Sunday , March 3 2024
For all you flat-top cats and dungaree dolls: an ace collection of Little Richard's great early tracks.

Music Review: The Very Best of Little Richard

Let's start with this uncontroversial pronouncement: if you care anything at all about the power and splendor of early rock 'n' roll, you need to have some Little Richard in your collection. A true musical wild man, Richard Penniman opened up the music in ways that were essential for pop's evolution. In a world of blues shouters, Little Richard was the first great musical screamer. A lot of rock vocalists owe their shredded larynxes to the man.

Very Best of Little Richard is the latest in a line of best-of collections capturing this divine mad man at his peak: the years 1955-56 when he was recording for the Specialty label. As venerable r-&-r liner note writer Billy Vera reminds us, Richard resigned from the music biz in '56 to take up the ministry after a burning airplane propeller made him very aware of his own mortality.

Though the singer and pianoman would repeatedly return to playing the "devil's music" in later years, nothing quite matched the sheer lascivious power of the early Specialty cuts. As backed by the Upsetters (most memorably, saxman Lee Allen), this was the sound of horniness at its most unrestrained – even the bastardized attempts to refocus the youth of America toward Pat Boone's milk-safe covers couldn't tamp down the lusty truths that Little Richard was shrieking.

Take the man's first hit single, "Tutti Frutti." Even with the song's original ribald lyrics rewritten (depending on who you read, the song's original signature chorus was either "Tutti Frutti, good booty" or "loose booty" – and not "oh, Rudy"), there's no escaping the singer's intent. The singer's trilling whoops tell the story better than any words can.

Or consider our man's version of Bobby Troup's "The Girl Can't Help It," perhaps the greatest tribute to bimbodom ever sung. If you've ever seen the grandly stoopid Frank Tashlin comedy for which it was recorded, it's impossible to hear this track without visualizing a pneumatic Jayne Mansfield strolling down the city sidewalks.

Prior to this newest CD release, the best Little Richard collection was arguably Rhino's 18 Greatest Hits, which also focused on the Specialty years. This new collection adds seven tracks of variable interest. None of 'em truly fall under the title Very Best, but when you've already run your listener through the original "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly, Miss Molly, "Slippin' And Slidin'" and "Rip It Up," the final tracks almost serve as a cool down.

Two marginally successful attempts at reviving Tin Pan Alley hits ("Baby Face" and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon") with a New Orleans beat much as Fats Domino did with "My Blue Heaven" mainly serve as object lessons in just how different the two singers were. Domino's tracks are more genial and slyly lecherous; Richard's strengths lay in shouting out his intentions.

Additionally, the new disc includes one of two blues tracks that Richard assayed for a demo tape. For hardcore Penniman fans, this is akin to Elvis Presley's early tape of "My Happiness: more interesting as historical artifact, than as a fully realized piece of music. That someone (in this case, Specialty Records owner Art Rupe) was able to hear the manic potential buried deep within "Baby" is definitely Good Rudy.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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