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

What I’ve Been Listening To: Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperials/Full Tilt

Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperialsgood golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball, to borrow a famous line from Richard Wayne Penniman, the dynamite rock & roll artist known as Little Richard! I don’t believe I had heard from Chicago blues slide guitarist Lil’ Ed Williams and his backing band until this morning, when my music streaming provider served up their eighth studio album Full Tilt as a listening suggestion. Released in August 2008, this record is nothing short but an invitation to party, and I couldn’t help to start grooving behind the wheel of my car. Did I mention I’m a passionate dashboard drummer? 🙂

Here are some excerpts from the band’s official bio: In Chicago, a city overflowing with unrivaled blues talent, world-renowned Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials have been standing tall for over 30 years. The band’s big sound, fueled by Lil’ Ed’s gloriously rollicking slide work and deep blues string bending, along with his rough-edged, soulful vocals, is as real and hard-hitting as Chicago blues gets…

…Lil’ Ed Williams comes to the blues naturally. His uncle, Chicago slide guitar king and master songwriter J.B. Hutto, taught him how to feel, not just play the blues. Nine albums and thousands of performances later, Lil’ Ed is now universally hailed as a giant of the genre. Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials —bassist (and Ed’s half-brother) James “Pookie” Young, guitarist Mike Garrett and drummer Kelly Littleton— have remained together for over 30 years —an extraordinary feat for any group—, the band fueling Ed’s songs with their rock-solid, road-tested, telepathic musicianship…

Lil' Ed And The Blues Imperials
The band’s current lineup (from left): James “Pookie” Young (bass, backing vocals), Mike Garrett (guitar, backing vocals), Lil’ Ed Williams (guitar, lead vocals) and Kelly Littleton (drums)

…Born in Chicago on April 8, 1955, in the heart of Chicago’s tough West Side, Ed grew up surrounded by music. He was playing guitar, then drums and bass, by the time he was 12. Ed and Pookie received lessons and support from their famous uncle. “J.B. taught me everything I know,” says Ed. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.” Ed and Pookie spent their teen years making music together, and in 1975 formed the first incarnation of The Blues Imperials…

…Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials released eight Alligator albums between 1986 and 2012. With each one, the band’s national and international stature grew as their fan base —known internationally as “Ed Heads”— continued to expand. With 2006’s Rattleshake, Ed and company reached a whole new audience. Die-hard “Ed Head” Conan O’Brien brought the band before millions of television viewers on two separate occasions. Success and accolades never stop pouring in…The group took home the Living Blues Award for Best Live Performer in 2011, 2012 and 2013. They won the prestigious Blues Music Award for Band Of The Year in both 2007 and 2009…

‘Okay, enough of the hype,’ you might think, ‘show me the goods!’ Ask and you shall receive. Why don’t we just start with opener Hold That Train. Written by Williams, the tune got my immediate attention. If you’re into electric blues slide guitar, how can you not love it?

Are you ready for the next tune? Here’s Housekeeping Job, another fun track penned by Williams. Love that funky and soulful vibe. In addition to great electric slide guitar action, check out the tasty saxophone work by Eddie McKinley (tenor sax) and David Basinger (baritone sax). Damn, if this doesn’t make you move, I’m afraid you might be deaf or dead!

Okay, let’s slow things down to catch our breath with Check My Baby’s Oil. This track was co-written by Lil’ Ed and his wife Pam Williams. What I’m wondering is why would somebody want to hang out with a car. 🙂

First I Look At The Purse is speeding things back up. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers, the classic tune was first recorded by Motown act The Contours in 1965. Probably the best version I’ve heard of this tune is by The J. Geils Band and their fantastic “Live” Full House album from September 1972. But Lil’ Ed and his guys, whose dynamic playing style reminds me a bit of the ultimate party band, aren’t far behind.

Okay, all parties have to come to an end. Here’s one more, and yes, it’s sweet: Candy Sweet, another co-write by Lil’ Ed and his wife Pam.

After having listened to this album, boy, do I feel like seeing these guys live. And they are indeed on the road. The only problem is, none of the currently scheduled gigs is within reasonable distance from my house. The closest I can see is New Year’s Eve in Moon, Pa. While entering the 2020s with that kind of music sounds like a lot of fun, it would be a six-hour drive. Even for a music nut like me, that’s a dealbreaker. Perhaps instead, I’ll write a blues about it: Oh, Lil’ Ed, can’t you no see/Oh, Lil’ Ed, can’t you no see/Why can’t you play a lil’ closer to me

Sources: Wikipedia; Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials website; YouTube

Great Covers Tom Petty Style

American Girl, Refugee, You Got Lucky, Runnin’ Down A Dream, BreakdownFree Fallin’, Southern AccentsMary Jane’s Last Dance, The Last DJ – there are countless great songs written by Tom Petty. In addition to that, Petty has also performed many fantastic covers, especially during his concerts. With The Heartbreakers, he had one hell of a backing band. I was reminded of that earlier today, when I came across and listened to an EP titled Bad Girl Boogie, which apparently was exclusively released on Amazon.com in June 2010 as a bonus CD to the DVD Live At The Olympic: The Last DJ. This triggered the idea of putting together a post focused on covers played by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

I’d like to start things off with what I believe was the first cover I ever heard from Tom Petty: Needles And Pins, a song I’ve always dug. It was included on Pack Up The Plantation: Live!, the first official live album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,  which appeared in November 1985. Written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono, the tune was first released by Jackie DeShannon in April 1963. In January 1964, The Searchers turned it into a no. 1 hit single in the U.K. In the U.S., it performed strongly as well, peaking at no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Petty’s great rendition features Stevie Nicks on backing vocals.

Next up: Green Onions, simply one of the coolest instrumentals I know. It appears on The Live Anothology, a live box set and true treasure trove released in November 2009. The tune was initially written by Booker T. Jones and recorded by Booker T. & The M.G.’s in 1962 in a largely improvised fashion while waiting to back another artist in the studio. It became the title track of the Stax house band’s debut album from October 1962 and their signature tune. According to the liner notes, the Heartbreakers’ killer take was recorded during a February 6, 1997 gig at The Fillmore in San Francisco.

Here’s I’m Crying from the above mentioned bonus CD to the Live At The Olympic DVD. The concert was recorded on October 16, 2002 at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Written by Eric Burden and Alan Price, this great tune by The Animals first appeared as the B-side to the Australian version of their 1964 single Boom Boom, a cover of the John Lee Hooker tune. I’m Crying was also included on their second U.S. studio album The Animals On Tour.

Another intriguing cover appearing on The Live Anthology is Goldfinger – yep, that would be the title track of the classic 1964 James Bond motion picture! Composed by John Barry, with lyrics co-written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, it’s one of the greatest movie songs I know. Presumably because it would have been hard to capture the amazing vocal by Shirley Bassey, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the track as a cool Shadows-style instrumental. Mike Campbell is doing an outstanding job that I assume made Hank Marvin proud, if he heard it. Like Green Onions, Goldfinger was captured at The Fillmore in San Francisco, except it was a different date: January 31, 1997.

The last cover I’d like to highlight in this post also appears on the above Bad Girl Boogie EP/bonus CD: The Chuck Berry classic Carol, first released as a single in August 1958. It also appeared on Berry’s first compilation album Chuck Berry Is On Top from July 1959. This take features more awesome guitar work by Campbell and some kickass honky piano by Benmont Tench – great gosh a’ mighty, to borrow from another talented gentleman and piano player called Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube