, I never heard any Rock & Roll. When I started singing [Rock & Roll], I sang it a long time before I presented it to the public because I was afraid they wouldn’t like it. I never heard nobody do it, and I was scared. Tutti Frutti really started the races being together. From the git-go, my music was accepted by whites,” Penniman told Rolling Stone in 1970.
He would go on to record a number of crossover hits, influencing the likes of James Brown, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley, who recorded several covers of his songs. His gaudy outfits, makeup and six inch high hair was unheard of during those times and fans everywhere clung to the androgyny of it all. While Chuck Berry is credited as the father of Rock & Roll, Little Richard is the king and you can see his style of dress, showmanship and singing re-created for years to come. “I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and that was it. I didn’t ever want to be anything else,” Elton John told Rolling Stone in 1973.
Little Richard went on to be one of the first inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 1993. He starred in a number of films as himself over the years, continuing to remind other generations why he was the magnificent one.
According to Rolling Stone, the founding father of Rock & Roll passed away from bone cancer.
The king of Rock & Roll was 87 years old.
We thank Andre Harrell, Betty Wright & Little Richard for their contributions to music and the culture. Our prayers and sincerest condolences are with their families and friends.
Photo Courtesy of Reuters, Entertainment Weekly, Ben Rose/WireImage for NARAS