A Tale of Two Albums
I first heard “Tutti Frutti” on a big, ornate Wurlitzer jukebox at Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Pwihelli, Wales, and it fried my eleven year old mind totally and permanently. I’d already heard a few records emanating from the USA under the catch-all banner of rock ‘n’ roll and was already enamored of Fats Domino, but to my ears Fats was a jazzy blues artist. I came from a family of working musicians, so had already been exposed to a quite sophisticated musical landscape by age eleven. I was exploring piano and was soon to acquire my first guitar as my reward for passing the British 11 Plus Exam – the gateway to higher education for a working-class kid.
The Butlin’s jukebox had Bill Haley and The Comets, some early Presley and Chuck Berry, and the first lukewarm bleatings of British rock music, but I could tell instantly that this record was the real thing: 100 proof, high octane. The propulsive quality was beyond exciting, with the thick layers of synchronized saxophones driving the improbably frantic, hysterical screaming of one Richard Penniman … the quasar, the thunderbolt … Little Richard. The B-side (yeah,sure!) was “Long Tall Sally,” and I spent hours pumping coins into the jukebox to hear those two inflammatory pieces of music. By the time our week-long holiday was over and we returned to Liverpool, I was totally besotted and brainwashed by what had hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.
No, I didn’t rush out to buy the disc when we got home. Although there were gramophones to be found in the neighborhood and the family, my dad had opted for an early Grundig tape recorder instead so he could record classical music from the BBC. It was expected that I would buckle down to my academic future, which did not include the rampant ravings of Little Richard.
As fate would have it, there was a shop in our part of town called Epstein & Sons, which sold electric appliances of all kinds. It occupied a large corner lot and consequently had room for big display windows, two fronting the busy thoroughfare of County Road and a third and smaller window facing onto the side street. This window had recently started featuring musical merchandise of a modest nature: small Dansette record players and radios, a smattering of down-market guitars and the like, plus a display of records, including some of the new-fangled LP discs. This side window seemed to be put together with a lot of care, and became a regular stopping place for us incipient teenagers. I lived a couple of blocks away and passed it daily as there was also a bus stop nearby.
At this point I had yet to see a photograph of Little Richard, so when Epstein’s displayed his first LP “Here’s Little Richard” in all its screamingly fluorescent yellow glory, it hit me as the visual embodiment of the music still rooted in my head. The photographic image was outrageous, and I didn’t even know that word yet. It was a head-shot and, yes, he was screaming for sure! Eyes closed, mouth wide and extravagantly equipped with pearly whites, a towering pompadour, and a precise toothbrush moustache, it seemed like every bead of sweat on his face was etched in diamond dust. For grey, dreary Liverpool, in grey, dreary post -war England it was a remarkable, jolting image. Although it was an exact facsimile of the U.S. cover on Specialty Records, one has to praise the marketing people at Decca Records, who were issuing the discs on their London-American imprint, for letting that cover loose in England untouched.
I could live without a pictureless single, but the actual album I had to have! I had a source of pocket-money from helping out at a fishmongers, which paid half a crown a week. At that rate it would take almost a month to save up the price of the LP, so I spent a lot of time staring in that Epstein & Sons window. The other black face on display was that of Fats Domino, in caricature, which in hindsight was very apt. Allen Toussaint once famously remarked “Fat’s Domino’s music never harmed man, woman or child,” whereas Little Richard’s look and sound were the diametric opposite. Dangerous !
In retrospect, there were many extraordinary developments in this twelve-song compilation, which was essentially the A and B sides of his entire output on Specialty up to that time. The studio cast was basically the team who had provided Fats Domino’s genial, rolling groove on records since 1949 and the studio in New Orleans, right where it had always been, was Cosimo Mattassa’s – J & M.
Dave Bartholomew was not in charge, however. Bumps Blackwell, who came in as Art Rupe’s producer on the sessions, was initially very doubtful about Richard’s ability on the ivories, and consequently booked the New Orleans piano legend Huey Smith to handle the piano duties. Huey played on the early attempts at recording Richard at J &M, but those takes didn’t get it as far as Art was concerned. Rupe is quoted as saying that Bumps called that one wrong: “Richard could only play in one key, but he was great in that key!”
Penniman’s relentless piano pounding and generally manic triads jack-hammering along with his over-the-top vocals, affected the way Earl Palmer was able to play the drum parts. In his biography Backbeat Palmer stated that Richard’s rough and ready approach was as exciting in the studio as on stage, and in order to accommodate the artist’s unique perception he had to come up with an approach that is now considered to be the inventive template for rock drumming. Palmer moved the right hand emphasis away from the ride cymbal to the hi-hat because Richard had already filled that acoustic space with those relentless triads. To all intents and purposes, this was the beginning of rock drumming as we know it today, the looser, splashy swing of a ride cymbal replaced by the more clipped hi-hat sound, which also changed the perception of syncopation for the whole band.
Fats and the other New Orleans piano “Perfessors” were much better technicians than Richard and had the rich history of piano playing in the area on which to base their styles. Penniman was a Georgia country boy out of Macon; he’d been knocking around on the southern circuit for quite some time and had even cut some sides with his road band, The Upsetters, so his own approach was pretty much set by the time he began working with the sophisticated musicians at J & M. It was down to them to accommodate his way of doing it, which is probably why the studio band sounded so radically different on Richard’s records than on those of Fats and Bartholomew. Bumps Blackwell was also a stranger to the area, a gun for hire, so he was also free of preconceptions as to how the music should turn out.
The resulting juggernaut of sound flattened everything else that hit the record stores and airwaves. Cosimo’s monophonic mixes are still a marvel … never listen to this stuff in stereo, by the way! This was genuinely unhinged, wild and crazy shit.
Presley , Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins were coming out of an established form (country and western), Chuck Berry’s music had strains of country and small combo jump blues, and Fats couldn’t have been more rooted in his hometown of New Orleans. Only Bo Diddley was as truly iconoclastic as Little Richard Penniman, but Bo’s palate was much more limited and restricted, although no less exciting in its way.
Drop a needle anywhere on this platter, it doesn’t matter … the barn is burnin’ wherever you land.
It isn’t just the music either. I soon realized that within the rapid-fire nonsense syllables was a cast of characters worthy of Chaucer (I’d just started reading The Canterbury Tales). Bald‑headed Sally, Uncle John, Aunt Mary, Miss Anne, Ready Teddy, Jenny, and the narrator himself, who frequently puts himself in the thick of the action. It also seemed that the word “ball” served equally as noun or verb; in short, I could tell these were not paeans to pure innocence. They were nasty songs about nasty people doing nasty things … grown-up people doing grown-up stuff, and apparently having a ball ballin’, slippin’ and slidin’, peepin’ and a hidin’, and so on. This was a big ol’ slice of black American life served pipin’ hot. There was another subtext I couldn’t put my finger on just yet, but “Little Richard – Volume 2” was soon to clarify that for me.
When “Little Richard – Volume 2” took its place beside the Yellow Scream in the display window at Epstein & Sons, the visual contrast was extremely noticeable. Haloed in a purple haze, the headshot was air-brushed to a svelte smoothness with the addition of what looked suspiciously like a liberal use of cosmetics. In retrospect, it seems to have provided the template for the look that Prince took to the bank thirty years later, whether by accident or design.
The music was pretty much as explosive as before, blasting off with “Keep A Knockin'” delivered at a blistering pace, and throughout the collection there were enough incendiary performances to keep my rock ‘n’ roll heart happy. However, Art Rupe must have been aware that Fats Domino was having a string of huge successes with rocking re-vamps of standards and evergreens, so in the mix this time were “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon” and “Baby Face.” Fats’s style was such that songs from an older generation fitted very well with his approach, whereas Richard’s take on these standards came across as camp, although I didn’t know that word yet in its socio-sexual context. Most disconcerting to my still-innocent sensibilities was the ending of “Ooh, My Soul” where his otherwise flame-thrower vocal dissolved into a girlish simpering giggle. At that point in time, homosexual behavior was generally very discreet in the U.K. and especially in an über-macho environment like Liverpool, so it took awhile for the penny to drop that Richard was gay, but so what? In hindsight, and in the historical context, there are clues scattered throughout his work, but his persona and sound were so exotic and wildly flamboyant anyway, that we just accepted it as part of the package.
Obviously, a sophisticate like Brian Epstein would have been in on the skinny; he must have got a kick displaying those subversive album covers openly in staid, Irish-Catholic North Liverpool!
What is undeniable is the fervor and pulse of the music, arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded, and as scalding hot today as it was sixty years ago. Although ostensibly a non-stop paean to rampant hedonism, most of Richard’s stylistic devices came directly out of the black Pentecostal church tradition, which was still a hidden, unknown quantity to the world at large before Richard let the genie out of the bottle. The black church seems to have made its peace between the sacred and profane early on, making it possible for such a unique artist as Little Richard Penniman to emerge fully formed from that background.
I was lined up with rest of the Liverpool musical youth, when Richard headlined at Liverpool Empire, backed by Sounds Incorporated and a barely teenage Billy Preston on Hammond Organ, with The Beatles making their first concert appearance anywhere, ever, as the opening act. In the late 60s, when I was deep into the Pentecostal soul scene as Doris Troy’s pianist and band‑leader(and was consequently under the Apple umbrella along with Billy Preston), I had the great pleasure of spending quite a bit of time with Billy (always a monster talent), and he had fond memories of his time with Little Richard. He reckoned that without touring with Richard he probably would never have linked up with The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.
These two Little Richard albums are essential listening for anyone interested in the vibrant heart of rock ‘n’ roll!
As promised, this piece is dedicated to R. Stevie Moore, who knows his rock ‘n’ roll and who triggered this memory by posting a picture of The Yellow Scream on Facebook a couple of weeks ago.