After having published this blog for more than six and a half years, a post on Little Richard’s debut album may seem to come out of left field, given my previously expressed longtime love of ’50s rock & roll. Moreover, it’s not the first time I’m writing about Richard and some of the songs on that album, Here’s Little Richard. In this case, the trigger was a cover of Long Tall Sally I heard yesterday by Delbert McClinton, who was on my radar screen thanks to fellow bloggers Max (PowerPop) and Cincinnati Babyhead, aka CB. As such, blame them if you don’t like it! 🙂
McClinton’s above rendition of Long Tall Sally appears on his most recent album Outdated Emotion from May 2022, a great covers collection of old blues, rock & roll and country songs. While he does a nice job with this rock & roll classic, it made me think of the incredible original and that nobody I know has done it better than Little Richard – not even my all-time favorite band The Beatles, though I dig their rendition as well. One thing led to another, and I found myself listening to Richard’s original, followed by the entire record – and, holy cow, what an album!
When Here’s Little Richard was released in March 1957, it was advertised as “six of Little Richard’s hits and six brand new songs of hit calibre.” ‘Okay,’ you might think, ‘so it’s more of an early greatest hits record combined with a few additional tunes.’ True, though putting previously released singles on a record was quite common back in the day. Plus, in any case, this doesn’t change the fact it’s a record packed with amazing music I’m thrilled to write about!
In September 1955, Richard signed with Specialty Records after he had sent a demo there and the label’s owner Art Rupe loaned him money to buy out his contract with his current label Peacock. Rupe also hooked up Richard with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Wikipedia notes that apart from overseeing Richard’s early hits, Blackwell is best known as grooming Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson, Lloyd Price, Sam Cooke, Herb Alpert, Larry Williams and Sly and the Family Stone at the start of their music careers.
In October 1955, Tutti Frutti backed by I’m Just a Lonely Guy became Richard’s debut single for Specialty Records and his first-charting song in the U.S. Five more singles followed prior to the release of Here’s Little Richard, including three that were included on the album: Long Tall Sally/Slippin’ and Slidin’ (March 1956), Rip It Up/Reddy Teddy (June 1956) and Heeby-Jeebies/She’s Got It (October 1956). The album, which was recorded in New Orleans and Los Angeles, was Specialty’s first 12-inch LP. Let’s take a closer look at some of the goodies!
First is Tutti Frutti, a song I had first heard and come to love by Elvis Presley. Written by Richards in 1955 while working as a dishwasher at a Greyhound bus station in his hometown of Macon, Ga., the tune was credited to Richard Penniman (Richard’s birth name was Richard Wayne Penniman) and Dorothy LaBostrie who had been asked by Blackwell to revise some of Richard’s original lyrics, which Blackwell felt were too racy. “Awap bop a lup bop a wop bam boom” was kind of his catch phrase, something he would reply to folks who asked him how he was doing, according to Songfacts.
True, Fine Mama was one of the six “brand new tunes”. Solely penned by Richard, it didn’t become a hit, as far as I know. It also wasn’t released as a single. That said, the tune’s beginning sounds exactly like Good Golly, Miss Molly, which first appeared as a single in January 1958 and became another hit for Richard. Both tunes are great examples of his frenetic piano playing. You can literally picture him beating the crap out of the piano keyboard.
On Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave, written by Leo Price, Richard sounds like Fats Domino. It’s safe to assume this wasn’t a coincidence. Richard liked Domino’s sound and also thought of him highly otherwise. In October 2027 in the wake of Domino’s death, he told Billboard that “He’s the greatest entertainer that I ever known. Black, white, red, brown or yellow, he’s a just good guy and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to know him. I love him.”
Next up is the song that inspired this post, which I simply couldn’t skip. Long Tall Sally, another tune Richard wrote during his time as a dishwasher for Greyhound, was credited to him, Blackwell and Enotris Johnson. It became his biggest hit, topping the R&B chart and climbing to no. 6 on the pop chart in the U.S., while reaching no. 3 in the UK. Songfacts notes There really was a “Long Tall Sally,” but she was not a cross-dresser as sometimes reported. Little Richard explained that Sally was a friend of the family who was always drinking whiskey – she would claim to have a cold and would drink hot toddies all day. He described her as tall and ugly, with just two teeth and cockeyed. She was having an affair with John, who was married to Mary, who they called “Short Fat Fanny.” John and Mary would get in fights on the weekends, and when he saw her coming, he would duck back into a little alley to avoid her. Man, that tune is cooking – I simply can’t listen to it without starting to move. And if I ever do it means I’m probably dead!
Miss Ann, credited to Penniman and Johnson, is another example of a brand new tune. According to Songfacts, Some of Little Richard’s songs are based on real experiences, and this one is about a woman named Ann Johnson. Along with her husband Enotris Johnson, Ann, who was a white woman from Macon Georgia, took in Little Richard after he was kicked out of his house for what Richard once claimed was because of his homosexuality. The Johnson’s ran the Tick Tock Club, where Richard first performed. I wonder whether the personal connection is a reason why Entrois Johnson received a writing credit for the tune.
The last song I’d like to call out is Jenny Jenny, which if I see it correctly still was new when the album appeared. It was credited to Penniman and Johnson as well. Unlike the other new songs, Jenny Jenny also became one of Richard’s highest-charting tunes, similar to Long Tall Sally. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 2 on the R&B chart and climbed to no. 10 on the mainstream chart. In the UK, it reached no. 11.
Here’s Little Richard is a breathtaking record full of energy, which still sounds great nearly 66 years after its release. I recall I previously wrote Chuck Berry’s 1959 album Chuck Berry Is On Top might as well be titled ‘The Greatest Hits of Classic Rock & Roll’. Frankly, I think Little Richard’s debut belongs in the same category. So perhaps Berry’s album could be called ‘The Greatest Hits of Guitar-Driven Rock & Roll’, while an alternate title for Richard’s debut could be ‘The Greatest Hits of Piano-Driven Rock & Roll’. I guess it doesn’t really matter.
I should also call out the dynamite musicians who backed Richard on the album. Some include Lee Allen (tenor saxophone), Alvin “Red” Tyler (baritone saxophone), Edgar Blanchard (guitar), Frank Fields (bass) and Earl Palmer (drums), who were all leading figures of New Orleans rock and roll and R&B. Allen later became a member of The Blasters. Palmer was one of the most prolific session musicians who played on thousands of albums. His obituary by The Associated Press from September 2008 noted Little Richard said that Palmer “was probably the greatest session drummer of all time,” citing Richard’s autobiography and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s website rockhall.com.
Last but not least, here’s a Spotify link to the album. Hope you dig it as much as I do!
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Billboard; Associated Press/New York Times; YouTube; Spotify