Very Best Of|
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Specialty Records, the independant R & B record company that signed Richard Penniman (who we all know as “Little Richard”), has released a “The Very Best of ” that lives up to its title. Unlike past compilations, the 25-track retrospective collects all of the pompadoured powerhouse’s essential hits, and they’re remixed with such clarity it sounds as if Little Richard is at your Thanksgiving dinner table yelling “WHOOO!” because he appreciates your mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce.
As you listen, you’ll come to realize how much talent-rich tenor sax player Lee Allen and dexterous drummer Earl Palmer contributed to Little Richard’s ribald sound. If Little Richard was the driving force, then Palmer was the piston that drove Richard’s V-8, and Allen was the oil that pumped through the engine block, providing the juice that made Penniman’s music flow.
Gospel singer Marion Williams was one of Penniman’s musical influences – he borrowed his instantly recognizable yelp from her. Cult figure Esquerita influenced his stage presence and wardrobe. One glance at Esquerita’s self-titled album cover and you’ll realize who Little Richard nicked his sense of fashion from. Esquerita wore heavy make up and piled his hair in a two story pompadour – before Little Richard. He also laid the groundwork for Penniman’s manic style by showing him how to accentuate the high notes on the piano.
Penniman’s intial New Orleans styled demos only hinted at his crowd-pleasing talent. One of the demos, “Baby,” appears on “The Very Best of.” Richard tends to lose control of his voice at higher elevations, as if he’s searching for an identity (or maybe just the next note). The walking Kansas City blues, which cops the chugging beat of “Night Train” is pleasing, but at thus point, based on his unsteady “Baby,” I wouldn’t have signed the guy to a contract either. (If you want an example of Little Richard’s true vocal talents, track down “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got,” a surprisingly serious tour de force in which Penniman revisits his gospel roots and sounds surpisingly like David Ruffin. )
While taking a break from an early session in New Orleans, Penniman went to a local bar for lubrication. Sitting down at the piano he pounded out an X-rated version of “Tutti Fruitti” (“Tutti Fruitti, loose booty” is one of the few lines I can covey without blushing.) Robert Blackwell, Specialty Records’ P.R. guru, thought a sanitized version could be a hit, so he called in lyricist Dororthy LaBostrie to provide a G-rated makeover. Released in late 1955, “Tutti Fruitti,” with it’s emphatic “A whomp-bop-a-loo-bop-a-whomp-bam boom!” intro, became the first of Little Richard’s hits. The new mix makes it easier to hear the Kansas City jump beat, Allen’s funky foghorn, Little Richard’s raw vocal power and pounding Jerry Lee Lewis piano.
“Long Tall Sally” has the similar break-neck appoach that powered “Tutti Frutti,” with Allen getting a chance to flash his brass in a spit slinging solo: “I saw Uncle John with bald-headed Sally, he saw Aunt Mary comin’ and they jumped back in the alley.”
Little Richard opens “Good Golly Miss Molly” with a knuckle-breaking piano vamp. Molly must have been a cousin to Long Tall Sally, because the description of the Juke Joint Juliet makes it sound as if she and Sally hung out in the same seamy bar. Little Richard sings as if he’s hosting a three alarm blaze in throat, whooing up a storm as he shreds his vocal chords.
“Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’)” has a slippery Fats Domino intro on piano, with a horde of horns bopping the background. When called upon, Lee Allen blares out a pair of gritty solos, the second while Richard pounds his piano into sawdust. You should also check out The Band’s version, recorded on the Festival Express Train Tour in 1970, in which balladeer Richard Manuel gets in touch with his inner Little Richard, and the normally woodsy members of the group rip it up. (You can find the track on The Band’s “Musical History” box set.)
Speaking of “Rip It Up,” Little Richard’s bratty energy hits a new gear in a tale detailing his ribald Saturday night plans. Allen continues to provide hip-shakin’ solos. “I’m gonna rock it up, I’m gonna rip it up, I’m gonna shake it up, and ball tonight.” (Teens loved Little Richard’s subtle sexuality!)
Little Richard bumps up the energy level to a supersonic level (even for him) in “Ready Teddy,” and Allen responds with a high pitched, saliva spraying solo. “Ready set, go man go, I got a man that I love so!” One of Little Richard’s signature tunes, “Lucille,” has a finger-bending solo by Penniman, who grinds out one of his glass-gargling vocals. “I woke up this morning, Lucille was not in sight. I asked my friend’s about her, but all their lips were tight.” Palmer pops his snare like an enraged tenant slapping a cockroach, adding to the sexual tension.
Chock full of “Whooo’s!,” “Jenny Jenny” pushes Richard’s lung capacity, and he responds until his throat is as grainy as the Gobi Desert in summer. It doesn’t have the full-throttle energy that Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels injected into their version, (which they combined with a piston-popping version of “C.C. Rider”), but give Little Richard credit for getting there first.
“Keep A-Knockin’” was one of Little Richard’s last and best hits. His take-no-prisoners formula served him well, with Allen continuing to push his sax to chest-busting proprotions, and Earl Palmer unleashing a thunderous drum intro. (Palmer’s savagery provided the inspiration for John Bonham’s cymbal-bashing intro for Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”) It’s one of Little Richard’s more frenzied perfomances, and that says a lot: “You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in. Come back tomorrow night an try again! Whooo!”
“She’s Got It” is dirty sock hop rock -- another ode to fornication: “Ruby lips, shapely hips, when she walks down the street all the cats flip. She’s got it, oh baby she’s got it. I can’t do without it.”
“The Girl Can’t Help It” was written by Julie London’s pianist husband, Bobby Troup, and slotted into the movie of the same name. The flick starred Jane Mansfield, an iconic vision of pultritude who couldn’t help being a bombshell. The song features a new wrinkle, a male chorus repeating the title line as the song proceeds at a more managable speed.
Little Richard’s legacy will be judged by his flamboyant personality and half a dozen hits, so what about the rest of the songs that make up “The Very Best of?” Some of the tunes are charicatures of Like Richard’s flashy, damn-the-torpedoes brand of entertainment. The howlingly bad “Heeby-Jeebies” is an example of how limited Richard’s style was – and how after six hits his act was becoming repitative. The beat is whipped harder than a team of frothing horses pulling a stagecoach with wobbly wheels – it flies along so quickly it becomes a struggle for Richard to say “heebie- jeebies.” At one point he’s so dangerously close to being breathless he sounds as if he’s singing “heepa jeep” in an effort to keep up. Perhaps this was an attempt to put so many words in a song that Pat Boone couldn’t cover it. (Boone made a profitable career out of stealing Little Richard’s songs.) If so, it worked. “Heebie-Jeebies” is such a transparent effort to recreate the magic of Penniman’s other hits it’ll scare the beejesus out of you.
Whoa… “Send Me Some Lovin’” has a slower pace! Penniman camps it up, braying rather than singing along with the see saw horn section. It’s a case where subtlety should have prevailed. You have to hear Mike Harrison tackle this on Spooky Tooth’s 1999 reunion album, “Cross Purpose,” to appreciate its validity as a ballad. Harrison treats the song with reverence, channeling his hurt. Little Richard’s idea of loving sounds a lot more gratuitous.
In “Bama Lama Bama Loo” the girl of Richard’s desire is named Lucinda -- “They call her the great pretender.” When you start rhyming “Lucindah” with “pretindah,” then your formula has definitely worn thin. Lucinda is a thinly disguised grafting of “Lucille” and “Tutti Fruitti.” Lee Allen must’ve begged out or been on break, so instead of one his pleasurable enhancing solos, you get a Tasmanian Devil guitar solo that Jimi Hendrix (who later played with Little Richard) might have appreciated. The solo’s pretty innovative for 1964, but “Bama Lama” is such a lifeless rehash it should have been flushed down the bama lama loo.
When the spiritual Little Richard became increasingly conflicted about singing “the devil’s music,” producer Art Rupe tried to take some of the pressure off by having him tackle a few standards and cover tunes. Show tunes and standards are usually a death knell for any rocker’s career (a CD of Christmas songs by Billy Idol anyone?). I still need an Irish Whiskey to get through Elvis’ vapid version of “Danny Boy,” and although I loved Petula Clark’s “Kiss Me Goodbye” and “My Love,” the thought of sitting through her take on Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields” in French makes me want to file for reparations. “The Very Best of” includes Little Richard ‘s version of “Baby Face.” Imagine the local tone-deaf brat braying “Baby face…yew got da cutest liddle baby face…” and you’ll get the idea. Little Richard tries to energize this dried-up standard by letting Palmer loose to pound the skins while Allen assists with his best Boots Randolph imitation, but Little Richard ain’t exactly Al Jolson. He sounds more like Al Bundy – confused and put-upon. Penniman’s recording of “By The Light of the Silvery Moon” shouldn’t have seen the light of day, and Little Richard deserves to be mooned for his lack of vocal conviction. He throws in a few obligatory grunts and tries to wise-ass his way through it, but you can tell by the yawn in his voice that the pompadoured one is flat out not interested in how the tune turns out.
Little Richard sounds equally adrift, even lackidasical, when covering his rival’s material. It’s almost unthinkable that Little Richard’s version of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” would be more insanly paced than The Killer’s, but it is. That having been said, the peddle to the medal pace doesn’t make it sound any better. The guitar solo gets lost in the frenzied arrangement and is wholly out of place. And where’s Lee Allen when you need him?
Little Richard felt if Elvis could steal from black musicians, he had a right to try and steal one back. But his vocal for an early take of “Hound Dog” lacks energy (!) If an artist records a guide vocal to erase later on, it shouldn’t be released it to the public unless it’ll knock people off their feet. And Little Richard’s take is a dog.
One of the album’s unexpected gems is a live medley of “Ain’t That a Shame/I Got a Woman/Tutti Fruitti.” Little Richard isn’t in great voice for “Ain’t that a Shame,” so he gives it a few gruff lines, but he can more than hold his own with Ray’s “I Got a Woman,” and the crowd goes fruitti when Richard launches into a jaunty take of his hit. In addition to being a boffo performance, the trio of tunes will give you a good idea of what a dynamo Little Richard was live.
So what brought Little Richard’s string of hits to an end? Most musicologists point to the Beatles, the self-contained juggernaught that spurred the British Invasion. They wrote pop classics, were erudite, cute, and marketable (meaning white). But instead of adjusting, Richard Penniman dropped out to become a minister, not once, twice, but three times. His first denunication of rock and roll occurred after his string of hits in the ’56, when one of the engines of the plane he was on caught fire, threating to go whomp-bomp-a-loo-bam-BOOM. He took the subsequent miraculous landing as a sign from God.
Penniman’s darting back and forth between God and the Devil’s music is one reason his career slowly flattened out like a pompadour bereft of hair spray. The second was a lack of material. Little Richard’s early material was laced with double entendres and the promise of promiscuity that parents picketed and adolescents adored. As Penniman cleaned up his act, unrepentant sinners like Elvis ruled the charts. Without Art Rupe’s guidance or collaborators such as Lloyd Price, John Marascaloo or Dorothy LaBostrie, Little Richard’s career went whomp-bop-a-loo-bop-a-whomp-bam-bust. Like his comtemporaries, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, Richard spent the 60s and 70s trawling the oldies circuit, complaining about a lack of respect for the self-proclaimed “King of Rock and Roll” (a title that must’ve amused Elvis).
Ah yes, the bitterness. When Little Richard groused that he was “the greatest” some were unconvinced (included me). People stole from me, he said, and he was right. (He seemed to have a selective memory, forgetting he’d absorbed Esqerita’s act and looks.) The Beatles, particularly Paul McCartney, acknowledged they’d cribed part of Little Richard’s act. Pat Boone didn’t genuflect, and to my knowledge has never acknowledged Little Richard’s contribution to his own career. Because of rock’s racial aparteid in the 50s, white artists were able to cherry pick songs recorded by black artists and turn them into million-selling hits on the Billboard charts (Big Joe Turner’s ribald “Shake Rattle and Roll” was sanitized by Bill Haley and became one of early rock’s touchstones. And let’s not forget Elvis swiped “Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thornton.) Boone re-worked Penniman’s “Tutti Fruitti” and “Long Tall Sally,” (and had greater chart success), causing Little Richard to record “Keep A Knockin’” at a speed he felt Boone couldn’t duplicate.
In 1986, Little Richard co-wrote the hit “Great Gosh A’ Mighty” with fifth Beatle Billy Preston for the soundtrack to “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” a film in which he was also a featured actor. The song and Richard’s comedic timing fueled a Little Richard renaissance and landed him other acting gigs (often playing himself, such as in a Geico commerical a few years ago in which he praises his host’s Thanksgiving dinner). Age has forced Little Richard to pile on the pancake makeup, but his spirit remains unbowed.
So rip it up, Lucille. You too, Molly, because Specialty Records’ “The Very Best of Little Richard” is a riotous time machine that captures Penniman at the top of his pompadour. WHOOO!