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

Clips & Pix: Little Richard/Long Tall Sally & Tutti Frutti

I just saw the sad news that Little Richard passed away today at the age of 87. The cause of his death hasn’t been announced.

Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Ga. on December 5, 1932, Richard was one of my all-time favorite classic rock & roll music artists. In addition to writing and co-writing many rock & roll gems, Richard was an incredibly compelling performer.

Long Tall Sally, co-written with Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and Enotris Johnson, and released in March 1956; and Tutti Frutti, a co-write with Dorothy LaBostrie that appeared in October 1955, are among my favorites.

Little Richard certainly deserves more than just a quick notice and I’m planning to follow this up with a longer post.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: September 8

1952: Twenty-two-year-old Ray Charles, one of the greatest voices in jazz, R&B, blues and soul, recorded his first session for Atlantic Records. In June that year, the record company had bought out his contract from Swingtime for $2,500, the equivalent of approximately $23,700 today. With hits like I’ve Got A Woman, A Fool For You and What I’d Say Charles would release before he moved on to ABC-Paramount in November 1959, let’s just say Atlantic’s investment paid off handsomely. One of the four cuts Charles recorded during that first session with Atlantic was Roll With My Baby by Sam Sweet, which became his first single for the label backed by The Midnight Hour, another tune Sweet had written. Check out the great groove on this tune, which wants to make you snip along with your fingers!

1957: The infectious Reet Petite by Jackie Wilson was released for the first time. It gave “Mr. Excitement” his first solo hit, peaking at no. 6 on the U.K. Official Charts and climbing to no. 45 on the U.S. Cash Box chart, both in November that year. It would take another 29 years before the great tune, which was co-written by Berry Gordy, Gordy’s sister Gwen Gordy Fuqua, and Wilson’s cousin Roquel “Billy” Davis, would hit no. 1 in the U.K. in November 1986. Unfortunately, Wilson who passed away in January 1984, was not able to celebrate the tune’s late success. And, yes, feel free to sing along r-r-r-r-r-rolling that “r.”

1964: The Beatles performed two concerts that night at the Forum in Montreal, Canada before a crowd of 21,000 fans. At that time, Beatlemania was going on in full swing with its insanity, which for this particular event included death threats from French-Canadian separatists. The Fab Four never returned to Montreal thereafter. The two gigs that night included their standard 12-song set Twist And Shout, You Can’t Do That, All My Loving, She Loves You, Things We Said Today, Roll Over Beethoven, Can’t Buy Me Love, If I Fell, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Boys, A Hard Day’s Night and Long Tall Sally. Here’s an audio recording, which supposedly is from that show. It’s posted on The Beatles Bible, the source of the ultimate Fab Fab truth. The quality is mediocre, but hey, let’s not bitch here, it’s pop music history!

1973: Speaking of great voices, Marvin Gaye reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with the title track of his thirteenth studio album Let’s Get It On. Co-written by Gaye and Ed Townsend, the tune became his second no. 1 single in the U.S. after I Heard It Through The Grapevine from October 1968. Remarkably, Gaye would top the U.S. chart only one more time with Got To Give It Up released in March 1977. Let’s Get It On performed more moderately in the U.K., peaking at no. 31. Well, let’s get it on to a clip of the great tune!

1974: Eric Clapton topped the Billboard Hot 100 with his excellent cover of I Shot The Sheriff. Written by Bob Marley and first recorded for the sixth studio album by The Wailers Burnin’ from October 1973, the tune became Clapton’s only no. 1 single on the Hot 100. The song also appeared on his second solo album 461 Ocean Boulevard, which appeared in July 1972 and was his first record after beating a three-year heroin addiction.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music.com, This Day In Rock, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: August 28

1964: The Beatles performed the first of two gigs at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, New York during the U.S. leg of their world tour that year. They played their standard 12-song set of original tunes largely drawing from the A Hard Day’s Night album, as well as rock & roll covers. The tunes included Twist And ShoutYou Can’t Do ThatAll My LovingShe Loves YouThings We Said TodayRoll Over BeethovenCan’t Buy Me LoveIf I FellI Want To Hold Your HandBoysA Hard Day’s Night and Long Tall Sally. After the show, The Fab Four met Bob Dylan who visited them in their suite at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City. Beatles biographer Jonathan Gould noted the musical and cultural significance of the meeting, saying within six months, “Lennon would be making records on which he openly imitated Dylan’s nasal drone, brittle strum, and introspective vocal persona”; and six months after that, Dylan began performing with a backing band and electric instrumentation, and “dressed in the height of Mod fashion.” While the fact that great music artists influence each other isn’t exactly surprising, based on The Beatles Bible’s account of that night, it seems to me John, Paul, George and Ringo primarily got stoned with Dylan who brought along some grass to smoke. Not really sure how much their condition allowed them to have meaningful conversations about music. Here’s some footage from the Forest Hills show, a great illustration of Beatlemania, which makes me wonder why The Beatles didn’t stop touring earlier.

1965: Exactly one year after The Beatles, Bob Dylan took the stage at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, marking the first night of a 40-date North American tour. Following a solo section, Dylan played an electric set. This all happened only about a month after he had rattled the “folkies” at the Newport Folk Festival. On that night in Forest Hills, Dylan’s electric backing band featured guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm, who were then associated with a band called The Hawks, a predecessor to The BandHarvey Brooks (bass) and Al Kooper (organ) rounded out the line-up. After the first two shows of the tour, Robertson and Helm insisted that their mates from The Hawks join Dylan’s backing band: Rick Danko (bass), Garth Hudson (keyboards) and Richard Manuel (drums). Dylan agreed, and until May 1966, they would be billed as Bob Dylan and the Band. Here’s a clip of Like A Rolling Stone, which supposedly was captured from the Forest Hills gig. The sound quality is horrible, but, hey, it’s mighty Dylan and it’s historical!

1968: Simon and Garfunkel’s fourth and second-to-last studio album Bookends hit no. 1 on the UK Official Albums Chart Top 100, starting a five-week run in the top spot there. Apart from the title track, the record featured gems like America and the no. 1 U.S. single Mrs. Robinson. Written by Paul Simon, the tune had become famous the previous year when it had been included in the American motion picture The Graduate. I’ve always loved the bluesy touch of that song.

1972: Alice Cooper topped the British singles chart with School’s Out, scoring his only no. 1 hit anywhere in the world. Credited to Cooper (lead vocals) and the members of his band at the time, Michael Bruce (rhythm guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Glen Buxton (lead guitar), Dennis Dunaway (bass, backing vocals) and Neal Smith (drums, backing vocals), the tune was the title track of the band’s fifth studio album released in June 1972. School’s Out also became Cooper’s biggest chart success in the U.S., peaking at no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. According to Songfacts, Cooper during a 2008 interview with Esquire said, “When we did ‘School’s Out,’ I knew we had just done the national anthem. I’ve become the Francis Scott Key of the last day of school.” It’s also safe to assume, Cooper shocked some school principals and parents.

1981: British DJ, producer and band manager Guy Stevens passed away at the age of 38 years from an overdose of prescription drugs he was taking to reduce his alcohol dependency – yikes! Among others, Stevens gave Procol Harum and Mott the Hoople their distinct names. He also co-produced The Clash’s fifth studio album London Calling from December 1979, together with Mick Jones, the band’s co-founder, lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist. Stevens also brought Chuck Berry to the U.K. for his first tour there in 1963. He also was the president of the Chuck Berry Appreciation Society. According to Wikipedia, Stevens introduced lyricist Keith Reid to keyboarder Gary Brooker and told Reid at a party that a friend had turned “a whiter shade of pale”. Supposedly, these words inspired the song with the same title that was subsequently recorded by Brooker’s newly formed band Procol Harum and became a major international hit in 1967.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, Songfacts, YouTube

Pix & Clips: Little Richard/Long Tall Sally

There is actually nothing little about Richard Wayne Penniman, the giant artist better known as Little Richard. Long Tall Sally, which he co-wrote and recorded with Enotris Johnson and producer Robert Blackwell in 1956, is one of my favorite classic rock & roll tunes. It became Richard’s first no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and reached no. 7 on the Hot 100 pop chart. The song is also ranked at no. 55 on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The above clip is from the 1956 musical picture Don’t Knock The Rock, which also included performances from Bill Haley & His Comets, The Treniers and studio band Dave Appell and the Applejacks. While it is obviously staged and the audience is kind of hilarious to watch, I still dig this clip, since it illustrates Richard’s great showmanship. And how how about this kick ass saxophone player jumping on Richard’s piano and playing a killer solo?

If I were a little kid watching this, I would want to learn how to play the piano like Richards and the sax like the saxophone guy. In fact, I still feel like learning these instruments. So maybe there is still a little child in me!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube