Wild and outrageous does not begin to describe Little Richard. He hit American pop like a ball of fire in the mid-1950s, a hopeless emissary of cultures that America barely dominated, tapping into the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the carnal. He had extensive experience in the sanctified church and in the chitlin circuit of African American clubs and theaters, with drag shows, band seals and, even in the 20th century, minstrel shows.
He had the sense of the scene of a longtime soldier, built on a decade of performance before recording “Tutti Frutti”. He had a spectacular presence in all public appearances: breathtaking outfits, hip-shaking bawdiness, sneaky jokes and a wild-eyed unpredictability that was entirely under his control. He invented a larger-than-life role and lived in it whenever a camera or audience could see it.
Little Richard was a challenge to the conveniences of the 1950s: to segregation, musical decorum, chastity, rectitude. And his genius, beyond the music everyone paid attention to, was to embody this challenge not as an overtly angry threat or reactive counterattack, but as pure pleasure at hand, like the joy of pure freedom.
In his music, he obviously did not push back all the obstacles of his life. He looked like he had already banished them and made fun of them, having fun sweating entirely on his own terms. If Little Richard was a forerunner of countless breakers of pop taboos, theatrical characters, and bad boys (and girls), it was not as a dissident or delinquent. His name was not Lucifer, smearing himself with scene blood, trying to shock or shout out gang affiliations. Instead, he offered an ecstasy that you couldn’t refuse.
Little Richard made most of his final recordings in the 1950s, when it was an absolute revelation. From 1955 to 1957, he often had the best sidemen in New Orleans to support him, sock the backbeat and respond to him with impudent saxophones. From that moment on, he entered and left the church, turning to gospel songs and renouncing but then returning to secular rock. His own songwriting largely dried up in the decades that followed. But he remained vital on stage and, when the producers captured the right song and the right time, in the studio.
The first song Little Richard was able to record, under the name of Richard Wayne Penniman, was “Get Rich Quick”, a jump-blues swing that few people have heard; it was written by jazz critic Leonard Feather. His distinctive voice was barely recognizable; he went for softness rather than grain, imitating Louis Jordan. But he didn’t look like a recruit; on a small, hard-hitting group, his phrasing was daring, enthusiastic and playful.
It’s the meteor strike, Little Richard’s national pop debut – brash and lascivious, opening onto a perfectly logical gibberish salvo. Little Richard hits the piano and he calls out at his whim. But there is also a certain nonchalance in his voice; he knows what power he has whenever he needs it. The lukewarm version of Pat Boone’s cover deprived Little Richard of radio when the song deserved to reach the Top 10, but only the original remained.
Has there been another pop hit that has ever been so concerned about an uncle’s love life? It seems that Aunt Mary is about to catch Uncle John playing with Long Tall Sally – but really, this is just a vehicle for Little Richard to groan and yell and promise “Go have fun tonight! “
The rhythm of the Mardi Gras mambo that rolls over to Little Richard watching Fats Domino on “Slippin ‘and Slidin”, an indictment against the infidelity of a lover who masks his anger in comedy, crisp notes in the middle and a verdict decisive: “I won no longer be crazy – owwww!” “
“Saturday night and I just got paid,” barks Little Richard, and it’s obvious where things are going: for a date, a dance and more. “Cheat my money, don’t try to save,” he admits, but no regrets: the moment is waiting for you and the song seizes it.
The voice of Little Richard is isolated and unstoppable for half of each verse of “Ready Teddy”, and the group falls again as he sings “I’m ready, ready, ready to rock and roll”, only for give a boost to each come back. The song, like “Rip It Up” and “Good Golly Miss Molly”, is by Johnny Marascalco and Little Richard’s first producer, Bumps Blackwell. Although Little Richard is in his thirties, “Ready Teddy” caters to a teenage audience, reveling in the way “all flattop cats and all dungarees / dolls head to the gym towards the hop sock ball” .
“Lucille” heats up with an instrumental intro where Little Richard teases on the piano, building a splashing entrance. Before finishing the first word, “Lucille”, he has already burst into the cry, and for the rest of the song, he delivers lines with precise initial attacks – landing hard on the rhythm – which turn into desperate pleas.
The band is a nonstop steamroller on “Keep a Knockin”, from the relentless drum beat to the saxophones that charge at every break. Naturally, Little Richard is more than a match for them, with a grater that becomes even more biting when he taunts: “You said you love me but you can’t come in! He may not be ready to forgive; he may be otherwise engaged. Still, he dangled a little hope: “Come back tomorrow night and try again.”
Recorded in 1956 but released in 1958, after Little Richard’s first retirement from rock’n’roll, “Good Golly Miss Molly” is two minutes of pure lust, declaring from the start that she “will certainly love to play ball”. (How was this line broadcast on the radio in the 1950s?) The low-fi recording highlights Little Richard’s voice and the detuned piano, and his voice starts to get excited only to go up even more . Then the scream it hits halfway overloads the tape, and from there it feels like barely contained chaos.
For many gospel recordings of Little Richard, he transformed his voice into a devout but creamy croon and sang on formally elaborated arrangements. But “Milky White Way” does not only show her lyrical smoothness; he also lets out the shouter inside him.
In an easy-to-write R&B ballad written by Don Covay, Little Richard is sick with love and suffers for a long time, taking the time to build long dramatic arcs ranging from groans to barking and roaring. An organ gives the song an evangelical foundation, but instead of preaching, there is a verbal interlude that goes from a confession of love for his wife to the discovery that she is cheating on him. Even that cannot break the craze.
On a muscular guitar riff and a group of tambourines, Little Richard urges, “Do it well or not at all. Although he and his producer clearly thought of Motown, they fully respected their model.
In the mid-1960s, Little Richard came out of his self-imposed retirement to record for small R&B labels including Okeh, who released “The Explosive Little Richard” in 1967. “Poor Dog (Who Can’t Wag His Own Tail ) “Was written by the producers of the album, Larry Williams and Johnny” Guitar “Watson. It’s a Memphis-style soul with a catchy horn section that pumps behind Little Richard’s piano as he sings self-sustainingly, hitting each line with the vehemence of a preacher.
For his 1970 album “The Rill Thing”, Little Richard recorded at Muscle Shoals, Ala., A stronghold of country soul tinged with southern soul, and downplayed his piano for twangy guitar funk. “Freedom Blues” – written with its first piano mentor, Esquerita – is a rare social song in Little Richard’s catalog, a post-1960 plea for “just opening your mind / letting love show through.”
Little Richard’s 1972 album “The Second Coming” was a deliberate comeback, uniting Little Richard with his 1950s producer, Bumps Blackwell, and some of his precious New Orleans sidemen, Earl Palmer on drums and Lee Allen on the saxophone. The lyrics to “Mockingbird Sally” try to catch the nonsense of the 50s, but whatever: Little Richard makes the song a disjointed crier.
The wah-wah guitars, not the piano, define this bluesy gospel song, a story of tribulation and faith, crossing the desert and the ocean, sung by Little Richard in a dry and creaky voice that opens when he proclaims : ” I am satisfied “. It was recorded in 1972 for the album “Southern Child”, which Reprise Records did not release, and was only released from the trunk in 2005.