Reviewed on this page:
Here's Little Richard - Little Richard -
The Fabulous Little Richard - Pray Along With Little Richard -
The Explosive Little Richard - Little Richard's Greatest Hits - Recorded Live! -
The Rill Thing! - The King Of Rock 'N' Roll - The Second Coming - Southern Child - Lifetime Friend
Richard Penniman has had one of the longest and most bizarre careers in rock and roll history. He invented uptempo rock and roll in 1955 with "Tutti Frutti" and almost immediately
every would-be hip singer was covering his every single (the Beatles recorded "Long Tall Sally" and "Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey," and played "Ooh! My Soul" in live shows).
But the cover versions always fell flat because the songs were designed especially for Richard's 12-cylinder vocal delivery, wild-eyed
outrageous persona, the joyful abandon of his piano playing, and his top-flight backing band, the Upsetters. But fifteen frantic
months after hitting it big, he quit the devil's music for gospel. After getting kicked out of the seminary, he started a comeback effort that's
lasted nearly forty years, scratching his way onto the charts a few times in the 60s before scoring one hit in the early 70s ("Freedom Blues") and one in the mid-80s ("Great Gosh A'mighty"), but never again coming close to his former glory either commercially or artistically.
The original Little Richard discs can be hard to find: pick up the excellent compilation 18 Greatest Hits if you can find it. Whatever you do, don't buy any of the many re-recordings he made of his hits: if it doesn't say it's the original Specialty masters, leave it on the shelf. If you get a chance to see him in concert, though, check it out: I saw him in June 2008 and reviewed the show.
I only know of one book about Little Richard, and I've reviewed it on our book reviews page.
Little Richard released four singles on RCA in 1951 and 1952; they didn't chart. "Taxi Blues" and most of the other tracks are in the smooth jazz/R&B style of Bobby
Short, or maybe Cab Calloway meets Nat King Cole; "Get Rich Quick" is a bit livelier but with the same basic approach. Richard seems to be affecting a Northern urban
accent, and the effect is bizarre enough that most fans should hear this material at least once.
He cut two singles for Peacock in 1953 and 1954, and they didn't chart either.
Here's Little Richard! (1957)
By the time of this release, he's been recording hits for Specialty for over a year, and the label put together a flat-out classic.
Aside from the historical impact, this contains several of the finest rock 'n' roll vocal performances ever recorded: "Long Tall Sally," "She's Got It" and especially
"Tutti Frutti," Richard's first Specialty single and the tune which, more than anything except maybe "Rock Around The Clock," put rock music on the map.
Mostly electrifying fast rockers ("Rip It Up," "Ready Teddy") though he includes a few slower numbers for balance ("Baby," "Miss Ann"), but all are belted out at a force of
ten tons per square inch.
With the brief track times and Richard emoting like crazy, you may not notice the Upsetters, but they're tighter than a pair of Gloria Vanderbilts, and the tenor sax players
get in some admirable honking though neither gets a proper solo.
Little Richard (1958)
More consistent and more varied than the first Specialty LP, from the ballad "Send Me Some Lovin'" to the incredibly fast "Keep A-Knockin'."
It's also the source of his two best songs ever, "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Lucille," plus the hilarious, amazingly singleminded "Ooh! My Soul."
Half these tracks are from late 1956 and 1957 ("I'll Never Let You Go"); the rest were already in the can when Here's Little Richard was released, but are far from also-rans
("Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey"), with the arguable exception of "Heebie Jeebies." So despite the impact of Richard's debut and the brilliance of Chuck Berry's Berry Is On Top,
this stands out as the best early rock and roll LP.
The Fabulous Little Richard (1959)
With Richard in the seminary, Specialty pumped out another LP of leftovers and outtakes, many of them sweetened with post-dubbed female backing vocals and strings.
Usually a record like this will have at least one overlooked masterpiece, but this time:
nearly all these tunes were originally passed over because they were slow and not particularly distinctive ("The Most I Can Offer"), and the rest are just lackluster
("Shake A Hand," a cover of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On").
Pray Along With Little Richard (1960)
Whatever you say, Mr. Record Company Guy. Though I'm more moved to pray for him whenever I listen to this...
I'm no gospel expert, but this is easily the least affecting and most poorly recorded example of the genre I've heard to
date. The usual bases are covered - uptempo handclappers ("Every Time I Feel The Spirit"), slow lamentations
("Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley"), spoken exhortations ("Coming Home") - but somehow none of it connects.
Richard's voice is as huge as ever ("Does Jesus Care"), and I don't question his commitment, but his usual intensity is nowhere
to be found. He does sound a bit more comfortable on the tunes which are closest to his usual four-chord rock and roll
("Milky White Way"). The backing on most tracks is organ, piano and drums, but the "recorded in a cavern" fidelity makes
it hard to get much out of what they're playing.
Available on CD under the title God Is Real.
Pray Along With Little Richard Volume 2 (1960)
More tracks recorded at the same 1959 sessions (the strikingly unprophetic "I'm Quittin' Show Business"). (DBW)
The King Of The Gospel Singers (1961)
How's this for star power: produced by Quincy Jones with liner notes by Mahalia Jackson. Includes a few originals ("He's My Star").
Little Richard Is Back (1964)
After a brief return to Specialty (which produced a couple of singles including "Bama Lama, Bama Loo" but no album), Richard moved to Vee-Jay and cut this disc of oldies like "Hound Dog" and "Short Fat Fannie."
If you've already heard all the key Richard tracks, there's some interesting secondary material here: a big-band jazz number with wild falsetto ("Only You"), a slow soulful rendition of "Goodnight Irene" with prominent congas.
Despite claims to the contrary,
Jimi Hendrix wasn't in the band yet and doesn't appear.
Little Richard's Greatest Hits (1964)
Vee-Jay re-recordings of, well, his greatest hits. It's not terrible: "Good Golly Miss Molly" doesn't have the tautness of the original but it's even more urgent, and the layers of horns add a nice touch.
Over the next year he released three singles of new material, including the pleasant uptempo "Cross Over" and a lovely, soulful version of "I Don't Know
What You've Got (But It's Got Me)" (which does feature Hendrix). Though "I Don't Know" was a charting single, due to Vee-Jay's financial problems none of those tracks were collected on album until many years later.
The Incredible Little Richard Sings His Greatest Hits - Live! (1966)
At least this release doesn't seem quite as likely to fool the unsuspecting. And there is one new song here: "Do You Feel It." Recorded for Modern. (DBW)
The Wild And Frantic Little Richard (1966)
The second and last Modern LP, contains some new material and some more re-recorded early hits ("Miss Ann").
The Explosive Little Richard (1967)
Now recording for Okeh, Richard covered a batch of almost-current R&B hits like "Land Of 1,000 Dances" and Sam Cooke's "Well All Right." Producer Larry Williams
sneaked several of his own compositions onto the LP, though none of his hits: they're mostly four-chord tunes built on
simple catchphrases ("It's A Poor Dog (Who Can't Wag His Own
Tail)"). The good news is, Richard is near his electrifying best ("I Don't Want To Discuss It"), and the
clean small-band recording - with Johnny Guitar Watson on, well, guitar - lets his enthusiasm pour
right out of the speakers. He even gives his best on a couple of hokey ballads ("I Need Love"; "The Commandments Of Love").
If only there were a couple of good songs here, it would rank among the best of his post-Specialty work.
Released on CD with some single sides ("A Little Bit Of Something (Beats A Whole Lot Of Nothing)") and bonus tracks - recorded in London under the supervision of Norman "Hurricane" Smith - under the title
Get Down With It.
Little Richard's Greatest Hits - Recorded Live! (1967)
Like the title says; the last Okeh disc and his last recording for a few years. Richard knocks off the hits vigorously, but in truncated versions that make it obvious he's rather bored with
the material. An inordinate amount of album space is devoted to his speeches to the audience (in which he sounds more like a preacher than ever, though he doesn't discuss religion) - electrifying
as he is, I'd much rather have heard less ranting and more complete songs.
The backing band includes Billy Preston and Johnny Watson, but you can't hear them doing much - I wish I knew who was playing the wah-wah trumpet on the
slow blues "Anyway You Want Me," though, that's hot stuff.
Definitely seek out the Specialty stuff, but if you can't find any of it, this is a decent introduction to his schtick.
The Rill Thing! (1970)
A switch to Reprise quickly produced "Freedom Blues," an unpolished up-with-people number (co-written with Esquerita) that became Richard's biggest post-seminary hit (I think - "Great Gosh A-Mighty" charted higher but more briefly). An album predictably followed in the same vein: one I-IV-V progression after another ("Spreadin' Natta What's The Matter"), same medium tempo, same arrangement, thrown-together lyrics ("Somebody Saw You"). Apart from the single, the melodies are nothing special, and the low point is a ten-minute instrumental (title track). And maybe it's just me, but I'm thrown off by the extreme stereo mix, in which the bass and guitar are all the way to one side and the drums and keys (when present) are all the way to the other.
Mostly self-penned, though he tackles Hank Williams's "Lovesick Blues" and finally returns the Fab Four's compliment ("I Saw Her Standing There").
This album has been released together with three followups and some extra tracks as King Of Rock & Roll: The Complete Reprise Recordings.
Well Alright! (1970)
Specialty rushed out another compilation, including some previously unreleased 50s tracks including alternate takes of "Kansas City" and "Wonderin'," and all of the 1964 material (title track,
by Sam Cooke).
Also in 1970, Richard cut a track with Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, "Bludgeon Of A Bluecoat," but it was never released; he also performed "Miss Ann" on Delany & Bonnie's To Delaney From Bonnie.
The King Of Rock 'N' Roll (1971)
Very often an artist's partisans will defend a commercially underperforming album by saying it "should have been a hit" and I rarely agree, but I can't understand why this follow-up flopped.
For the next Reprise release, producer/arranger H.B. Barnum took a bunch of cover tunes ("The Way You Do The Things You Do"; "Brown Sugar" ), put smart, sassy Stax/Volt-ish R&B arrangements under them, and put Richard on top of them. Little Richard responded superbly:
instead of trying to sound like either the original artists or his younger self, he infuses tunes like "Joy To The World" and "Born On The Bayou" with feeling and urgency.
The few originals are also a blast: on the title track he recites his hit-making credentials with preacherly fervor, and "Green Power" (a single) is an stomping update of the "Money (That's What I Want)" ethos for the Black Power era (albeit two or three years late). If you want to hear one post-Specialty Little Richard album, make it this one.
The concurrent single, a remake of "Shake A Hand," was left off the LP.
The Second Coming (1972)
Clearly Mr. Penniman was not keeping careful track of his comebacks... Third and final album for Reprise, and he sounds completely worn out on cuts like "Mockinbird Lane" - two songs aren't even sung, merely declaimed ("Prophet Of Peace"). The song material is just as tired; even the better efforts - "When The Saints Come Marchin' In" - are nothing to cross the street for. Adding insult to injury, the disc is padded out with instrumental ("Sanctified Satisfied Toetapper") and near-instrumental ("Nuki Suki") jams.
He was in much better form this year when he contributed two tracks to the Dollars soundtrack: "Money Is" is lots of fun (including an unexpected quote from "I Was Made To Love Her"); "Do It - To It" is ordinary but at least has some hyperactive bongos. (DBW)
Southern Child (rec. 1972, rel. 2005)
Little Richard's country-Western album: Recorded at the same sessions as Second Coming (and possibly considered for release earlier), shelved at the time, finally made available in 2005. I don't know what motivated the genre switch but it doesn't sound like a whim: He wrote or co-wrote everything, and fully embraces the idiom: there's hardly any piano or brass, and lots of slide guitar (via Sneaky Pete Kleinow). At times he explores country's links to blues ("Last Year's Race Horse (Can't Run This Year's Race)"), at others he captures country's love of sentimentality and strained metaphor (the haunting - believe it or not - "If You Pick Her Too Hard (She Comes Out Of Tune)"). Some of the tunes are less inspired ("I Git A Little Lonely," which relies heavily on the lyric "I got it bad and that ain't good"), though, and the concluding vamp "Puppy Dogs" is endless. Although Ray Charles would achieve country crossover success a decade later, I doubt this record would have done the same for Richard - on the other hand, it could hardly have done worse than Second Coming.
Friends From The Beginning - Little Richard & Jimi Hendrix (1972)
A compilation of 1964 Vee-Jay material, with three previously unreleased recordings: "Belle Stars," "Funky Dish Rag" and "Why Don't You Love Me."
Though (as previously discussed) Hendrix had appeared on three tracks Little Richard cut for the label, they're not included here. (DBW)
Right Now! (1973)
The C&W phase didn't last: Recording for United Artists, he knocked out a disc of uptempo R&B - with a couple of slower numbers like "Chains Of Love" - in one night-long session (as the title hints). Mostly other people's hits ("Dock Of The Bay"; "Chain Of Fools") with a few originals ("Hot Nuts"), and while never exceptional it's harmless fun ("Geraldine Jones").
Also in 1973, Richard appeared in Let The Good Times Roll and remade three of his hits for the soundtrack.
In 1975 Little Richard made a rare sideman appearance on Bachman-Turner Overdrive's Hold On, pounding the keys on "Take It Like A Man" and "Stay Alive."
Little Richard Live (1976)
Little Richard and K-Tel was a marriage made in heaven: a label which specialized in recreating hits, and an artist who specialized in recreating them. With 20 cuts it's a decent value at least in terms of quantity. (DBW)
God's Beautiful City (1979)
Back to gospel - the must-have tracks are surely "Little Richard's Testimony" and "Little Richard's Testimony (Part 2)."
Apparently this has recently been re-released on CD with bonus tracks, though I can't find it.
Lifetime Friend (1986)
This year he released "Great Gosh A'mighty" (by Billy Preston) on the Down And Out In Beverly Hills soundtrack - it was his first charting single in fifteen years.
As you'd expect, an album followed: Little Richard's first thorough attempt to blend his religious preaching with his piano-pounding rock 'n' rolling.
Produced by Stuart Coleman, who unfortunately fell prey to the mid-80s Phil Collins Snare Sound ("Great Gosh A'mighty," not the hit version from the movie soundtrack). But there's so much else going on in the mix - blaring sax, pounding piano, Richard's raucous vocals - it's not overwhelming.
The songs are mostly new, written by some combination of T. Womack (title track), J. Boyce (the city blues "Operator") and Richard (the touching ballad "Someone Cares"), making this probably your safest post-Reprise Little Richard purchase.
In 1988, Little Richard and Fishbone covered Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line" for the compilation Folksways: A Vision Shared.
The Specialty Sessions (rec. 1955-1964, rel. 1989)
This 72-track compilation is excessive (four versions each of "Slippin' And Slidin'" and "Kansas City"), with only a few eye-openers like "I Got It" (the ancestor
of "She's Got It"), but it's a reasonably cost-effective way of reconstructing the original Specialty albums.
In 1990, Little Richard contributed guest vocals to Living Colour's "Elvis Is Dead." (DBW)
Shake It All About (1992)
A children's album - "The Hokey Pokey," "On Top Of Spaghetti," etc. - including a knock knock joke-infused run-through of "Keep A-Knockin'."
Little Richard brightens the familiar material with his manic stylings, and his id-heavy larger-than-life persona is naturally appealing to youngsters ("If You're Happy And You Know It"). The problem with the record, at least for a grown-up listener, is the production, with booming drums and mechanical soul backing (apart from some surprisingly radical lead guitar).
Little Richard Meets TAKANAKA (Little Richard/Masayoshi Takanaka: 1993)
If you're going to record an album of Little Richard covers, why not bring in the man himself to sing them? I'm sure I'd have done the same if I'd been in guitar whiz Takanaka's position, and Richard sounds just the way you'd expect, so it's not his fault the project fails. Instead, blame the sterile programmed rhythm section, the surprise-free repertoire, and the guitarist himself.
A la late-period Jeff Beck, Takanaka uses heavy metal techniques on pop material ("Good Golly Miss Molly"). But like the rest of us mortals, Takanaka lacks Beck's uncanny melodic invention, so the incongruous dazzle merely sounds eccentric ("Jenny Jenny").
Weirder still is the rapping on "Lucille" - I don't know who performed it but I'd rather they hadn't.
Also in 1993, Little Richard sang a duet with Elton John, "The Power." (DBW)
In 1996, Little Richard covered "I Feel Pretty" for The Songs Of West Side Story.
In 1998, Little Richard recreated "Keep A-Knockin'" for the Why Do Fools Fall In Love? soundtrack.