Little Richard| Here’s Little Richard (March 1957)
Rock and Roll / R&B 28:30
I admit that I am no shrinking violet. As those who know me (and they don’t have to know me particularly well) will be able to tell you that performing is not something I would ever shy away from. There is a joy to being on the stage in front of others. I have a certain self-confidence that replaces any fear of being watched with a pleasure from being the centre of attention. In that respect, it puts me in a group of people who seem to be only at home when they get to perform. Of course, I’m not saying that I’m at any point close to those great entertainers. Some people go beyond simple enjoyment of being on a stage – they crave being the focus of a room. Those people who seem to exude raw energy and need to have the world revolve around them. They have a charisma that pours out of every pore of their body. Trying to hold them back is as useless as trying to hold back the ocean; they have a strength of character that is unstoppable. And when you put them in front of a microphone, there is no stopping them. Little Richard puts them all to shame.
By the mid-1950s, when record executives were keen to cash in on the new rock ‘n’ roll craze, it wasn’t long before one came knocking on Little Richard’s door. What they got was perhaps beyond anything they could have imagined. Born Richard Penniman (he was nicknamed Lil’ Richard by his family because of his small stature as a child), the man who would become one of the creators of modern rock music was a born showman (some would go as far as to call him shameless). By the time he was 14, he had managed to talk his way into performing on stage at concert by singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe; he was invited up by Rosetta after she heard him sing one of her songs; before anyone knew it, he had commandeered the microphone for the opening number. From here, he moved to performing with travelling shows before moving on to the New Orleans vaudeville circuit, taking on a role as a drag artist. It wasn’t long before his on-stage antics became legendary.
Sadly, sometimes that energy can be lost when a live performance is transferred to a more permanent home. We’ve already looked at the efforts Duke Ellington made to ensure that his live performance at Newport was recorded for posterity without losing any of the vitality that he and his band had shown on stage. Watching a band pour out their heart and soul at a gig is a very different experience to sitting in an armchair with a roaring fire as a studio-mixed album plays through a hi-fi system. But every now again, you find someone who can break the mould. If you can call Little Richard ‘breaking the mould’ – he seemed to smash it into small pieces before setting fire to it with his debut album, Here’s Little Richard.
Just take a listen to the opening number. Within seconds, you know this is something different to anything that has come before (and you’d be hard pushed to find anything like it since). Rather than music kicking in to bring the listener into the world of the artist, we’re instead treated to Richard screaming down the microphone the immortal line: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop a-wop-bam-boom!”. Even today, 58 years later, the introduction to Tutti Frutti still sends a shiver down the spine. These are fast, hard-hitting songs, over in a matter of moments (the opener of the album lasts just 2 minutes and 27 seconds). It’s little surprise that the picture on the front of the record is of Richard mid-screech – it perfectly matches the sounds coming from the speakers. There had been interesting innovations in music to this point – new styles being developed – but nothing like this. Here is a sound that, even now, is raw and powerful. This is the rock ‘n’ roll that got the older generation so frightened about how the youth of the day were turning out.
As the second track of True Fine Mama opens, the piano is pounded by Richard, keeping the visceral vigour of the opener momentum going. The backing vocals may sound like something from a decade earlier (and do their best to distract from what is a great song), but it is one of the few times when Richard doesn’t seem to be left to do what he does best. Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave channels Fats Domino (unsurprising given that Fats had been a backing pianist to its writer Lloyd Price), but Richard brings his own powerful vocals to it, giving it more of an edge.
It is easy to forget the debt we owe to the rock ‘n’ rollers of the mid- to late-1950s when it comes to modern music. Fats, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Richard were turning out classic song after classic song that would influence many of the 1960s artists who would, in turn, influence bands and singers for the next 50 years. Listening to Ready Teddy blast out of the speakers (there’s no way that albums like this can be played quietly), the birth of the teenager, jiving on the dancefloor, can be heard taking place before your very ears.
Not all the songs work, and, given the nature of the record executives at the time, it would be easy to blame them for not allowing the artists to do what they do best. But the fifth track of the album, Baby, was written solely by Penniman himself, so there is nobody else to blame. Still all singers must be allowed to find their own voice and, given how ground-breaking this style of music still was, there has to be some kind of forgiveness. It is just that it is followed by the excellent Slippin’ and Slidin’ and the classic Long Tall Sally (which was influential enough to have The Beatles go on to cover it), that those other songs do stand out for not quite hitting the mark. According to legend, Long Tall Sally was written to stop Pat Boone from covering it (Richard wanted a song that was so fast that – to be honest – even he struggled to sing). Whatever the reason, there is no denying that Richard owns it. With Miss Ann, the wonderful Jenny Jenny and She’s Got It closing out the album, this is one record that doesn’t give up towards the end. It may not be the longest of albums, but it was enough to change the face of popular music for ever.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Here’s Little Richard here:
Next time: Dance Mania Vol 1 by Tito Puente and his Orchestra