Saturday, May 9, 2020

Last Thoughts On Little Richard, 1932-2020.

Little Richard is dead.

Long live Little Richard.

Until he died earlier today, Little Richard was arguably the most influential living rock & roll artist. He counted Elvis Presley, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, The Beatles, & Otis Redding not only as contemporaries, but as disciples.

He was the self-proclaimed Architect Of Rock & Roll, & was making the music before virtually every other rock & roll pioneer, with the exception of the late Fats Domino. Perhaps no one captured the implications of Little Richard better than Lillian Roxon in her landmark Rock Encyclopedia in 1969:

His pompadour was high & his hip action wicked when Elvis was still a pimply kid mowing lawns in Memphis. He was the model for 99 percent of the screaming, jet-propelled pelvic freakouts of the post-Elvis early rock era, down to the shiny suits, lurid showmanship & acrobatic piano-playing...Once you have seen Little Richard it is very difficult to take any other rocker seriously. He did it all first.

He also did it among the very best.

For just over 2 years--September 13, 1955 to October 18, 1957--Little Richard recorded a catalog of songs for Specialty Records that rival Elvis's pre-Army sessions, The Beatles' psychedelic era, & Bob Dylan's initial electric albums as some of the most consistently excellent rock & roll  ever recorded. Virtually every song was a hit, classic, or standard (or at least should have been). "Tutti-frutti." "Long Tall Sally." "Slippin' & Slidin'." "Rip It Up." "Ready Teddy." "The Girl Can't Help It." "Lucille." "Send Me Some Lovin'." "Jenny, Jenny." "Miss Ann." "Keep A-Knockin." "Good Golly, Miss Molly." & those are just the songs that made the pop charts.

This is remarkable for anyone, let alone a very wild & flamboyant gay African-American man from the Deep South in the mid-1950s. The fact that "Tutti-Frutti" was originally a celebration of anal sex ("Tutti-frutti, good booty!" went the original lyric), was lost on the many who covered it, including Pat Boone, whose tepid white-bread version of the song scored the bigger hit among pop (read: white) audiences. At the time, this incensed Little Richard to no end, but he came around in later years. He once explained how, for many white kids, while it was Pat Boone's version of "Tutti Frutti" that lay on the teenager's nightstand, it was his version that was secretly tucked away in the drawer underneath. That got him in the room, he acknowledged.

With his hits covered by every white rocker worth their weight in sweat--Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran, & Gene Vincent--& a hereto-unknown generation cutting their teeth on his music on the other side of the Atlantic--The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, & The Kinks--Little Richard was a legend even if he stopped making music right then & there.

Which he sort of did.

Suspended several miles above the ground in an airplane that nearly went down, Little Richard promised God that he would turn to the Church if the plane could land safely. Little Richard kept his promise, which, along with the fact that Elvis was in the Army, Chuck Berry was in jail, Jerry Lee Lewis was disgraced in scandal, & Buddy Holly was dead, helped bring the first great rock & roll era to a crashing close as quickly as it had appeared.

But of course, Little Richard's soul was too conflicted to stay in one place too long. For much of the rest of his career, he remained torn between the rock of blues & the rock of the Church, all the while serving as a reminder--along with such peers as Ray Charles & Aretha Franklin--that African-American gospel music is largely the same thing as rock & roll, only played on Saturday night instead of Sunday morning. 

So, he recorded gospel records, he tried his hand at new rock recordings, & re-recorded inferior versions of his Specialty hits time & time again.

But the die was cast & Little Richard was the rare legend who touched so many other legends.

Paul McCartney learned how to sing by copying him.

Bob Dylan wrote in his high school yearbook that his ambition was join Little Richard's band.

Jimi Hendrix actually did join Little Richard's backing band & it was his big break into the music industry.

The Kinks' first single was a cover of "Long Tall Sally."

Otis Redding began his career directly lifting his style.

The Band liked to do "Slippin' & Slidin'" as a searing encore.

Rock's first great history, Nik Cohn's Rock--From The Beginning, was retitled Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock & Roll.

Rock's first great cultural study, Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, opened with Little Richard exploding in mad fury on a late-night talk show.

& Little Richard became something of a latter-day pop culture icon, appearing in those Nike commercials with Spike Lee & Bo Jackson, rapping on Living Colour's "Elvis Is Dead," & singing "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" on Full House.

He's done the awards laps. His landmark 1957 debut album, Here's Little Richard, is the first (& so far ONLY) '50s rock album inducted in the Grammy Hall Of Fame & he won an honorary Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.

In 1997, he received the American Music Award of Merit.

In 1994, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.

In 1990, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

& in 1986, he was one of the first ten musical inductees into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, along with Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, & Elvis Presley. There has literally never been a better class ever inducted.

& now, after the passing of Chuck Berry & Fats Domino in 2017, Little Richard was one of the last remaining members of that first class. Now all that's left is Don Everly of The Every Brothers, & Jerry Lee Lewis.

Which means that Jerry Lee Lewis is one man closer to being The Last Man Standing.

"It is with a heavy heart that I ask for prayers for the family of my lifelong friend & fellow Rocker 'Little Richard,'" The Killer told Rolling Stone today. "He will live on always in my heart with his amazing talent & his friendship! He was one of a kind & I will miss him dearly."

Other accolades are already pouring in about Little Richard that are as magnificent as the man himself.

Bob Dylan: "His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything that I would do."

Mick Jagger: "He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens & 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.

Brian Wilson: "He was there at the beginning & showed us all how to rock & roll."

There are many more & there will be many more echoing this sentiment.

But for me, Little Richard comes down to one distinctive sound that is now so ripped off, it's amazing to think it was ever someone's signature vocal lick. Because no one could hit a thrilling "ooooo" like Little Richard. Straight from the Church, he drove it into the rock & rhythm & blues, a falsetto wail of a cry that captured the crazy guts & glory of rock & roll like few other sounds.

When Little Richard sang "ooooo," it lit a flame in the ear of his millions of fans.

& that flame will never go out.

No comments:

Post a Comment