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Little Richard

On The Beatles' second U.S. album they did a cover of "Long Tall Sally" with Paul handling lead vocals and attempting to replicate Little Richard's wails. He did a great job but it wasn't the same. Nobody, but nobody, could match the manic drive of a classic Little Richard track.

Born in Macon, GA, to a deeply religious family, Richard Penniman began performing at age eight belting out R&B and Gospel songs. By '51, he was recording but those efforts bore little fruit. Three years later fellow performer Lloyd Price suggested Little Richard audition for Specialty Records in L.A. With a record contact in hand, Little Richard entered the studio with producer/manager Bumps Blackwell and created the most thunderous, euphoric, bone jangling Rock 'n' Roll the world had ever heard.

"Tutti Frutti" was first out of the gate. The song reached #17 on the pop charts. Not bad for starters. However, Pat Boone, a white crooner, covered the song and took it to #12. Little Richard came up with the opening while working as a dishwasher at the Macon Greyhound bus station. A busboy came in with a load of dishes and Richard proclaimed, "A-whop-bob-a-lu-bop, a-whop-bam boom, take them away."

The much stronger "Long Tall Sally" followed. It too was covered by Boone. Even though Boone's sanitized versions were initially more successful, they were quickly forgotten, soon recognized as the totally gutless performances they were. The B-side, "Slippin' And Slidin'" also charted.

Through the remainder of '56 and '57, "Rip It Up," "Lucille," "Jenny, Jenny, Jenny" and "Keep-A Knockin'" rolled out. Little Richard even followed Elvis into the movies appearing in "The Girl Can't Help It" with sex bomb Jane Mansfield.

It was while on an Australian tour that Richard's life changed. One story went that a plane's engine caught fire and Little Richard prayed to God and swore that if they landed safely he would renounce Rock 'n' Roll and do God's work. Pretty dramatic. However, the real reason may have been simpler. The press, especially those with religious or conservative agendas, had been decrying Rock 'n' Roll as the devil's music. Since Little Richard came from a religious background concerns about Rock 'n' Roll's morality probably had some effect over time. Also, Little Richard may have become confused or shameful of his sexual orientation and associated exploits. Either way, he quit Rock 'n' Roll and enrolled at the Oakwood Theological College in Huntsville, AL, to become a minister. But before he started, Richard completed one more recording session for Specialty. The highlight was his last major '50s hit and one of his all-time best songs "Good Golly Miss Molly."

For the next few years Little Richard recorded Gospel. But by '62, he was on the comeback trail touring the U.K. and Germany, hooking up with local favorites, The Beatles. (An interesting side note: The Beatles last song at their last concert at San Francisco's Candlestick Park was "Long Tall Sally").

While not having any major hits, Little Richard was popular and active in the late '60s and early '70s as part of the Rock 'n' Roll Revival. Elvis had made his impressive comeback and the seemingly innocent and fun music of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry was in vogue. Little Richard recorded new material but frankly it was in a deep shadow when compared to his earlier work. But Little Richard was nothing if not flamboyant. He claimed repeatedly in interviews that he was "the prettiest thing to come out of Macon, Georgia. Ever!" Should anyone question the absolute magnificence of Little Richard they were cut off with an abrupt "Shut Up!" It was comic, camp and fun but Little Richard was probably serious.

Gone were the baggy suits of the '50s. Bell-bottoms and a shredded vest with mirrors attached, to create a blurring, dazzling effect, comprised the new wardrobe. Perfect. Now he came on stage with his make-up more pronounced, his hair piled high and held in place with a headband. But the basic Little Richard was still intact. One of the highlights from this period was an appearance at the Rock 'n' Roll Revival Show in Toronto. The '69 show featured many of Richard's '50s contemporaries including Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and, making their debut, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.

Still active in the 80's and '90s, Little Richard's credits included an appearance in the film "Down And Out In Beverly Hills" (he also contributed to the soundtrack). He kept busy on numerous projects including a compilation of children's songs. In the '50s Little Richard laid the groundwork. In the '60s, he returned to show just how much crazy fun Rock 'n' Roll could be.

Little Richard Discography

All great Little Richard records share common traits - his staccato piano, incredible glass-shattering falsetto and vibrant energy. Producer "Bumps" Blackwell was also a major contributor (songwriting, production and arrangements). Until his "retirement," Little Richard unleashed a string of Rock 'n' Roll classics with, "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Long Tall Sally" and "Rip It Up," being the most notable. Specialty Records, Little Richard's label, has released several Greatest Hits compilations ("The Georgia Peach," The Essential Little Richard," "The Specialty Sessions-Box Set," etc.). As long as they are Specialty recordings they are excellent. Little Richard gave up Rock for religion in the late '50s and recorded Gospel albums. Steer clear, not because they are Gospel, but because they aren't very good. Also, Little Richard re-recorded his hit songs in the '60s. These second rate recordings were an ill-advised attempt by his new label to bilk the unsuspecting music buyer. On the upside, Little Richard produced a good set of children's songs for Disney, "Shake It All About."


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