We’ve had a lot of talk lately on Blogcritics about Elvis Presley, the founding of rock ‘n’ roll, and title to the throne. There was a two-year period between 1955 and 1957 when NO ONE made rock ‘n’ roll like Little Richard.
In the spring of 1955 Bumps Blackwell was hired as an A&R trainee by owner Art Rupe of the R&B and gospel label Specialty. Rupe liked Blackwell’s arranging skills, his ambition and his savoir-faire.
A few weeks after he was hired, Blackwell and Rupe listened to a demo tape by Little Richard and the Upsetters, and both thought they heard a little something in the young singer’s voice. Richard was playing in New Orleans and signed to the Peacock label when a demo arrived at Specialty “wrapped in a piece of paper looking as though someone had eaten off it,” according to Blackwell in Charles White’s The Life and Times of Little Richard.
Rupe allowed Blackwell to buy Richard out of his Peacock contract for $600 and sign him to Specialty. In September, 1955 Rupe sent Blackwell to New Orleans to produce Richard at Cosimo Matassa’s primitive J&M studio with the rocking house band (Lee Allen on tenor sax, Red Tyler on baritone sax, Earl Palmer on drums, Edgar Blanchard or Justin Adams on guitar, Huey Piano Smith on piano, and Frank Fields on bass). This band, with some variations, had played on the records of Roy Brown, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Shirley and Lee, Lloyd Price and many others.
Neither the band nor Blackwell knew what to make of Little Richard when they first met each other in the studio. “When I walked in, there’s this cat in this loud shirt, with hair waved up six inches above his head,” recalls Blackwell. “He was talking wild, thinking up stuff just to be different.”
Red Tyler recalls that Richard was “You know, quite funny, and not funny ha ha.” After some uninspiring takes of blues numbers, Blackwell was worried. “If you look like Tarzan and sound like Mickey Mouse it just doesn’t work out. I didn’t know what to do . . . because there was nothing there that I could put out.”
So they took a break and went over to the Dew Drop Inn. Richard was much more at ease out of the studio and started joking around at the piano. The few patrons started egging him on and all of sudden Richard broke into a crowd pleaser from his stage show, “Awop-bop-a-Loo-Mop a-good Goddam/Tutti Frutti, good booty,” and the song scaled impressive scatological heights from there.
The fire and life that had been missing in the studio was suddenly, explosively,
there. Chuck Berry was a sly wink. Little Richard was a poke in the eye. He was everything parents (including his own) worried about: a charismatic, narcissistic, ambisexual, dithyrambic black man. But by early 1956, both the black and the white teens were ready for such ecstatic rebellion.
In an astonishing two-year period, Little Richard recorded all of his great hits for Specialty in New Orleans with the J&M house band, or in Los Angeles: “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin and Slidin,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Keep a Knockin,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Girl Can’t Help It” and “Ooh! My Soul.”
With the piano pumping, the saxes wailing and Richard tapping into some otherworldly energy flow, the rock ‘n’ roll revolution started by Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry was completed, and Little Richard was on top of the world. The rest of Richard’s life until the present – stretched between the Gospel and the serpent – is another story, but no one ever made rock ‘n’ roll like this again, Richard included.