What I’ve Been Listening to: Little Richard/Here’s Little Richard

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McClinton’s above rendition of Long Tall Sally appears on his most recent album Outdated Emotion from May 2022, a great covers collection of old blues, rock & roll and country songs.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

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The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

It’s Sunday and the end of yet another a busy week that left very little time for music. But this shall not prevent me from putting together a new installment of The Sunday Six – coz life without music is simply unthinkable! I think I got a pretty decent and diverse fresh set of six tunes. Hope you enjoy it!

Henry Mancini/Peter Gunn

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, I’m a huge fan of vocals, especially when sung in perfect harmony. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a great instrumental, so let’s get started with a true classic. Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini was the opening track of the American television show of the same name. Starring Craig Stevens as private eye Peter Gunn, the series ran for three seasons between 1958 and 1961. The first version of the theme I heard was the live rendition by Emerson, Lake & Palmer from their 1979 album In Concert, which as I recall got decent radio play in Germany at the time. Peter Gunn was first released as a single in 1959 and also became the opener of the soundtrack album The Music from Peter Gunn. I find this combination of rock and jazz really cool. I wonder whether it inspired Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme from 1962.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers/Refugee

Tom Petty wrote many great songs, so I certainly had plenty of choice. If I could only pick one, I’d go with Refugee from Damn the Torpedoes, the third studio album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Released in October 1979, it’s not only one of the most beloved Tom Petty records among his fans, but it’s also the band’s most commercially successful album in the U.S., and one of their highest charting on the Billboard 200 where it surged to no. 2. Moreover, perhaps not surprisingly, Damn the Torpedoes is on Rolling Stones’ list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Unlike many other older records on that list, remarkably, it moved up from no. 313 in 2003 to no. 231 in the latest revision from September 2020. Co-written by Petty and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, Refugee also appeared separately as the album’s second single in January 198o and became the band’s second top 20 song in the U.S., peaking at no. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. Chart success was even bigger in Canada and New Zealand, where the tune reached no. 2 and no. 3, respectively. Such a great song!

The Beach Boys/Good Vibrations

How about some additional great vibes. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan of most Beach Boys songs, which to me can sound pretty repetitive, I always felt their harmony singing was out of this world. One of the greatest tunes I can think of in this context is Good Vibrations, my all-time favorite by The Beach Boys. Composed by the ingenious Brian Wilson with lyrics by Mike Love, the song was first released as a single in October 1966. Topping the charts in the U.S., UK and Australia, and surging to no. 2 in Canada, The Netherlands and Norway, Good Vibrations became The Beach Boys’ best-selling single reaching Platinum certifications in the U.S. and the UK. It also holds the distinction of becoming the costliest single ever recorded, involving a host of session musicians at four Hollywood studios and more than 90 hours of footage captured between February and September 1966. While that effort certainly sounds excessive, the outcome remains nothing short of breathtaking to this day. Initially, Good Vibrations was supposed to appear on Smile, but it remained an unfinished album at the time. Instead, the tune was included on Smiley Smile, The Beach Boys’ 12th studio record from September 1967. In September 2004, Brian Wilson released Brian Wilson Presents Smile, his forth solo album that featured all-new recordings of the tracks he had originally written for Smile.

Steely Dan/Deacon Blues

Continuing the theme of all-time favorite tracks, let’s turn to Steely Dan and the amazing Aja album. Their sixth studio release from September 1977 remains the Mount Rushmore of Donald Fagen’s and Walter Becker’s output, IMHO. It’s one of those rare albums without any tracks that feel like fillers or are otherwise not as compelling as the remaining tunes. Still, if I had to pick one, I’d go with Deacon Blues. The tune was mostly written at Fagen’s house in Malibu and, according to Wikipedia, was prompted by his observation that “if a college football team like the University of Alabama could have a grandiose name like the ‘Crimson Tide’ the nerds and losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well.” Quoting Fagen from Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop (Marc Myers, 2016), Wikipedia adds: “The concept of the “expanding man” that opens the song may have been inspired by Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. Walter and I were major sci-fi fans. The guy in the song imagines himself ascending to the levels of evolution, “expanding” his mind, his spiritual possibilities, and his options in life.” Instead of continuing the near-impossible task of interpreting Steely Dan lyrics, let’s just listen to the bloody song!

The Chesterfield Kings/I Don’t Understand

If you’re familiar with my music taste, perhaps with the exception of the first track, none of the picks in this post thus far should have come as a big surprise. The picture might change a bit with this next track appropriately titled I Don’t Understand, by The Chesterfield Kings – well, let me explain and you will understand! It all started when fellow blogger Max who pens the PowerPop blog recently featured She Told Me Lies, another tune by this former American garage and psychedelic rock band from Rochester, N.Y. I loved their cool sound right away, which prompted me to listen to The Mindbending Sounds of the Chesterfield Kings, one of sadly only three albums that are currently available through my streaming music provider. I Don’t Understand is the opener of that 2003 album. Founded in the late ’70s by Greg Prevost, The Chesterfield Kings were instrumental in sparking the 1980s garage band revival, according to Wikipedia. A partial discography there lists 11 albums by the group that was active until 2009. Credited to The Chesterfield Kings, I Don’t Understand has a neat Byrds vibe – see, told ya, now you understand this pick! 🙂

Little Richard/Long Tall Sally

Once again, this brings me to the final tune of yet another fun zig-zag journey through music. Let’s make it count and tell Aunt Mary ’bout Uncle John: Long Tall Sally by the amazing Little Richard who I trust needs no further introduction. Co-written by Richard (credited with his birth name Richard Wayne Penniman), Robert Alexander “Bumps” Blackwell and Enotris Johnson, the classic rock & roll tune was released as a single in March 1956 and included on his debut album Here’s Little Richard that appeared at the same time – and, boy, what an album! It also featured Richard gems like Tutti Frutti, Slippin’ and Slidin’ and Jenny, Jenny. Perhaps it’s his equivalent to Chuck Berry’s third studio album Chuck Berry Is on Top from July 1959, which alternatively could have been titled The Greatest Hits of Classic Rock & Roll. Long Tall Sally became Richard’s first no. 1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B chart. Based on Wikipedia, the tune also was his most successful single on the mainstream chart where it peaked at no. 6.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube