Blues Bytes


September 2008

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Little Richard
The Very Best of Little Richard
Concord Music Group

Little Richard

What would rock & roll and rhythm & blues have been like if there had been no Little Richard? A lot less exciting, that’s for sure. Little Richard (A.K.A. Richard Penniman) was a major figure in the transition from rhythm & blues to rock & roll. Hard as it may be to believe, he got his start at Peacock Records recording blues tunes, playing in the style of one of his early influences, jump blues singer Billy Wright. His Peacock singles sold poorly and his contract was subsequently sold to Specialty Records, where he was teamed with with legendary A&R man Bumps Blackwell, who took him to Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Music Shop Studio in New Orleans to record with some of the Crescent City’s top musicians.

After a frustrating morning session, the group broke for lunch at the famous Dew Drop Inn. During the meal, Little Richard hopped up on the piano and began singing a ribald little ditty he used in his act. Something in the tune gave Blackwell the idea that it could be a hit with a little work….the lyrics would definitely have to be cleaned up, so he asked local songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie, who happened to be at the Dew Drop, to clean up the lyrics. It proved to be a very lucrative lunch for Ms. LaBostrie as the ribald little ditty was transformed into “Tutti Fruitti.” The rest, as they say, is history, as Little Richard enjoyed an incredible string of hits that melded his gospel roots with the dynamic sounds of New Orleans R&B and added a new page to the book of rock & roll.

Concord Music Group, which now owns the Specialty catalog, has just released a new collection of Little Richard’s biggest hits called The Very Best of Little Richard, and it features just about everything you would want in a Little Richard collection. “Tutti Fruitti” is here, along with “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “Heeby-Jeebies,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lucille,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” and “Jenny Jenny.”

Amazingly, Little Richard recorded nearly all of these classic tunes within a two-year period. Then he abruptly quit the business at the height of his success (after watching one of the engines on his airplane burst into flame at the conclusion of an Australian tour) to attend a Bible college in Alabama. Fortunately, he recorded a massive number of songs during his time with Specialty, so they were able to continue releasing singles. However, Little Richard was basically unseen or unheard for several years, re-emerging as a gospel singer for a brief period before returning to rock & roll in the early ’60s, inspired by the popularity of groups like the Beatles (Paul McCartney was a huge fan and McCartney’s vocal style was heavily influenced by Little Richard). He did have one minor hit in 1964, “Bama Lama Bama Loo” (also included on this set), but by then musical styles had changed and the hits stopped coming.

Little Richard soldiered on, however, becoming a big hit on the oldies circuit, making appearances on movies (Down & Out In Beverly Hills) and TV shows, and has continued to move between the religious and the secular. His hits continue to be heard on TV, movies, and on various compilations.

This set is most welcome, since it’s been nearly two decades since the last greatest hits collection, Specialty’s The Georgia Peach. Both sets have basically the same songs, but the new collection adds three bonus tracks, one being the original demo that Little Richard sent to Specialty Records owner Art Rupe. “Baby” is a variation on Billy Wright’s Peacock hit, “Don’t You Want A Man Like Me,” that lacks the spark of the later hits, but is a solid R&B effort. The other bonus tracks are a rehearsal take of “Hound Dog,” and a medley of “Tutti Fruitti,” “I Got A Woman,” and “Ain’t That A Shame,” recorded in 1964 at the Olympia Theatre in Paris.

The Very Best of Little Richard belongs in any music fan’s collection.

--- Graham Clarke


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