|Track||Album / Single|
|Directly From My Heart To You||Peacock 5-1658|
|Tutti Frutti||Here's Little Richard|
|All Around The World||Little Richard|
|Send Me Some Lovin'||Little Richard|
|He Got What He Wanted|
(But He Lost What He Had)
|I Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me||Vee-Jay VJ 698|
|Goodnight Irene||Vee-Jay VJ 612|
|Get Down With It||Columbia DB 8116|
|I Saw Her Standing There||The Rill Thing|
|I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry||King Of Rock & Roll|
|Dancing In The Street||King Of Rock & Roll|
Contributor: Dave Stephens
I want you all to know that I’m here tonight
And I’ve been talking about love for a long time
Because, honey, I’m the man that started it all
The emancipator of Soul
And the King of Rock and Roll
From Macon, Georgia
Not a lot of false modesty there.
If, like me, you think that rock and roll was the thing that emerged when a number of outrageous talents, often with outrageous personalities, who just happened to be around at roughly the same time, put their individual spin on the jump blues music that was happening in the black ghettoes of North American cities, then you’d probably not challenge my statement that Richard Wayne Penniman was the most outrageous one of the whole bunch. Indeed I’d almost be inclined to call him the special one, if that title hadn’t already been used.
If you’ve not played the above clip, I should inform you that that introduction, which lasts for two minutes plus and also includes the splendid line “the beauty is on duty”, comes from a song, Joy To The World, which appeared on Richard’s 1971 album, King Of Rock And Roll. Mr Penniman had not had a US Top Fifty hit since 1958, and his last charting single, I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me, had just squeaked in at #92 in 1965. But had his confidence been affected in any way? Apparently not. The self-styled Georgia Peach was still the King (and Queen).
THE LITTLE RICHARD STORY
He was born in Macon, Georgia – as he’s always been happy to inform us – in 1932, and was heavily involved in the full Southern gospel experience from his early years. However, he was also drawn to the more secular form of performing featuring his growing skills on boogie piano. In 1951, he signed with the RCA Camden label, and his first record, Taxi Blues c/w Every Hour was released. It wasn’t revolutionary but was certainly highly professional. Take a listen:
It’s a good jump blues with a polished band and Richard sounding like an amalgam of many of the singers who were around at the time – Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Charles Brown and so on – without being a direct copy of anyone. He’s not quite as relaxed as any of those names but there’s a surprising degree of richness and smoothness present, on top of which he casually chucks in some fluid melisma. All in all, an excellent debut but a million miles from the hit records which we’re all familiar with.
It’s worth adding that if Richard was attempting to emulate anyone it’s likely to have been Billy Wright who was influential in getting him the recording session (see Footnotes). To these ears Richard wasn’t far off Wright’s level of delivery, with some faint hints of the glories to come from that voice starting to show through. A listen to the flip, Every Hour, is also recommended.
There were further releases on RCA Camden and then Richard moved to Peacock. Apparently at the suggestion of New Orleans artist Lloyd Price, Richard then put together a demo tape and sent it to Art Rupe, head of Specialty Records of Los Angeles, who bought out his Peacock contract and put him to work with producer Bumps Blackwell. Rupe envisaged Richard as a Ray Charles type of recording artist, strongly influenced by gospel music (which he undoubtedly was). At that time Charles, having found his feet on the Atlantic label was starting to shift a lot of records in the R&B sector (though white audiences wouldn’t get to hear him for another year or two).
It didn’t quite work out that way. Blackwell and Penniman did come up with something after a number of failed attempts, and that something – see later – was Tutti Frutti, one of the most remarkable records ever, and the start of a quite wonderful series of singles.
But it wasn’t to last.
On his two week tour of Australia in October ’57, Richard found religion in a big way. A rocky flight from Melbourne to Sydney, plus a vision in the sky (which we were later told was Sputnik 1, the first satellite), shook him to his very bones. He renounced his wicked ways, threw his $8,000 ring into Sydney Harbour (see Footnote 23), and left on a ferry – the plane he was originally scheduled to leave on apparently crashed into the Pacific!
Richard’s religious phase lasted roughly six years with some interruptions (for more detail see later). He recorded several gospel albums plus some singles, first for George Goldner’s End label and then Mercury Records, and finally Atlantic. His return to secular music was also a return to Specialty, albeit briefly. A brief period at the label yielded a #20 hit for our man in the UK, Bama Lama Bama Loo.
In the second half of the sixties, following Specialty, Richard went through labels at a rate of knots – Vee-Jay, Modern, Okeh and then Brunswick. These sessions resulted in very little success commercially although that’s not to knock the quality of some of the records produced. 1970 saw him at Reprise where he stayed for three albums and a Top Fifty single, Freedom Blues.
Artistically that was about it for our hero. The retro rock and roll thing kicked off in the seventies and the Georgia Peach made sure he got his share of the action. Wikipedia, who deserve a lot of credit for their exhaustive article on Richard, devote many paragraphs to his “later years”. I’m not going to attempt to précis that information here since it’s effectively beyond the scope of this Toppermost.
THE SPECIALTY YEARS
Little Richard’s period at Specialty, from 1955 to 1957, produced a body of music, as important as, and probably more fun than, anything in fifties rock’n’roll. The two albums that were released at the time, Here’s Little Richard and Little Richard (later often rebadged as Little Richard Volume 2) contain music that was consistently on a par with the very best records from Presley, Berry, Domino and Lewis. With hindsight, and with knowledge of other tracks and ones that were then still ‘in the can’, you have to take your hat off to the compiler, presumably Rupe, who must have applied a ruthless and highly informed hand in sorting the wheat from the chaff. Some of the chaff did appear in the “post-conversion” The Fabulous Little Richard.
I could easily have plumped for a Top Ten from the Specialty time frame alone and probably few would have objected. However, having argued Our Esteemed Editor up to twelve selections, I have instead included what I consider to be some of the highlights post-Specialty, (a) because they give a better view of Richard’s capabilities – he was a lot more than a one trick pony – and (b) because I genuinely like the stuff. I don’t share the commonly held view that our man did nothing of note after he threw his toys into Sydney Harbour.
With that image of the Opera House on the right and the Harbour Bridge to the left, let me take you back to New Orleans …
Since Richard had told Art Rupe that he very much liked the Fats Domino sound, the Cosimo Matassa studio in New Orleans was booked for the first Specialty session together with musicians including Earl Palmer (drums) and Alvin “Red” Tyler and Lee Allen (both saxes) who regularly worked with Domino. The story goes that that first session didn’t go terribly well – some of the cuts can be found on the third Specialty album. Several of them were re-takes of earlier material from RCA and Peacock. Anyway, Richard and Bumps Blackwell took a break and went to a nearby café whereupon Richard went straight to the piano and commenced to perform a heavily X-rated song he’d written and been performing in the clubs called Tutti Frutti, purportedly in the style of Esquerita, a flamboyant performer who Richard had admired and knocked about with in his teens. Blackwell instantly recognised the potential and the pair of them went back to the studio, got the lyrics cleaned up, and produced a new version but one which still retained all of the energy of the performance complete with the a capella “A wop bop a loo bop, lop bam boom” intro. It was released in October 1955. Whether this was strictly what Art Rupe was looking for, who knows, but the public certainly liked it and Richard and Bumps were rewarded with a #2 entry in the R&B chart. The series of singles that followed, the majority of which were up-tempo with strong driving beat, a riffing sax section and Richard’s boogie piano well to the fore are included in the first and second albums from Specialty. The pattern of recording in New Orleans was generally followed though sometimes Specialty’s Hollywood studios were used. It’s probably a combination of the use of the Cosimo Matassa studio and musicians who regularly played there, plus Richard and Bumps’ liking for the New Orleans sound that has caused Richard to be usually grouped together with New Orleans artists even though his origins were in Georgia.
My second Specialty selection, Lucille, might be the first seriously riff driven rocker I’d actually heard up until then. Not only that, they had the audacity to run through the first chorus minus vocal thus ensuring that that sledgehammer sequence of notes was engraved on your brain before Richard appeared. He was fond of using the song as an opener and would delay his entrance until he felt the audience had been sufficiently warmed up. Have to confess that I briefly transferred my attentions to the Everly Brothers when their version came out in 1960; the slightly slower rendition of the riff plus the fact that it was taken by guitars rather than a piano/sax combination gave it a harder edge. And the boys keening voices were superb on the title line. However, I’m now firmly back in the Richard camp. He even manages to bend his voice up slightly on the title line while Don & Phil drop back the other way – they’re pleading but almost resigned while Richard is desperate cum joyful. He was always happy to embrace extremes.
In contrast to many of the Specialty tracks, All Around The World catches Richard in slightly more subdued manner (that’s relative of course) though he does let rip with a typical scream before the sax break. The arrangement features another neat riff which manages to follow after the vocal rather than compete with it. It also has a few more lyrics than usual – words were usually kept to a minimum on his Specialty rockers:
All the flat top cats
With their rock & roll queens
Just a rockin’ & rollin’
In their red and blue jeans
Two slowies from the Specialty era, Send Me Some Lovin’ and Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave, bear strong similarities to what we now call swamp pop music from Southern Louisiana and South East Texas, even though such music didn’t really break through to US national consciousness till slightly later in the decade. The arrangement on Send Me Some Lovin’ with its very distinctive riffing bears resemblance to that on the much more obscure, Your Picture, from Bobby Charles and the sessions were held in a very similar time frame. I did have a theory that the arrangement might have been passed along in the studio but that could be my imagination. Send Me Some Lovin’ is by far the stronger disc with Richard deploying his full battery of vocal effects. The storming middle eight in particular is a thing of wonder with Richard stretching that “feeeeeel” and the band coming to a mini-climax on the final line. There’s even a slight gulp resembling a sob in his voice in the stop time pause before he re-enters with the verse.
Can you send me your kisses?
I still feel their touch
I need you so badly,
I miss you so much
I discovered the Richard penned blues ballad Directly From My Heart To You on the third album, The Fabulous Little Richard, but I should add that my overall reaction, which I’ve never forgotten, was one of severe disappointment when I got home after purchase and lowered the stylus on the record. The bulk of the songs were from that first Specialty session in New Orleans prior to the Eureka moment of Tutti Frutti, plus some under-produced and/or abandoned takes from later sessions; in other words, and in my eyes at the time, filler, since the cupboard appeared to be bare. Consequently there was very little of the trademark Little Richard (Tutti Frutti) style on the whole album. My view on the set has changed over the years though the album does lack the sheer consistency of LPs one and two. It does have the following though:
– Kansas City performed in the cool style of the song’s writer, Little Willie Littlefield – the Beatles, reportedly, loved this track
– a near gospel Shake A Hand – this, maybe, was what Art Rupe was aiming at
– a couple of songs that could be labelled proto-soul or early soul, I’m Just A Lonely Guy and Directly From My Heart To You.
Which brings me back to that song. It had already been recorded for Peacock (who put it out after Tutti Frutti started flashing dollar signs) and was to be recorded at least once more, I haven’t kept track of the many re-recordings of Specialty songs. For more detailed discussion on Directly From My Heart To You, see the section headed ‘Soul Man’.
THE GAP YEARS
The immediate post-Specialty years weren’t totally bereft of record releases. For a start, Specialty themselves had a fair amount of material not released in single format so they just carried on releasing. Some of this was grade A stuff like Good Golly Miss Molly and Ooh! My Soul. The last to achieve any serious success was Kansas City which climbed to #26 in the UK.
From September ’59 onwards there were a number of gospel singles, initially on End and then Mercury. I’m not sure any of the former reached the UK but I did pick up an LP of some of this material from a discount shop sometime in the seventies. Here’s one of the more upbeat examples:
One of the Mercury singles that definitely did see release in the UK was He Got What He Wanted (But He Lost What He Had). It paired Richard with producer Bumps Blackwell again. The song was a bouncy affair, and Bumps gave it a fruity stomping brass arrangement. Richard strode above it all with what sounded very much like his Specialty vocal style. The UK public rewarded it with a Top Forty entry but US buyers weren’t listening.
Richard’s last couple of gospel singles were recorded for Atlantic. These included a version of Crying In The Chapel which, for me, was hardly gospel. It’s basically a pop song famed particularly for the 1953 early doo wop version from the Orioles. Richard affects a very restrained approach to the number – well for him anyway – and I guess you’d have to call it a successful attempt at a pop record, sweeping strings and all. That was something Richard hadn’t really done until then.
In 1960, Little Richard got back into the studios with his old support band, the Upsetters. In his absence they had continued as a unit, supporting Little Willie John, based in New York. According to him, Richard that is, he only recorded this session with the band in the hope of giving them a leg up in the business. Two singles were released but credited to The World Famous Upsetters not Little Richard. They didn’t see release until the tail end of 1962 and early ’63. We are also informed that there was enough material recorded for an album but whether it will ever surface is another matter. Of the sides issued, three were Domino covers and the fourth was an instrumental. I’m In Love Again was predictably a more manic updating of one of Fats’ more up tempo jumpers but for me it was the flip, Every Night About This Time, that was more of an eye/ear opener. The Domino original take on this slow to medium tempo blues could be classified as doleful and perhaps a little ponderous. The Richard version, once you got past the ridiculous sub-Chantilly Lace styled intro, was intense and agonised. If someone else had done it, it would have been labelled deep soul, or at the very least, soul blues.
The other Upsetters single had Domino’s Valley Of Tears as the A-side with an instrumental workout on the flip. The Richard version of Valley was once again heavier – if I can use that word – than Domino, and proto-soul in its intensity. It may or may not be coincidental that Little Willie John was a notable early soul artist (but under-appreciated by all bar a few).
The UK was more enthusiastic about Richard than folk in his own country and it was his first tour to this island in 1962 which started him back on the road to secular music (see Footnotes for more).
Richard’s return consisted of not one but a series of attempted comebacks, none of which was marked with great success until the early seventies when he adopted a very flash style with camp trimmings and took advantage of the return of interest in what was beginning to be labelled as retro music.
However, his first steps back on the secular path were taken for Specialty, who welcomed their hitmaker back in 1964 with, I guess, open arms. A session was laid on with other noted Specialty artists, Don and Dewey, filling the bass and guitar roles respectively. The five tracks that resulted, including the mini-hit Bama Lama Bama Loo, were an attempt to recreate the earlier Specialty sound, only with a guitar dominated band rather than the previous sax & brass outfit.
I’m not sure whether there was bad feeling between Little Richard and Specialty at this time – he filed a lawsuit against them in ’84 for lack of royalties – but he did move rather promptly to Vee-Jay later that same year. It is believed, though records are apparently inaccurate, that 46 tracks were recorded for the label. In Charles White’s book, there’s a very good sessionography which makes a valiant attempt to document the Vee-Jay sessions. Of particular interest is the fact that a young Jimi Hendrix joined the Upsetters at this time and the band, or some of the members, appeared on several of the sessions.
Vee-Jay releases continued the confusion. In part, this is due to the label going bust in 1966. Approximately half the recorded tracks appeared on two Vee-Jay albums, Little Richard Is Back (And There’s A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On) and Little Richard’s Greatest Hits, plus several singles. Other tracks belatedly appeared, sometimes singly, on albums from a variety of labels post the Vee-Jay implosion. I should note that much of this info comes from Wikipedia, which as noted elsewhere, do a splendid job on Mr Penniman, particularly on his recording career.
Notwithstanding the last couple of paragraphs, there was some good music produced during Richard’s stay at Vee-Jay and it’s worth digging out.
Best of the bunch was the two-parter single I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me, written by Don Covay. I was guilty of attaching some weasel adjectives like ‘proto’ and ‘early’ to ‘soul’ when describing some of Richard’s earlier records like Directly From My Heart and Every Night About This Time. I have no such inhibitions on this one. This was soul according to the template laid down by King Solomon Burke at Atlantic, and it was very good indeed, complete with one of those gospel style semi rap monologues that was right up Richard’s street.
Modern Records of Los Angeles followed Vee-Jay on Richard’s Grand Tour. Five singles resulted, the first of which was Holy Mackerel c/w Baby, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me. The flip, which was the more interesting of the pairing, was a re-recording of a song that Richard cut in his first pair of sessions for Specialty on September 13th and 14th, 1955. That record may or may not have been a lift from a Billy Wright unreleased single from that same year – and I’m inclined to the “may” rather than “may not” since Richard was likely to have been very familiar with his idol’s material. In Wright’s hands it was a medium tempo shuffle style blues with good guitar from Texan, Roy Gaines. The Richard Modern makeover gave us a Sam & Dave style soul stomper complete with Memphis horns soundalikes:
The third Modern single was yet another version of Directly From My Heart To You. This was the third version and arguably the best so far, but they were all good – Richard so evidently loved this number. Another comparison is called for. First the Peacock (pre-Specialty) take using the Johnny Otis Band including a splendid pianist (probably not Richard – a lady called Devonia Williams is listed in the session details) plus a lazily wailing guitar man:
This is the Specialty take wherein the tempo has been upped but not by too much and a female chorus has been overdubbed a la Raelettes. Remember that Art Rupe was looking for a Ray Charles.
Here’s the Modern take on which the tempo has dropped back again almost as if the Peacock version was used as the base. The backing is more restrained but with occasional touches of emphasis from the horns. It’s a more conventional soul styling placing the focus on the intensity of vocal delivery:
Have to confess that I like all three of those and don’t have too strong a preference as to which one is listed as my selection.
Last but by no means least, this is the Frank Zappa/Mothers Of Invention version from the 1970 album Weasels Ripped My Flesh and that’s Richard’s erstwhile sparring partner, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, on lead vocal and excellent anguished violin:
In among the other Modern singles were versions of Jimmy Reed’s Baby What You Want Me To Do, slowed down and burning, plus Sam Cooke’s Bring It Back Home To Me (and yes it was the same song), both worth a listen.
Little Richard only stayed for a couple of months or so at Modern before it was all change again, and he was off to Okeh Records. Much of his work for the label came under the supervision of Larry Williams with assistance from Johnny “Guitar” Watson. The results were good and more consistently soul oriented than hitherto, including a Land Of A Thousand Dances which wiped the floor with the Wicked Pickett, and a new song (written by Williams) called The Commandments Of Love which seemed to owe a debt to, and undoubtedly compete with, the Amazing James Brown. I was torn between two records to represent this period. The first of these was the slightly Motown-oriented dancer I Don’t Want To Discuss It, which at the very least warrants a listen. There’s not such a heavy Richard footprint on this as on some but it would seem to have captured the coming funk vibe. Pity it didn’t sell.
The second of the pair was Get Down With It which has to be one of the very best rock’n’roll records from the mid to late sixties. I say rock’n’roll but it was rock that took on board the soul music breakthrough. This one’s very definitely Richard and he makes excellent usage of the stop time breaks in the song, jam-packing them with a tumbling waterfall of verbiage. It was produced in the UK by Norman “Hurricane” Smith, a name more usually associated with the Floyd. Both this single and I Don’t Want To Discuss It found favour with UK Northern Soul fans.
The whirlwind tour continued with a short stop at Brunswick which resulted in three singles released in late ’67 and ’68. All were in the soul cum funk category and the words “pleasant but not remarkable” describe them fairly well.
THE RILL THING AT REPRISE
1970 found Richard starting to recapture some of his former glory on stage, and with a new record contract at Reprise. All three of his albums recorded for the label make direct or indirect allusion to the comeback in their titles – The Rill Thing, King Of Rock And Roll, The Second Coming.
The Rill Thing yielded a couple of singles, Freedom Blues and Greenwood Mississippi, which actually saw some low-end US Chart action. However, my preference from this set is for the early Beatles cover, I Saw Her Standing There. Imagine the Fab Four in the Stax Studios with a full complement of Memphis Horns plus Penniman guesting on the “Ooh’s” and you’d be part way there. Mind you, you’d still be missing the sheer joie de vivre which Richard imparts to the song.
And it came to pass that, in the year of rock and superstars, King Richard returned from exile to claim his throne …
That’s how King Of Rock And Roll started. In fact the opener, which was very much an attempted rehash of the Specialty sound, was one of the album’s least interesting numbers but it wasn’t a good guide to the content. Over half the songs on the set were covers, albeit some, like the two Hank Williams ones and Midnight Special, not exactly contemporary. They’re all great; Richard really throws himself into them and the arrangements manage to throw a fresh light on what could have been rather corny filler material. My highlight is I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry performed in restrained seventies soul style with some latin colouration – it’s possibly the most distinctive version of the song ever, a million miles from Hank, and indeed, most of the many cover versions.
Coming up a close second from this album has to be the congas-to-the-fore take on Dancing In The Street, all five and a half minutes of it. Richard’s performance makes mincemeat of that version done by Bowie and Jagger at the Live Aid Concert. And he manages to rhyme “shakin'” with “Macon”! It’s one of those records where you can strongly visualise the stage performance, booty shaking and all, probably with Richard throwing his shirt from the stage half way through.
Richard’s third Reprise album didn’t disappoint but, for me, didn’t match the versatility displayed on the second. Much of it was seventies funk but with a couple of tracks included to keep the retro fans happy.
I get the impression that, by this stage in his career, he was not too unhappy to let recording continue as a background activity. He was getting plenty of recognition for his concert work, making television appearances and even guesting on other artists’ records.
This wasn’t quite the last word from Little Richard in terms of quality soul music though. In May ’73 he recorded two sides for the highly obscure Greene Mountain Record Company owned by the equally obscure soul singer, Charles Greene. The songs were In The Middle Of The Night and Where Will I Find A Place To Sleep This Evening – both were written by Jimmy Holiday, the last named in conjunction with Eddie Reeves. They formed the A- and B-side of a single released that month. And I’m happy to report that both sides were good, with the A-side, in particular consisting of a very gospel oriented slab of deep soul. This one very nearly made my list, it was so good.
Much like Presley in his early days and Lewis throughout his career, Richard recorded a lot of cover versions of other artists’ songs, due mainly to the fact that he wrote relatively few himself. Many of these versions weren’t strictly covers in that the originals often weren’t contemporaneous so there wasn’t a question of Richard “stealing” sales from another performer. I have highlighted some such records as I’ve gone along but there were plenty more. These are just a few of them in roughly chronological order.
Baby Face and By The Light Of The Silvery Moon, both real oldies, were recorded for Specialty, just over a year after Richard signed with them. I’d hazard a guess that Blackwell and/or Rupe were very deliberately attempting to widen Richard’s range in case interest in his straight ahead rockers started to pall. This was something that Fats Domino did throughout his career and Richard and team tended to keep a weather eye on the little fat man. Whatever, neither track toned down the Richard approach at all; both were triumphs and justly stand alongside his other Specialty classics. It’s worth noting that Bobby Darin also made a version of Baby Face a few years later and it’s unlikely that he wouldn’t have heard the Richard take.
The Vee-Jay stint featured Richard “covering” several fifties rockers and he invariably acquitted himself well. I’d draw the reader’s attention to the Richard version of Lawdy Miss Clawdy which makes the original from Lloyd Price sound relatively laid back. Richard is alternately excited and indignant at his lady’s behaviour and he doesn’t refrain from telling us so in no uncertain manner. His piano is particularly prominent. It was Domino who played this role on the original – those Domino connections keep coming. Hendrix is believed to have been on the Richard record but whether that’s him on the busy break we can’t be sure – there was another guitarist at the session.
Jimi is also reported to have been present at the recording of Goodnight Irene and that intro could well be him. The song is taken as a kind of lolloping waltz time shuffle, if that’s not too many words. There’s a femme chorus who switch between quite abrasive yeahs and singalong. Curious. I suspect this could be one you either love or loathe. If so I’m definitely in the former category. As it happens, Jerry Lee had plopped an equally good version of the Leadbelly classic on his first LP.
Still at Vee-Jay, but in a totally different style, here’s Richard on the Clyde McPhatter ballad, Without Love, a song which has also been covered by Elvis, Ray Charles and the Welsh Wonder.
During his spell at Okeh, Richard took on one of Domino’s lesser known numbers, Rosemary (sometimes spelt as Rose Mary and one I’ve always been partial too), again with good results. I’ll leave the reader to search this one out since I’m at risk of over-cluttering with clips.
On the first Reprise album Richard essayed Hank’s Lovesick Blues and pulled it off rather well in my opinion. Reprise themselves were presumably happy with the results since they gave Richard two Williams songs on the follow-up album. Unfortunately it’s not on YT so, no clip. That second Reprise set also contained an excellent Midnight Special featuring our man making “Woo Woo” train noises.
I think Joe Turner himself might have liked that. The album also contained versions of Brown Sugar on which Richard enjoyed himself but the backing came up short against the Stones’ drive, plus a take on Born On The Bayou which wasn’t lacking in any sense, and it had one of those patented Richard intros.
Fast forward a few years, to 1988 in fact, and a Richard track appeared on a tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly entitled A Vision Shared. The track was Rock Island Line. Take that Donegan!
Facetious remarks aside, I see several of these tracks as evidence that Little Richard both knew and loved both White and Black American roots music. My final selection also comes from a tribute, this time to one of Richard’s contemporaries, Johnny Cash, and, my, does Richard do him proud. This one was recorded in 2002 when Richard was 70. Get rhythm…
… and COVERS OF RICHARD
Anyone expecting a whole load of clips of cover versions of Richard’s records is going to be disappointed. While white rockers virtually queued up to record the man’s songs, and I mean the big names not just anyone – Presley, Vincent, Lewis, Burnette, Holly etc. – hardly any of them added anything of great significance. What they did illustrate was the uniqueness, magic even, of Richard’s originals.
That said, I’ve already made mention of the Zappa/Mothers’ Directly From My Heart and the Everly’s Lucille. There’s another Everly’s version I’d draw attention to. Their take on Keep A Knockin’ which was tucked away on the debut album has to be heard to be believed. The song itself was actually an oldie dating back to 1928 and a gent called James “Boodle It” Wiggins. There were subsequent versions from western swing star Milton Brown and early jump blues hero Louis Jordan. The Richard version, (for which he claimed composer’s credit) managed to simplify the melody line and inject a hefty rock beat at the same time. The Everly Brothers’ cut certainly uses the Richard one as its base model rather than any of its forebears but does introduce a new riff in the process not to mention some delicious piano/guitar interplay. In essence this is country rock before anyone had put those two words together:
En passant, it’s worth noting that Send Me Some Lovin’ has been covered by Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke and Otis Redding (amongst others), an illustration of its appeal to soul performers.
For many, and that includes some critics, Little Richard is seen as little more than a purveyor of novelty rockers for a brief, if glorious, period in the mid to late fifties. Arguably, Richard didn’t help himself in later days by his overtly camp live performances which (a) put more focus on the glitz than the music, and (b) concentrated almost exclusively on that short hit producing period.
To such people I’d say:
1. Richard’s records from his pre-Specialty days show a mastery of the then dominant form of black music, jump blues that’s up there with the recognised names of the genre like Amos Milburn and Wynonie Harris. I only included one example but others like Ain’t Nothin’ Happenin’ and I Brought It All On Myself are strong evidence in support of this point. If rock and roll had not emerged – and remember that Richard himself helped bring that about – then he could have had a respectable career as a blues man.
2. In that same time frame, 1951 to 1954, Richard cut a few tracks that are usually termed blues ballads, a precursor to soul blues. Most well known of these is Directly From My Heart To You, but Thinkin’ Bout My Mother, the flipside to an earlier single, from ’52, was also very much in this style, with a higher emotional content than most blues of the period. Given the date and the performance, Richard has as much right to be considered a pioneer of soul music as any of the more obvious names.
3. Those Specialty rockers were by no means flash in the pan and there were virtually no throwaways on the single releases; instead a quite remarkable level of consistency was achieved. The lyrical content may not have been strong but the whole focus was on the sound, which managed to be so much more in-your-face than anything that had been previously heard, and that includes anything from the rockers who were just starting to emerge, mainly Haley and Turner. And Richard and Bumps Blackwell worked hard at creating that sound. It didn’t just happen. Virtually every established artist who was a youngster at this time, has put on record words to the affect that his/her perception of Richard’s records was of them being more exciting and dangerous than anything he or she had heard before.
I know I’ve spent a lot of this article on the work that Richard did for labels other than Specialty but the lack of balance is present since that work is virtually unknown in comparison to the ubiquity of the Richard hits. I’d recommend a proper visit to those hits rather than treating them as a form of aural wallpaper. I’m well aware that I could be facing criticism for not including Long Tall Sally (bald-headed ????), Rip It Up (shag on down by the union hall), Heeby-Jeebies, The Girl Can’t Help It, Ready Teddy, She’s Got It (or the first person singular cut which might have aligned better with the Richard persona), Keep A Knockin’, Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey, Slippin’ And Slidin’, Ooh! My Soul, and more.
4. When Richard returned from the ministry circa ’64, the soul music revolution had already happened. Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Solomon Burke had hit the pop charts and were on their way to becoming household names. Richard made some soul records which ranged from good to excellent, but they got lost due to poor marketing plus unavoidable happenings like Vee-Jay going bust. By the time Richard had gotten on to an even keel with Reprise, sixties soul as we knew it had largely faded away to be replaced by funk and disco. Richard did his bit to meet the changing public requirement but his heart was increasingly drawn to performance where he was able to gain some satisfaction and love maybe, from an audience attempting to relive the fifties.
To be brutal I wouldn’t put Richard up there with the recognised soul giants because of the relative scarcity of classic records in this style from him. As I’ve stated he made a few very very good soul records but received minimal response so it’s hardly surprising that he didn’t go on to make more.
“… in contrast to Domino’s cool style, Little Richard was intensely involved in everything he sang, exhilarating his audiences with a frantic, sometimes hysterical performance which was distinguished by pure-voiced swoops and whoops out of a raucous shouting style.” Charlie Gillett in “The Sound Of The City”
“… the only one who disrupted an era … the one who broke rules, created a form … he is the rock, the jive bomber, the savant.” Greil Marcus in the Prologue to “Mystery Train”
“Listening now to Little Richard, to Elvis, to Jerry Lee Lewis, the Monotones, the Drifters, Chuck Berry and dozens of others, I feel a sense of awe at how fine their music was. I can only marvel at their arrogance, their humor, their delight. They were so sure of themselves.” Greil Marcus again from that same Prologue
“This was pure rock and roll: lewd, feral, prophetically fast, prophetically funky, and beset by the identity confusion of a man who never did figure out whether he was gay.” Robert Christgau in his review of Get Down With It: The Okeh Sessions (but in reference to Richard’s Specialty records)
“Maybe what stands out most of all for me, though, is Little Richard’s epic “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me).” As Joe wrote on the final page of the book, it is “arguably the greatest soul ballad of all time. The Mt Rushmore of soul.” And it is. I can remember seeing Richard with Jimi Hendrix on guitar at the Donnelly Theater in Boston in May of 1965 around the time he recorded the song. (I ushered the show!) He didn’t sing “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got” that night. His showstopper was “Shake a Hand,” on which he left the mike and came to the edge of the stage, projecting his voice effortlessly without amplification and imploring the audience to join him. Which, without hesitating for a second, they very soulfully did.” Peter Guralnick from the blog “A Word From Mr C: Lost Soul”
“The first 45 I ever played was by Little Richard; even today I listen to Little Richard.” Ry Cooder as quoted in the Charles White book, “The Life And Times Of Little Richard”
“He did a number way back called “Directly From My Heart To You” which was the personification of soul, and he had one out – I heard it in L.A. a lot – called “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me”. Yes, sir. Little Richard has done a lot for me and my soul brothers in the music business.” Otis Redding in 1966 as quoted in the Charles White book, “The Life And Times Of Little Richard”
“I can listen to Little Richard forever.” Lou Reed in Mojo 242
“I’m here to sing” Little Richard
1.The song Joy To The World as sung by Richard on King Of Rock And Roll was not the Christmas Carol of that name. It was written by Hoyt Axton and Three Dog Night had a hit with it in 1971. Consequently, when Richard recorded the song it was a contemporary number. According to Wiki it is played at the end of every Denver Broncos home victory. (By “it” I assume they mean the Three Dog Night version.)
2. “I was born in Macon, Georgia” just happens to be the first line of the song I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water which has been recorded by a number of artists including Charlie Rich and Elvis. To the best of my knowledge, Richard has not recorded the song.
3. Two major early influences on Little Richard were Sister Rosetta Tharpe who was one of the earliest popularisers of black gospel music to a non-gospel audience, as well as being a pioneer on electric guitar, and Billy Wright, a now forgotten jump blues vocalist and band leader. Like Richard, Wright had also performed as a female impersonator in his youth. However, the success of his debut record in the R&B Chart in 1949 meant he could put such things behind him. It was to be the first of a short run of hits over the next few years. This was the record:
It was Billy Wright who put Richard in touch with a disk jockey at radio station WGST in Atlanta, which resulted in Richard’s first single being recorded at the WGST Studio, with Wright’s usual session men backing him. This was a relatively common way for records to be created in those days.
Billy Wright was also influential on Richard in terms of hair styling – check out a photo of the man with his pompadour.
4. Robert “Bumps” Blackwell led a jazz group in the forties before accepting an offer from Art Rupe of Specialty to be an arranger & producer. He produced all of Richard’s Specialty records in the man’s first incarnation there plus several later ones like the Mercury gospel records plus some of the Reprise material. He has also been an on/off manager of Richard. A notable other early success for Blackwell was You Send Me by Sam Cooke.
5. Esquerita, whose full name was Eskew Reeder Jr. (though he also claimed to be called Stephen Quincy Reeder), was a highly camp R&B singer and pianist with claims to have influenced Little Richard. In the Charles White book, Richard does state that Esquerita taught him how to play piano. Certainly Esquerita’s records do sound like Specialty-era Richard but it should be noted that such records were only created from 1958 onwards i.e. post Richard’s “Tutti Frutti series” at Specialty. Here’s an example:
6. There’s a positive plethora of songs with the title All Around The World. For a brief period I suffered under the delusion that the Richard song of that name was the same one recorded by Little Willie John and written by Titus Turner. It’s not. The Richard song was written jointly by Bumps Blackwell and a fairly obscure New Orleans R&B artist, L’il Millet. Millet himself didn’t record the song at the time but his demo version was made available in 1993 (source Wiki).
7. Early on in the Specialty phase Richard put together a support band he called the Upsetters. They didn’t record with him for Specialty but did appear on Vee-Jay releases. They also had some singles released under their own name quite apart from the pair that Richard “appeared” on.
8. Little Richard went through a lot of record labels in a relatively short time frame. Too many to cover in any detail but I’ll touch on some of the more interesting ones. Specialty in Los Angeles has to be top of the list. It was formed by Art(hur) Rupe in 1946. Initially, the label name was Jukebox records but was subsequently renamed by Rupe when he parted from a couple of his original partners. Much of the early output from the label was gospel but they moved more into blues and R&B, sometimes with a gospel flavour. A significant amount of recording for the label was done in New Orleans often in Cosimo Matassa’s studio. Apart from Richard, key artists for Specialty included Lloyd Price, Larry Williams, Don and Dewey, Guitar Slim, John Lee Hooker (whose work appears on many labels), Joe and Jimmy Liggins, Percy Mayfield and Frankie Lee Sims, plus Sam Cooke during his early gospel period with the Soul Stirrers.
9. The first post-war major independent label to appear in LA was Modern Records, formed in 1945 by the Bihari brothers, Joe, Jules and Saul. They had several subsidiaries of which the most well known were RPM and Crown. They were one of the first into the growing R&B sector and released records from a wide variety of blues artists including Howlin’ Wolf (whose records were produced at Sun but leased to Modern), B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and many more. In the 1960s they went bankrupt but their catalogue was managed under the name of Kent Records. The catalogue was leased and then eventually sold to the Ace (UK) label.
10. Don Robey was the first black owner of a record label. He founded Peacock Records in 1949. Their output was largely blues, R&B, and later, soul. Robey took over the then Memphis based Duke Records and rebased them in Houston. The deal included existing Duke artists like Bobby Bland and Junior Parker. During his brief period with Peacock, Richard was continually having rows with Robey who was very much a man for having things his way (and a notorious rogue in an industry of rogues). At one time there was a fight between Richard and Robey which resulted in the former being bundled to the floor – Robey was physically a big man.
11. Vee-Jay Records – sometimes spelt with the hyphen, sometimes without – was formed in 1953 by black husband and wife team, James Bracken and Vivian Carter – hence the VJ. They started out in Gary, Indiana but then moved to Chicago where they competed with Chess Records. They overlapped heavily in genre terms with Chess, covering blues, R&B and soul music. They went bust in 1966 but had been suffering severe cash flow problems in the years before.
12. Okeh Records (or OKeh Records) was set up by Otto Heinemann in 1916 but was taken over by Columbia in 1926. It was used by the latter specifically to target the growing R&B market.
13. George Goldner was a New York based record label owner, record producer and promoter. He was a significant mover and shaker in the early promotion of rock and roll and particularly doo wop. Unlike others from that era like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Goldner had always been a rather shadowy figure. He died in 1970.
14. Although Little Richard’s popularity was on the wane in the US in the early sixties there was still interest in the UK. Don Arden, the music impresario, approached Richard with a view to promoting a UK tour. This was after some success with other rockers of his generation like Jerry Lee Lewis. Richard agreed, assuming this was to be a gospel tour. He commenced rehearsing with the sixteen-year-old organ prodigy, Billy Preston. The tour commenced in Doncaster on 8th October 1962. Sam Cooke (an ex gospel singer) was the joint headliner but didn’t turn up in time for the first house. Richard and Preston went on and Richard sang the prepared gospel songs but he received a cool reaction and it was clear immediately that the audience wanted his rock and roll hits. Between first and second house two things happened. Sam Cooke arrived and Arden pleaded with Richard to sing his hits. For the second house Sam Cooke performed his hits and received a good reaction which was duly noted by Richard. He came on for his set in an all white suit and launched into Long Tall Sally. Needless to say, the crowd went wild as hit followed hit to rapturous applause. The gospel material was totally dropped. The backing band was the UK’s Sounds Incorporated whose multi-sax line up was well suited to the Penniman/Blackwell sound. Also, meant to be on the bill was Gene Vincent who hadn’t managed to obtain a UK work permit so was prevented from singing on stage. On the show I saw at the Woolwich Odeon, Vincent sang (dramatically) Be Bop A Lula from the top of the steps at stage right, bathed in a spotlight. The reception Richard received was echoed throughout the UK. In Mansfield, Richard introduced his dying act where, after singing perched on top of the grand piano, he fell rigid to the stage and the band stuttered to a halt. After milking this for some time with one of the band calling for a doctor, Richard leaped up and steamed into Tutti Frutti with that familiar intro.
Another astute UK promoter and manager, Brian Epstein, got in on the act by having two dates added to the end of the tour, with his act, the Beatles, as main support group to Richard plus other Mersey bands lower down the bill.
On Little Richard’s return to the US he tried to get back into his religious lifestyle but less whole-heartedly than before. He hung around with Sam Cooke and his manager and became jealous of the attention Cooke was getting. Don Arden approached him regarding a second tour of the UK, which invitation he accepted. This one went ahead with the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Mickie Most, who was a performer in those days, and the rather raw Rolling Stones as support. I was lucky enough to see this one as well. At the end of the tour a TV show was filmed by Granada in Manchester of Richard with Sounds Incorporated as his backing band. The show was aired in May 1964. Plenty of videos from this can be seen on YouTube and they‘re well worth watching.
15. Don (Harris) and Dewey (Terry) were a black rock duo from Pasadena, California. In addition to their singing, both played instruments. They signed for Specialty in 1957 and had minor hits with Leavin’ It All Up To You (later covered by Dale & Grace), Justine and Farmer John. The last named was covered by the Premiers, a garage band, who had a one-off hit with it. Don Harris had a later career using the name “Sugarcane” Harris playing electric violin with Frank Zappa and others.
16. The production of the Vee-Jay album Little Richard’s Greatest Hits, a re-recording of his best known numbers, was unfortunately an exercise that was to be repeated at so many of the labels he went to. I can only assume it was done in the hope that the public would buy such a record in the belief they were buying the original (and presumably wouldn’t have known the originals well if they were that easily fooled). To most sane people the exercise would seem both pointless due to the unlikelihood of reaching the quality/atmosphere/class of the originals, and arguably mendacious as well.
17. Larry Williams, originally marketed as a Little Richard clone, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson who started as a blues man, were working together with some success in the mid sixties as a soul duo. They visited the UK back then where Williams was expected (and did) reprise his rock and roll hits.
18. The paragraph on Richard’s Greene Mountain Company warrants a little unravelling. The company itself appears to have issued records – seven, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain – from 1972 to 1973. Apart from Richard, the only name I recognise among the releases is John Walker (yes, the one from the Walker Brothers) whose solitary single was produced by one Bill Wyman. Charles Greene himself released one single (that I could find) on the Louisiana based Anla label, a subsidiary of Goldband. Only the B-side, Baby Oh Baby, is on YouTube but it’s very nice indeed; deep soul from a pretty beefy voice.
Jimmy Holiday, the writer of both sides of the Richard single, operated as a vocalist and appeared on records from ’58 through to ’74. His best known single, which hit the #57 spot in the US National Chart, was How Can I Forget:
The reader might know the song better from the Ben E. King version.
19. The fact that Richard recorded Lawdy Miss Clawdy for Vee-Jay after he left Specialty is something of an irony. The original version of the song from Lloyd Price was recorded for Specialty in ’52 and its success in reaching the national pop chart was largely responsible for the label becoming a viable financial entity.
20. There’s also an irony in the fact that Otis Redding and Joe Tex, two of the soul stars who came to fame in the early to mid sixties i.e. during Richard’s religious sabbatical, started out with styles that owed a tremendous amount to Richard’s Specialty period.
21. Keep A Knockin’ wasn’t the only rock song remodelled by the Everly Brothers on their debut LP. Be Bop A Lula was transformed from a slow tense thumper with Vincent getting more and more randy as it progresses, to a cool-as-a-mountain-stream country charmer, and amazingly it worked.
22. Oh, and for non football fans I should explain that “the special one” refers to manager José Mourinho. It’s a term much favoured by the press but was initially used by Mourinho about himself (as in “I’m a special one”). I suspect if Mr Penniman was aware of this he might well have used it about himself too.
23. After David Lewis’ comment regarding the Richard ring throwing affair in the Sydney area on his ’57 Australia Tour which most accounts state was in Sydney Harbour, I’ve looked more deeply into the episode. I’ve found three accounts, and there could be more, that state it was in the Hunter River near Sydney. The excerpt below from this webpage seemed pretty authoritative:
“The Soviet Union had just launched the Sputnik satellite and, as it passed over Australia, Little Richard underwent a powerful religious experience, an apocalyptic vision of his own damnation. During a domestic flight he became convinced that the aeroplane was on fire, panicked and began to pray. On October 11 1957, while crossing the Hunter River on the Stockton ferry on their way from Williamtown airport to a concert in Newcastle, he threw four diamond rings into the water as a gesture of his faith, witnessed by members of (Johnny) O’Keefe’s band. Sensing that the end of the world was imminent, Little Richard cut his tour short, flew home to be baptised, took up bible studies in Alabama and was ordained a minister.”
Mr Penniman took on Mr Lewis’ most famous song in the Granada Studios, Manchester in ’64 – stick with it for the full six and a half minutes and turn the volume up:
“The Life And Times Of Little Richard: The Quasar Of Rock” by Charles White (first published 1984). The only book I’ve read on Richard and it’s very good, slightly less so on the music but it amply makes up for that in the solid flesh it puts on the Richard story. It’s told in monologue/anecdote form, primarily coming from Richard himself but we also hear from relatives, band members and many more. White himself nudges the story along in italics. The book also contains easily the best sessionography I’ve seen on Richard.
The early recordings on Peacock, including Directly From My Heart, are on Get Rich Quick: The Birth Of A Legend 1951-1954. Little Richard’s Specialty recordings are available on CD from Ace Records UK. I Don’t Know What You’ve Got and Goodnight Irene can be found on The Best of Little Richard – The Vee-Jay Years. Get Down With It is on the Get Down With It: The Okeh Sessions CD. King Of Rock and Roll: The Complete Reprise Sessions, a 3CD box set from Rhino Handmade comes at a hefty price. The Rill Thing/King Of Rock And Roll/The Second Coming are available on one CD.
Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX