Seemingly everyone with even a passing interest in early rock and roll has a favorite artist from that genre’s maiden decade, be it Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, or any number of other pioneers. The 1950s were an incredibly rich, fertile period for popular music and perhaps no artist embodies the wild abandon of the era better than Richard Penniman, of course better known as Little Richard. First and foremost is his belting, hysterical vocal style. There’s also, of course, his pounding piano playing. Certainly not the least important aspect of Little Richard’s legacy is his sexually ambiguous, androgynous, downright otherworldy image. He was as flamboyant as it got for that era, in terms of mainstream entertainers. Even from today’s perspective, his image and performance style is wild enough to ruffle the most conservative of feathers.
Brand new from distributor Concord Music Group is Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years, a three-disc, 64-tracks compilation. The new liner notes don’t contain nearly enough annotation, however. The essay by music historian (and singer-songwriter) Billy Vera offers a solid overview of Richard’s early career, but the individual tracks feature too little information. We don’t get recording dates, release dates, or studio personnel. What is included is the following albums (though drastically rearranged from their original album configurations): Here’s Little Richard (1957), Little Richard (1958), The Fabulous Little Richard (1959) and (minus one track, “Hound Dog,” for some reason) Little Richard Is Back (1964). There are various other tracks, presumably from 45s. It’s not readily apparent, however, in the scant information in the booklet.
That gripe aside, Directly From My Heart is a tremendous collection of classic rock and roll. All the big ‘50s-era hits are here, indelible touchstones like “Tutti Frutti,” “Miss Ann,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip it Up,” Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “Oohh My Soul.” There’s also the later, fluke hit “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me,” which charted at number 12 on the R&B chart in 1965 (and is more notable for featuring a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix on guitar). It’s the early stuff from Specialty that is most essential. The third disc contains the Vee-Jay era cuts and, by and large, it’s missing the manic inspiration of Richard’s early run. He’s still in peak vocal form, so it remains fun listening. There just aren’t really any true, capital “C” classics on the third disc.
Beyond the hits, there are tons of deep cuts that might be far less familiar to those who have only owned less-inclusive, single-disc “best of” compilations. “Heeby-Jeebies Love” is a “Tutti Frutti” rewrite that boasts absolutely crackling energy. “Goin’ Home Tomorrow” is a fiery, mid-tempo blues. “My Wheels are Slippin’ All the Way” and “Dancing All Around the World” are both fun tunes; relatively rare original compositions from the Vee-Jay period (most of disc three consists of cover tunes).
Directly From My Heart is a must-own archival release for anyone assembling a ‘50s rock and roll collection. For many people, it may just be the only Little Richard release they need to own. That said, his early ‘70s albums on Reprise (The Rill Thing, The King of Rock and Roll, The Second Coming) are all worth hearing (much of the material on these albums trumps the third disc of Directly From My Heart). But this release has the majority of Little Richard’s rock recordings (not the gospel stuff, obviously) from his most vital period.