A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom!

In Memoriam of Little Richard

“I created rock ‘n’ roll! I’m the innovator! I’m the emancipator! I’m the architect! I am the originator! I’m the one that started it! There wasn’t anyone singing rock ‘n’ roll when I came into it. There was no rock ‘n’ roll.” No, Richard Wayne Penniman wasn’t exactly known for modest self-assessment. I think this comment he made during an interview with SFGATE.com, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, in July 2003 also illustrates he was a showman who had a knack for memorable quotes.

I’m writing this, as the obituaries still keep pouring in for the man known as Little Richard, who passed away this morning in Tullahoma, Tenn. at the age of 87, according to The New York Times. CNN reported Richard’s former agent Dick Alen confirmed the cause of death was related to bone cancer. Apparently, Richard had not been in good health for some time.

Little Richard 2

Instead of writing yet another traditional obituary, I’d like to primarily focus on what I and countless other rock & roll fans loved about Little Richard, and that’s his music. While he is sadly gone, fortunately, his music is here to stay. And there is plenty of it, so let’s get started and rock it up!

Richard’s recording career started in 1951 close to his 19th birthday when RCA Victor released Every Hour. An original composition, the soulful blues ballad doesn’t exactly sound like A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom!, but one already can get an idea of Richard’s vocal abilities. While tune became a regional hit, it did not break through nationally, just like the other songs Richard recorded with RCA Victor, so he left in February 1952.

Following a few lean years and a struggle with poverty, which in 1954 forced Richard to work as a dishwasher in Macon, Ga., the breakthrough came when Specialty Records released Tutti Frutti as a single in November 1955. The record company had hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to replace some of Richard’s sexual lyrics with less controversial words. Not only did the classic bring Richard long-sought national success, but the loud, hard-driving sound and wild (yet somewhat tamed) lyrics also became a blueprint for many of his tunes to come.

Tutti Frutti started a series of hits and the most successful two-year phase of Richard’s career. One of my favorites is the follow-up single Long Tall Sally from March 1956. Co-written by Richard, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and Enotris Johnson, the song became Richard’s highest-charting U.S. mainstream hit, climbing to no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also marked his first no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Over the years, I must have listened to Long Tall Sally 100 times or even more. It still grabs me. I also dig the cover by The Beatles. Classic rock & roll doesn’t get much better.

Ready, Teddy, for another biggie? Yeah, I’m ready, ready, ready to a rock ‘n’ roll.

Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will?
Oh, Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will?
You ran off and married, but I love you still

Lucille, released in February 1957, was co-written by Richard and Albert Collins – and nope, that’s not the blues guitarist. The two just happen to share the same name. According to Wikipedia, “the song foreshadowed the rhythmic feel of 1960s rock music in several ways, including its heavy bassline and slower tempo.” Okay, I guess I take that. Lucille became Richard’s third and last no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles. The song reached a more moderate no. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, on the other hand, it climbed to no. 10 on the Official Singles Chart. In addition to Richard’s vocals and piano, the horn work on this tune is just outstanding!

And then came that tour of Australia together with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in October 1957 that changed Richard’s trajectory. As Rolling Stone put it in their obituary, After what he interpreted as signs – a plane engine that seemed to be on fire and a dream about the end of the world and his own damnation – Penniman gave up music in 1957 and began attending the Alabama Bible school Oakwood College, where he was eventually ordained a minister. When he finally cut another album, in 1959, the result was a gospel set called God Is Real.

After Richard left the music business, his record label Specialty Records continued to release previously recorded songs until 1960 when his contract ended and he apparently agreed to relinquish any royalties for his material. One of these tunes was another classic, Good Golly, Miss Molly. Co-written by John Marascalco and Blackwell, and first recorded in 1956, the single appeared in January 1958. It became a major hit, peaking at no. 10 and 8 in the U.S. and UK pop, charts respectively, and reaching no. 4 on the Hot R&B Singles.

Here’s the title track from the above noted 1959 album God Is Real. The tune was written by gospel music composer Kenneth Morris.

In 1962, Richard started a gradual return to secular music. While according to Rolling Stone, a new generation of music artists like The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan welcomed him back, his music no longer sold well. When Richard performed at the Star-Club in Hamburg in the early ’60s, a then still relatively unknown British band called The Beatles opened up for him. The above Rolling Stone obituary included this quote from John Lennon: “We used to stand backstage at Hamburg’s Star-Club and watch Little Richard play…He used to read from the Bible backstage and just to hear him talk we’d sit around and listen. I still love him and he’s one of the greatest.”

In January 1967, Richard released a soul-oriented album titled The Explosive Little Richard. It was produced by his longtime friend Larry Williams and featured Johnny “Guitar” Watson. They co-wrote this tasty tune for Richard, Here’s Poor Dog (Who Can’t Wag His Own Tail). It also appeared as a single and reached no. 121 and 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, respectively. The record didn’t chart.

While Richard enjoyed success as a live performer, his records continued to sell poorly. In April 1970, he had a short-lived comeback of sorts with Freedom Blues, a single from his album The Rill Thing released in August that year. Co-written by Richard and R&B singer Eskew Reeder, Jr., who had taught him how to play the piano, the tune reached no. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at no. 28 on the Hot R&B Singles.

During the remainder of the ’70s, Richard continued to perform and also had guest appearances on records by Delaney and Bonnie, Joe Walsh and Canned Heat, among others. He also became addicted to marijuana and cocaine. Eventually, his lifestyle wore him out, and in 1977, Richard quit rock & roll for the second time and returned to evangelism.

In 1984, he returned to music yet another time, feeling he could reconcile his roles as a rock & roll artist and an evangelist. Following a role in the movie picture Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Richard released another album, Lifetime Friend, in 1986. I actually got it on CD at the time. Here’s the nice opener Great Gosh A’Mighty, which Richard co-wrote with Billy Preston. Reminiscent of the old “A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom Richard,” the tune had also been included in the soundtrack of the aforementioned movie.

In 1992, Richard released Little Richard Meets Masayoshi Takanaka, which featured newly recorded versions of his hits. The final Little Richard album Southern Child appeared in January 2005. Originally, the record had been scheduled for release in 1972 but had been shelved. Richard continued to perform frequently through the ’90s and the first decade of the new millennium. Nerve pain in his left leg and hip replacement forced him to reduce concerts and eventually to retire in 2013.

Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as part of the very first group of inductees, which also included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. He also was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and received numerous awards. Four of his songs, Tutti Frutti (no. 43), Long Tall Sally (no. 55), Good Golly, Miss Molly (no. 94) and The Girl Can’t Help It (420), are in Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time from April 2010.

I’d like to end this post with a few reactions from other music artists:

“He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens and his music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid 50’s” (Mick Jagger)

“So sad to hear that my old friend Little Richard has passed. There will never be another!!! He was the true spirit of Rock’n Roll!” (Keith Richards)

“He will live on always in my heart with his amazing talent and his friendship! He was one of a kind and I will miss him dearly” (Jerry Lee Lewis)

“God bless little Richard one of my all-time musical heroes. Peace and love to all his family.” (Ringo Starr)

“He was there at the beginning and showed us all how to rock and roll. He was a such a great talent and will be missed. Little Richard’s music will last forever.” (Brian Wilson)

Sources: Wikipedia; SFGATE.com; The New York Times; CNN; Rolling Stone; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: August 5

1957: The music program American Bandstand debuted on U.S. national television. It was hosted by Dick Clark who had joined the show the previous year when it still had been known as Bandstand and aired on Philadelphia TV station WFIL-TV (now local ABC affiliate WPVI-TV). The program, which ran until 1989, featured many artists who lip-synced their latest hits. While as such it was chart-oriented, it coincided with time periods when great music was part of the mainstream. So it’s perhaps not a surprise to see which artists appeared on the show. According to Wikipedia, American Bandstand  helped introduce famous artists to Americans, such as Prince, Michael Jackson and Aerosmith. Some of the other acts who were on the program included The Animals, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, Van Morrison, R.E.M., Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and even Pink Floyd. Here’s a clip of a 1966 appearance of Roy Orbison performing Oh, Pretty Woman, featuring one of the coolest ’60s guitar riffs that still sounds awesome to this day.

1966: The Beatles released their seventh studio album in the U.K., Revolver, which many fans consider the band’s best record. While it’s undoubtedly a great album, if I had to choose, I would go with the follow-on release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Revolver, apart from gems like Taxman, Eleanor Rigby and Got To Get You Into My Life, stands out for the introduction of various new recording techniques, including tape loops, backwards recordings, varispeeding and, most significantly, Artificial Double Tracking (ADT). George Martin’s string arrangement on Eleanor Rigby broke conventions by blending classical and pop music. George Harrison, who took on a bigger role in the album’s songwriting, introduced another Indian instrument to pop music after the sitar on predecessor Rubber Soul: the tambura. Here’s a clip of Eleanor Rigby.

1978: The Rolling Stones hit no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with Miss You, their eighth and last no. 1 single in the U.S. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song was written by Jagger while jamming with Billy Preston during rehearsals in 1977. It became the lead single for Some Girls, the band’s 14th and 16th British and American studio album, respectively. Apparently, there is some disagreement between Jagger and Ronnie Wood who maintain the track wasn’t supposed to be a disco song, while according to Richards, “Miss You’ was a damn good disco record; it was calculated to be one.” To me it’s obvious that Richards hates the tune. In my humble opinion, there’s no question the Stones have released much better songs.

1984: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band played the first of 10 gigs at Brendan Byrne Arena, now called Meadowlands Arena, in East Rutherford, N.J. during the Born In The U.S.A. Tour, Springsteen’s longest and most successful tour to date. The show included two sets and an encore, with a total of 28 tracks. As is typical for The Boss, he went far beyond the album that the tour supported and dug deep into his catalog. He also played a number of covers. Here’s a cool clip of a 21-minute medley captured during the same tour two weeks earlier in Toronto, Canada. The medley includes Devil With The Blue Dress, Good Golly Miss Molly, CC Rider, Jenny Jenny, I Hear A Train, Twist And Shout and Do You Love Me. The band is absolutely killing it – rock & roll simply doesn’t get better than this! The crazy thing is that Springsteen pretty performed with the same intensity 32 years later when I saw him last in August 2016 at MetLife Stadium, right across the highway from Meadowlands.

1992: Jeff Porcaro, best known as co-founder and drummer of Toto, passed away at the young age of 38 years. The circumstances of his death remain ambiguous. According to the band history on the official Toto website, Porcaro died from a heart attack that resulted from a severe allergic reaction to chemicals in pesticide he had sprayed in his garden earlier that day. But the Los Angeles Times reported the heart attack stemmed from atherosclerosis triggered by years of cocaine use. One thing is clear: Porcaro was an excellent, sought after session drummer, who apart from Toto worked with Steely Dan, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Boz Scaggs, among others. Here’s a clip of Rosanna from Toto IV, which I think features some of Porcaro’s finest drum work.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music.com; Billboard Hot 100 chart history; setlist.fm; Toto website; YouTube

John Fogerty & ZZ Top Bring Blues & Bayous Tour To Holmdel, NJ

Yesterday evening, it was finally time for John Fogerty and ZZ Top at PNC Bank Arts Center. I’ve been fortunate to see a number of great shows there over the past few years and have come to like this amphitheater-style venue in Holmdel, NJ. The Allman Brothers Band, Santana and Steve Winwood are a few of the concerts that come to mind. Of course, one of the potential caveats with outdoor venues is the weather, and things started off a bit dicey on that front.

While driving to PNC, I was blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen The Rain from my car stereo, literally living the song: seeing the rain, coming down on a sunny day – at times pretty heavily! I arrived right in the middle of an early evening thunderstorm with lots of lightning and thunder, and it wasn’t hard to imagine to see a bad moon rising. But I had waited for Fogerty for some 40 years and was determined not to allow some rain to get into the way. Luckily, the thunderstorm dissipated before the show got underway and I could ride it out in my car in the parking lot.

Blues & Bayous Tour

ZZ Top started the main part of the evening. There was an opening act I missed due to surprisingly long lines to enter the facility – the first time I ever recall encountering that at PNC. The Texan rockers’ set was identical to the song lineup they played during the tour opener in Atlantic City the night before, mostly drawing from their ’70s albums and 1983’s Eliminator, the band’s most commercially successful release. That was the record that first brought ZZ Top on my radar screen, long before I listened to their first three albums, which I now generally like better than their ’80s recordings.

As usual, I didn’t record any videos with one exception, so I’m relying on YouTube clips from previous live shows. To make it as similar as possible, I tried to find the most recent footage with an acceptable quality. I realize this approach not 100% ideal, but for the most part I believe it captures the overall feel of the show.

Things kicked off with Got Me Under Pressure from Eliminator followed by a nice cover of I Thank You, first recorded by Sam & Dave in 1968 – it’s hardly impossible to ever go wrong with a Stax tune, at least in my book! Next up was Waitin’ For The Bus, one of my favorite ZZ Top tunes. It is the opener of their third studio album Tres Hombres from July 1973. Unlike most other original tunes that are credited to all three members, only guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill share credits for this song. ZZ Top combined it with Jesus Left Chicago, another track from the same album. Here’s a nice clip from Bonnaroo 2013 where they did the same.

Another song I’d like to highlight is I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide. It is from Degüello, ZZ Top’s sixth studio release from November 1979. One thing I thought was fun to watch was Gibbons and Hill trading guitar and bass parts toward the end of the song.

Close to the end of the regular set came Sharp Dressed Man. The track, which is also from the Eliminator album, remains a classic to this day despite its noticeable ’80s sound. Surprisingly to me, when it came out in 1983, it only reached no. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, it did better, peaking at no. 8 on the singles chart.

The encore was reserved for two other ZZ Top classics: La Grange from Tres Hombres and Tush, which in my opinion perhaps is the ultimate blues rocker – at least the studio version, on which the band sounds super-tight and just rocks! Tush is the closer of Fandago!, the follow-on album to Tres Hombres, which came out in April 1975.

ZZ Top certainly delivered a solid performance. All three of them are top-notch musicians, who have played together forever. The one thing I thought was missing a bit was joy and spontaneity. At times, the performance felt like a routine, a show they had done a million times – which undoubtedly must be true for most of the songs they played.

After a 15- to 20-minute intermission, John Fogerty and his band got on stage. Not only did they play a fantastic set, though no encore, but in marked contrast to ZZ Top, you could see these guys had fun, especially Fogerty. He was upbeat in his announcements and moved around the stage quite a bit, projecting an almost youthful joy of playing that reminded me a bit of Paul McCartney.

John and Shane Fogerty
John Fogerty with his son Shane Fogerty who plays guitar and his backing band

The set featured mostly featured classics from all CCR albums, except the last one, Mardi Gras, and tunes from Fogerty’s excellent 1985 solo record Centerfield. It also included a new tune Fogerty had recorded with Gibbons leading up to the tour, and a few covers. Unlike ZZ Top, Fogerty made a few variations to the set he played during the tour opener in Atlantic City.

The first track I’d like to highlight is Rock And Roll Girls from the Centerfield album that was released in January 1985. I’ve always liked this tune. One of the distinct features last night was a great Clarence Clemons-style solo by young saxophone dynamo Nathan Collins, giving the tune a nice Bruce Springsteen  vibe. According to his blog on John Fogerty’s official website, he will be a senior at the University of Southern California in the Popular Music Performance program – way to go! The quality of the following clip isn’t great, but it’s the only recent version I could find that features the sax part.

Who’ll Stop The Rain appeared on Cosmo’s Factory, CCR’s fifth studio album from July 1970. Fogerty introduced it by pointing out he was playing the tune with the same Rickenbacker guitar he had used at Woodstock – a 325 Sunburst from 1969. How cool is that! And, as has been reported by Rolling Stone and other entertainment media, Fogerty actually gave away that guitar in 1972/73 and it was “lost” for some 44 years, until his wife Julie was able to recover it in 2016 after an extensive search and gave it to John as a Christmas present that year – wow!

Apart from showing an upbeat spirit throughout the night, Fogerty also made it very clear he’s a proud dad. In fact, one of the members of his backup band is his son Shane Fogerty, who did a nice job on guitar, frequently trading solos with his father. The gig also featured another son, Tyler Fogerty, who like his brother is a musician playing guitar and singing. In fact, in 2012, the two brothers were among the co-founding members of Hearty Har in Los Angeles, which describe themselves as a psychedelic rock band. Tyler shared vocals on a few covers, one of which was Good Golly, Miss Molly, the rock & roll classic that first was made famous by Little Richard in 1958.

The next song I’d like to highlight is Holy Grail, Fogerty’s new song he had recorded with Gibbons leading up to the tour. It’s got a nice La Grange groove to it. It’s the only tune I recorded myself, since I figured it might be tough to find it on YouTube. Fogerty and Gibbons had only performed it live once before during the tour opener the night before. That song and a cover of the Moon Martin tune Bad Case Of Loving You, which they also played together, was when Gibbons seemed to be most engaged.

Another standout of the show was a string of New Orleans songs, during which the band truly shined. Here’s New Orleans, a great tune co-written by Frank Guida and Joseph Royster for Gary U.S. Bonds, who recorded it in 1960. The following clip nicely captures last night’s groove, though it’s a slightly different band. The guy on the bass who is visibly having a ball is producer Don Was.

I could go on and on, but this post is already getting very long. So the last song I’d like to highlight is one of my all-time favorite CCR tunes, Have You Ever Seen The Rain. They recorded it for their sixth studio album Pendulum released in December 1970. It also appeared separately and became the band’s eighth gold-selling single. In another dad moment, Fogerty dedicated the tune to his 16-year-old daughter Kelsy Cameron Fogerty. Sure, this wasn’t the first time he did that, but it still felt genuine.

This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the other musicians in Fogerty’s band: Kenny Aronoff (drums), Bob Malone (keyboards), James LoMenzo (bass) and Devon Pangle (guitar). In addition to Collins, the horn section includes two other very talented young musicians: Steve Robinson (trombone) and Ethan Chilton (trumpet). Each of them also has a blog on Fogerty’s website. The fact that John Fogerty gives these young musicians this great opportunity for exposure tells me this man not only has soul but also is a true class act.

Sources: Wikipedia; Setlist.fm; Rolling Stone; Hearty Har website; John Fogerty Facebook page and official website; YouTube