Little Richard turns 76

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If you cross New Orleans rhythm-and-blues with gospel music of the deep south and add a generous dollop of mischief to leaven the mix, you might come up with the one and only Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard. Today he turns 76.

Richard started recording at the age of 19 for RCA. On his early sides he imitates the popular rhythm-and-blues artists of the early ’50s. But through luck and good timing, based on a two-song demo tape heard by producer Bumps Blackwell, he was signed to Specialty Records and teamed with Blackwell in 1955.

Charles White’s The Life and Times of Little Richard is the authorized biograhy. Blackwell recalled for White that Specialty Records owner Art Rupe had ordered Blackwell to find a singer who combined the sound of blues and gospel. When he heard the tape, Blackwell said, he heard that combination, but he also heard someting more. “The voice was unmistakably star material…I could tell that the singer had something to say and could say it better than anyone I could think of.”

If you’ve ever heard the original versions of “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Ready Teddy,” “Rip It Up,” “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey,” “Lucille,” “She’s Got It” and the other Specialty recordings he tore through between 1955 to 1957, you have a pretty good idea wha the voice had to say. The hook from “Long Tall Sally” conveys the essence: “Have some fun tonight.”

“Tutti Fruitti” was Little Richard’s first hit, by way of Pat Boone’s wretched million-selling version of the song for white audiences. Richard himself broke through with “Long Tall Sally.” The effect was galvanizing. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, all instantly recorded their own versions of Little Richard’s material. He is one of the supreme architects of rock.

White’s account of the composition of “Long Tall Sally” begins with a walk-on by an impoverished young lady from Appaloosa, Mississippi named Enortis Johnson. Johnson had walked all the way from Appaloosa to New Orleans (“a fur piece,” like Lena in Light In August) looking for Richard with three lines written on a scrap of paper (“Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally/They saw Aunt Mary comin’/So they ducked back in the alley”). Blackwell recalled Johnson’s explanation:

“Aunt Mary is sick. And I’m going to tell her about Uncle John. Cos he was out there with Long Tall Sally and I saw ’em. They saw Aunt Mary comin’ and they ducked back in the alley.”

“They did, huh?” Blackwell responded. Blackwell and Richard proceeded to supply the rest of the lyrics and the melody, but Johnson got the first of the three writer’s credits on the song. Boone successfully covered this song too, White adds in a footnote, “managing to sound as though he is not quite sure what he is singing about.”

Richie Unterberger adds a comment concerning Richard’s Specialty recordings:

While Richard’s inimitable mania was the key to his best records, he also owed a lot of his success to the gutsy playing of ace New Orleans session players like Lee Allen (tenor sax), Alvin Tyler (baritone sax), and especially Earl Palmer (drummer), who usually accompanied the singer in both New Orleans and Los Angeles studios.

In 1957, Little Richard abandoned music for the ministry. In the ’60s he reentered the business with fitful success, only to abandon show business for the ministry a second time the following decade. “This time,” Langdon Winner writes in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock& Roll, “he explicitly linked the music to his involvement with drugs and homsexuality.” Yet he returned to show business again as a kind of elder statesman.

It is the Specialty Recordings of the two years from 1955 to 1957 that stand as his monument. His musical influence is substantial. Listen to the Everly Brothers bring their sound to “Lucille.” Listen to Paul McCartney cut Little Richard in the process of imitating his every vocal lick in the Beatles’ 1964 recording of “Long Tall Sally” (the first song McCartney ever sang in public), perhaps the best cover ever of one of Richard’s songs. Listen to Frank Zappa, the unlikeliest of Richard acolytes, adapt Richard’s spirit to his own in Zappa’s version of “Directly From My Heart to You” (with an assist from Don “Sugar Cane” Harris on the violin and the vocal) The legacy is durable and enduring.

UPDATE: Reader D. Gorton suggests that the Enortis Johnson story related by White may not be entirely factual given the lack of any Mississippi locale named “Appaloosa.”

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