In the early 1950s, “Little Richard” Penniman was just another struggling Southern rhythm & blues singer. A handful of singles released by both RCA Victor and Peacock Records between 1951 and 1954 failed to chart, leaving the dynamic performer back in Macon, Georgia working as a dishwasher. He’d form a new band, the Upsetters, touring the Southern chitlin’ circuit for months before fellow R&B performer Lloyd Price recommended that he send a demo tape to Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. The label liked what it heard and Rupe paired him with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, sending Richard to New Orleans to record at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios, thereby changing the course of rock ‘n’ roll history.
Initial sessions at J&M Studios yielded little in the way of marketable recordings. When Blackwell and Richard went to the Dew Drop Inn to relax one night, Richard commandeered the piano and launched into a song he called “Tutti Frutti.” Sensing a hit, Blackwell hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to rework Richard’s risqué lyrics into something more “radio friendly,” and they managed to record Little Richard’s first hit single in a mere three takes. Released in November 1955, “Tutti Frutti” peaked at #2 on Billboard magazine’s R&B chart and #21 on the pop charts, eventually selling better than a million copies. Richard’s next single, “Long Tall Sally,” was released in March 1956 and surpassed its predecessor, topping the R&B chart and peaking at #13 pop, while also hitting Top Ten in Great Britain on its way to another million flapjacks sold.
During the mid-to-late ‘50s, Little Richard and producer Blackwell recorded a string of Top Ten R&B hits, songs like “Rip It Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lucille,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” By the end of the decade, though, Richard had grown dissatisfied with his fame and turned to the ministry, releasing a trio of gospel-oriented LPs in 1960 and ’61. When the British Invasion struck, and bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were confessing their love for Little Richard, the singer turned back to secular music with an under-performing string of singles and albums like Little Richard Is Back (1964) and The Explosive Little Richard (1967), which did little to improve the singer’s commercial fortunes.
Little Richard’s The Rill Thing
Flash forward a few years and Little Richard was working on his comeback. Booked by his then-manager Larry Williams, a R&B singer from New Orleans, to perform rock festivals like the Atlantic City Pop Festival and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, Richard would steal the show from stars like Janis Joplin and John Lennon. Subsequent TV appearances cemented his renewed celebrity status, while Richard’s still-explosive live performances earned the singer a three-album deal with Reprise Records that resulted in 1970’s The Rill Thing, 1971’s King of Rock and Roll, and 1972’s The Second Coming, three somewhat underrated albeit uneven recordings that served to complicate rather than cement Little Richard’s legacy at the time.
Little Richard journeyed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and the legendary FAME Studios to record his comeback disc, 1970’s The Rill Thing (Grade: B). Produced by Richard, the album featured the minor hit single “Freedom Blues.” Co-credited to longtime friend and musical influence Esquerita, the song found Richard in R&B shouter mode, his vocals riding high in the mix above blasts of sax, Travis Wammack’s fatback guitar, and Roger Hawkins’ steady drumbeats. The song’s socially-conscious lyrics attracted an audience, the single hitting #28 on the R&B chart and inching up to #47 on the pop chart. The album’s second single, the energetic “Greenwood, Mississippi,” performed less well, the rocking tune failing to break on the R&B chart and only rising to a meager #85 on the pop chart.
‘Tis a shame, too, ‘cause Richard’s performance on “Greenwood, Mississippi” is like lightning in a bottle, the singer delivering inspired, soulful vocals around which he layers Wammack’s red-hot, psych-tinged guitar licks, and a solid, almost funky rhythmic track. In 1972 or ’73, they might have garnered FM radio airplay as part of the “Southern rock” revival but, in 1970 with AM radio still relying on bouncy pop songs, programmers largely ignored the adventurous and exciting track. Memphis guitarist Larry Lee’s “Two-Time Loser” rides a similar musical vein, Richard’s bluesy delivery nicely complimented by some fine chicken-picking and an up-tempo R&B groove. Paying homage to the New Orleans club that helped launch his career, Richard’s “Dew Drop Inn” is a reckless, old-school rocker with plenty of whoops and hollers and raging piano-play and honking saxophones.
“Somebody Saw You” is another Southern rock precursor, the band’s strolling rhythms matched by a bit of country twang and Richard’s unvarnished R&B vox. The album’s title track is a real poser, however – when you have one of the greatest, most recognizable vocalists in rock ‘n’ roll and R&B history, why do you want to hide him in a ten-minute instrumental track? That’s what “The Rill Thing” is, ten minutes of Little Richard not singing, nearly a quarter of the album’s running time spent jamming to a funky groove…fine, maybe, for Booker T. & the M.G.’s but not for Little Richard’s first album in three years. It’s not a bad song, just a bad choice – cut the performance in half and stick in another song the quality of “Freedom Blues.”
Luckily, the album finishes with the playful, New Orleans-styled romp “Lovesick Blues” and a high-octane cover of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” which both showcase Richard’s powerful vocals and underrated keyboard-bashing. Only Jerry Lee Lewis, perhaps, could do as much damage to a piano as Mr. Penniman. This Omnivore reissue includes bonus tracks in the form of the single edit version of the Beatles’ songs as well as promotional radio spots as only Little Richard could deliver them, along with the non-album single “Shake A Hand (If You Can),” a very cool, gospel-tinged slow-rolling R&B jam with a great vocal performance, a swinging rhythm, and funky sax-play.
Little Richard’s King of Rock and Roll
King of Rock and Roll kicks off with the bold, throwback title song, a swaggering R&R honker with a farcical introduction replete with horns and excited shouting before Richard cranks up the amp and belts out his roller-coaster vocals, name-checking peers like Ike & Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin to a soundtrack that evokes his best-known hits of the ‘50s. Little Richard wears his best P.T. Barnum ringmaster clothes throughout the album, introducing songs with the self-mythologizing and braggadocio that would become the singer’s stock-in-trade throughout the ensuing years. The Hoyt Axton-penned Three Dog Night hit “Joy To the World” is provided nearly two minutes of introduction before launching into a perfectly on-point performance that adds gospel-styled harmonies to Richard’s soulful vocals.
A cover of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” suffers not from a lack of commitment on the part of the legendary vocalist as much from a lackluster arrangement that robs the song of its bite and sidelines Richard’s performance behind mediocre instrumentation and shallow production. We may not know who was playing on the record, but they sure weren’t the Swampers. Richard’s original “In the Name” fares better, offering a more nuanced and soulful vocal performance on a fine lyrical Penniman story-song. Richard’s take on the antique folk-blues standard “Midnight Special” is all over the place, the singer choogling like a rattletrap freight train one moment and pouring it all out with joyful abandon the next.
The lone single released from King of Rock and Roll was “Green Power;” ostensibly penned by Barnham, the song’s chill funk soundtrack and a powerful Little Richard vocal performance that offers both bluster and nuance should have made the song a hit. It seems that, much as with his previous Southern rock exercises from The Rill Thing, Richard was a couple of years ahead of the trends with the engaging “Green Power,” the song failing to make the charts at all. Richard displayed a deft hand with the Hank Williams’ chestnut “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” imbuing his performance with a yearning, emotional edge while his cover of Hank’s “Setting the Woods On Fire” is reimagines the song as a rompin’, stompin’ R&B rave-up with a vocal performance that’s hotter than July, accompanied by roaring saxes and backing harmony vocals.
The Omnivore reissue of King of Rock and Roll offers six additional bonus tracks, including Richard’s original “Still Miss Laza Jane,” which takes flight from what is essentially an a cappella opening to become a rowdy juke-joint rocker. Three instrumental performances – the sizzling “Mississippi,” with its loping keyboards and guitar licks; an instrumental version of “Setting the Woods On Fire,” which does exactly that with a no-holds-barred performance; and the best of them all, the raucous “Open Up the Red Sea,” which showcases Richard’s fierce piano-pounding – all could have replaced the dowdier cover tunes here and made King of Rock and Roll a much better album. It fell short of its predecessor as it was, yielding no hit singles and peaking at a lousy #193 on the Billboard pop chart.
Critical response for Little Richard’s first two Reprise recordings proved to be a mixed bag. In his review for Rolling Stone magazine, critic Joel Selvin effusively wrote that “as incredible as it may seem, Little Richard is as great as he says he is. His new album, the first in three years, is packed with the sort of stuff that all good rock is made of,” Selvin concluding that The Rill Thing was “the most significant chapter in the living legend of the greatest rock and roll singer ever.” By contrast, Rolling Stone critic Vince Aletti would subsequently pan King of Rock and Roll, writing that “the new album is the vocal equivalent of running through the studio audience and just as disappointing for its lack of real audacity behind the pretense of outrageousness. Much of the album seems designed around the Talk Show Personality rather than the Singer, giving it the sticky veneer of a jive extravaganza.”
These Omnivore Recordings reissues feature nice CD booklets with extensive and informative liner notes by blues and R&B historian Bill Dahl, who places these albums in proper context in regards to Little Richard’s overall legacy. Both albums have been out-of-print for over a decade, and were reissued only sporadically before that, so it’s nice to see them available again. The singer’s third and final Reprise album, The Second Coming, would reunite Little Richard with producer “Bumps” Blackwell and familiar faces like drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen but when it, too, failed to chart, it looked like Richard’s ‘comeback’ had stalled.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
Although Little Richard’s career would rise and fall throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, his status as a rock ‘n’ roll innovator and originator was set in stone with his 1986 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With his death earlier this year at the age of 87, only the seemingly immortal Jerry Lee Lewis remains from that groundbreaking group of early rock ‘n’ rollers that would launch a musical revolution and influence generations of musicians to follow. There’s unlikely to be another performer like Little Richard to come our way again... (Omnivore Recordings, released September 18th, 2020)