King of Rock and Roll: The Complete Reprise Recordings
Before he devolved into a talk-show celebrity best known for saying “shut up,” Little Richard found his truest muse.
It wasn’t the same as the one he consulted to conquer the world in the mid-’50s, when Georgia peach Richard Penniman staggered rock and roll and all other possible circuits with pompadoured, wildman hits like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up” and the (could it be?) semi-autobiographical “The Girl Can’t Help It.” Little Richard found his core muse in 1970. Call her southern soul. Call Little Richard one of her greatest exponents. The proof is this limited edition, three-disc set, the sad and thrilling document of a comeback that failed.
It collects 1970′s stunning The Rill Thing, 1971′s less cutting, cover-heavy King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1972′s desperately titled, incandescent The Second Coming, cuts from the movie “$,” and 10 astonishingly profound, country-flecked tunes from the unreleased album, Southern Child.
As the set progresses, it becomes more experimental and surprising, as if Reprise (and Little Richard) had ever less to lose. Such are the exigencies of commerce.
Even though Little Richard did tunes by the Beatles, Stones – and, particularly, Martha and the Vandellas – proud, it was his originals that propel this remarkable collection. “The Rill Thing,” in particular, is fantastic. Driven by Little Richard’s lower, more honest and less exhibitionist voice, it’s southern soul of the most snazzy and heartfelt kind. “Freedom Blues,” a minor hit written by Richard and doppelganger/secret role model Esquerita, and Travis Wammack’s “Greenwood, Mississippi” launch it, and there’s no looking back.
What’s great about this is the music and the art and the reminiscing. What’s not so great is that, just as in the original liner notes, there’s little commentary on the sessions themselves.
The startlingly definitive Muscle Shoals Rhythm section contributed; so did long-time Richard associates Lee Allen on sax and the masterful Earl Palmer on drums. Both cut tracks with him at Cosimo Matassa’s New Orleans studio in 1955. But that’s a minor beef. The set is exceptional, southern soul (and all it connotes) at its finest.