Here’s Little Richard
Craft Recordings, 2017
Two compact discs, $16.99
It’s a longstanding bugaboo of mine that Little Richard frequently isn’t afforded the same artiste treatment that a number of the early rock and rollers receive. This general recognition, of course, has come years after the fact, from when we began to take rock seriously as a subject to be written about and discussed the same way we do other musical and art forms. With that discussion, though, comes the expectation that the subject in question will possess a degree of proper seriousness. For instance, Elvis Presley is seriously primordial. Chuck Berry is seriously articulate. Jerry Lee Lewis is seriously unhinged. Carl Perkins is seriously down home. Gene Vincent is seriously hip. Little Richard is the subject of two biographies, one by Charles White from 1985, and a fine biography, by poet and TAI contributor David Kirby, in 2009. But somehow the door to the pantheon has remained only slightly cracked open for him.
The man born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia, on December 5, 1932, is someone who might have written the word “bugaboo” into a song, precisely because it’s a word that’s fun to say. With his make-up, outrageous hair, campy mannerisms, Little Richard was seen as a manic figure, which, oddly enough, enabled him to be both highly sexual and asexual at the same time. His songs were full of passionate, even squealed, cries for various lady loves, but they were also slathered in bouts of wordplay that had an Edward Lear element to them. Little Richard’s rhymes were more about their sound than their sense.
Put simply, Little Richard’s music just felt good. It made your brain bubble, your eyes twitch, and your legs vibrate. As someone else said, he was the quasar of rock and roll. I’ve been feeling it all over again thanks to Craft Recordings’ jam-packed new reissue of Here’s Little Richard, perhaps the finest debut album by any of this first generation of rockers.
It was easy to dismiss Richard as kitsch, a purveyor of nonsense lyrics that he slapped together as would-be buzz phrases that could join the popular patois. Think of something like “the bee’s knees” from the jazz age, and the assorted similarly veined phrases that never caught on. Here’s Little Richard commences with “Tutti Frutti,” arguably the most energetic song of the 1950s. It’s always struck me as a kind of split atom jump blues, which was a style that Richard worked throughout his first record with “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Long Tall Sally,” and the beyond-frantic “Jenny Jenny,” a tune that meshes with the most desperate pulsations of the heart when the heart wants what the heart wants, and to settle for less is to settle for a manner of death.
There is an infectious tribal element in Richard’s early music, almost like he deals in a musical version of hoodoo comfort food. But rather than dishing out nonsense in his lyrics, I hear the scat vocals of people like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald elongated into clauses that then join together to make a poetry far more accessible than what the Beats were coming up with at the time. In part this was because those words were percussive devices in Little Richard’s best tunes, extensions of the drum beat at his back and his own piano notes. The piano wasn’t exactly the coolest instrument to make your bones with in early rock and roll. You were better off with a guitar, naturally, or just a microphone. Only Little Richard and the recently departed Fats Domino—and of course Jerry Lee Lewis—were able to rock the piano like it had rarely been rocked before.
Domino came out of the boogie woogie tradition of Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis, with those rolling, chordal, cyclical sheets of sound—long before Coltrane—furling, unfurling, refurling in great bluesy riffs. There’s a wave-like quality to that style of piano playing, a persistent rhythmic lapping that is dominated by riffs. Consider the riff of “Blueberry Hill”; it’s not a coincidence that a riff-centric guitar band like Led Zeppelin turned it into one of their best covers on their early shows.
But our man Mr. Perriman was not a riff merchant. He was the Lord of the Lick, a shorter phrase, like a shout out from a balcony that comments on the proceedings below. But Richard did something truly original: He organized his songs so that they became riff collages.
And then there is the voice. A lot of the great rock and roll singers have incredible range, but Richard is notable in that not only does he have a ton of range; it starts at a higher level than almost any of his peers, and extends to the sharpest, furthest out point, thanks to that incomparable falsetto he was able to control. If you think of a rock and roll singer’s range as being charted upon a sword blade, Little Richard would have the sticking point way at the end all to himself, your last stop in the range game, the sharpest part of all.
Paul McCartney was the only Beatle who could come close to doing that, so he sang the Little Richard songs. Ironically, Buddy Holly might have been best at covering him, a singer who was seriously learned and professorial, which is telling. Holly was one smart guy, and note how he peppered his version of “Slippin’ and Slidin’” with his own style of falsetto, those crazy hiccupped vocals that are akin to Richard’s full-throated shouts coming back to earth to gather strength in an intake of breath. They were contributors, if you will, to the same mechanism, the same principle.
The big allure for longtime Richard listeners such as myself with this reissue is the second disc of outtakes from the sessions. When you’re this good, your finished product often feels effortless, but this dude worked hard in the studio, going full bore on each cut. Listening to the four outtakes of “Rip It Up,” I’m reminded of Jimi Hendrix and tales of his studio sorcery, where he would blast out one doozy of a guitar solo, only to have another go on a subsequent take and blast out a different one of comparable quality.
Little Richard was the same way, and you hear a lot of Fats Waller in those outtakes. A great jazz musician, Waller suffered, to a degree, from the same shortchanging as Little Richard, on account of how outrageously fun he was as an entertainer. The same thing applies, in its own way, to “Best Picture” awards. A movie has to be serious to the point of sententious to win big, usually something ostensibly for your betterment, as if art that flashed a mile-wide smile couldn’t assuage the soul just as readily.
We should also remember that Richard had a degree of Art Tatum-type virtuosity in his playing, as any pianist who tries to replicate those strung-together licks can tell you. If you have any experience trying to learn or play piano, you’ll be lucky if you don’t feel like your knuckles are going to break as you listen.
The point is that ebullience is a form of virtuosity in and of itself. Little Richard’s music is the rock and roll codex version, and this album is a sacredly unsacred whale of a disc that is the bee’s knees of 1950s debuts. He could have had a better name for it, maybe: The bugaboo blues basher.