The Very Best of Little Richard
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2008, Volume 15, #8
Written by John Metzger
Mon August 11, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Sometimes itís the little, unexpected twists and turns that can make or break a career. In fact, the world might never have known about Little Richard, who indisputably became one of the principal architects of rock ínĎ roll, if he hadnít burst into Tutti Frutti during a lunch break taken while recording his debut for Specialty. He originally had been signed to the label specifically to make blues-oriented albums, but the session in which he had participated that morning was going nowhere. In the wake of his playful, impromptu diversion, however, his fate was sealed.
More than five decades later, it truly is difficult to comprehend how shocking Little Richardís songs and stage persona once were. To make ends meet, he often had dressed in drag to perform bawdy material at local colleges. This not only infiltrated the very core of his repertoire, but it also provided him with a reason to repent in 1957, when he abruptly turned to religion and attempted to mount a career as a gospel singer. Before then, however, he gave rock ínĎ roll an element of danger with his fiery, piano-bashing performances that swapped innuendo for feverish, sexual fervor.
The lyrics for Tutti Frutti were toned down for public consumption. Yet, there is no way possible to miss its underlying libidinous drive. In an age when segregation was an unfortunate part of life for many African-Americans, Little Richard dared to remain wholly himself. In the process, he broke through to a younger generation, smashing racial barriers and achieving immense success by scoring a seemingly endless stream of hits over the subsequent two years.
Of the 25 songs that are featured on the recently issued compilation The Very Best of Little Richard, only two of the tracks were culled from Little Richardís return to secular music in 1964: Bama Lama Bama Loo and a live performance of Tutti Frutti that was preceded by snippets of Fats Dominoís Ainít That a Shame and Ray Charlesí I Got a Woman. An early demo of Baby and an uninspired romp through Hound Dog complete the story by alternately providing a glimpse at Little Richard before he became a star and just prior to his walking away from it all.
The heart of The Very Best of Little Richard, however, is the mind-boggling abundance of hits that Little Richard created in a relatively short period of time. Within them, itís possible to hear so much of the music that followed, too, as his influence reached far and wide across the landscape of the 1960s. The Beatles, of course, famously covered Long Tall Sally as well as Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey, and Paul McCartneyís early vocal style drew considerably from Little Richardís vigorous whoops and hollers. Meanwhile, Sam Cooke smoothed over the rougher edges of Little Richardís R&B-inflected rock, while Otis Redding managed to make it feel even more raw. The Grateful Dead covered Good Golly Miss Molly in concert and Rip It Up at its soundchecks, while the former track as well as Jenny Jenny served as inspiration to John Fogerty.
Beginning in 1964, Little Richard staged the first of many attempts at making a comeback. He never again came close to achieving the level of success that he had between 1955 and 1957. Nevertheless, his legacy has endured, and the music on The Very Best of Little Richard remains as powerful and vibrant as it ever was.
Of Further Interest...
The Very Best of Little Richard is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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