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Jeff Simon: Here's Little Richard; Rock 'n' Roll can now begin for real

Jeff Simon

In the universe of rock 'n' roll, some people say it was the Big Bang.

Here's the way Chris Morris tells the story in one of 2017's greatest reissues, "Here's Little Richard" (Specialty/Craft/Concord, two discs).

It's early September, 1955. Little Richard and some of New Orleans' finest R&B virtuosos have been united at J&M studios in the Big Easy, a "small backroom facility at Rampart and Dumaine," a room that had, by that time, produced Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," and Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" which began the career that made Little Richard's volatile subversions possible.

Bumps Blackwell had been told by Art Rupe of Specialty Records to find "a gospel singer who could sing the blues" (a la Ray Charles no doubt).

The immortal rock drummer Earl Palmer described Richard Penniman's advent in the studio, according to Morris: "He walked into J&M like he was coming offstage: that big thick powder makeup and eye liner and the lipstick and the hair everywhere in big waves. Walked in there like something you'd never seen."

And then sat down to bore Blackwell and everyone else with music, on the second disc of this set, we can finally hear -- the first tentative versions of "Baby."

Said Blackwell, "If you look like Tarzan and sound like Mickey Mouse, it just doesn't work out."

Everyone went to the Dew Drop Inn nearby. "Richard began clowning on the house piano." He was unleashing his chops for the great New Orleans tenor player Lee Allen. "WOW" said Blackwell. "He hits that piano and starts to sing. 'A-whomp-wap-a-loo-mop-a-Good-g-d, Tutti Trutti good booty. ... I said 'Wow!' That's what I want from you. That's a hit."

But first local songwriter Dorothy Labostrie, had to sanitize screamingly sacrilegious lewd lyrics. The words had to lose their homoerotic context and turn into nonsense.

Which it did. It was released in November 1955 and hit No. 2 on the R&B charts, 17 on the pop charts.

And the world was never the same again.

What Fats Domino, that sweet, lovable, ever-ingratiating house-rocker and born entertainer had paved the way for, was now in front of everyone and astonishing one and all. Fats' piano had thundered in 1950 as "The Fat Man" and been accompanied by his sweet falsetto 'ooo-we-oo."

Ain't that a shame: Farewell, Fats Domino

Richard's raspy scream and "ooos" and yelping high-register "ows" were from somewhere else. Let Elvis swivel that pelvis and Chuck Berry duck walk. Jerry Lee Lewis would trash the piano keyboard and swipe the air with his unruly blond mop of hair while his audience shook their things.

Little Richard was exploding. He was just a tiny bit nuts -- screaming, yelping in upper registers and refusing to domesticate the explosion touched off at the Dew Drop Inn before lunch.

Sure he would domesticate himself a little to continue early rock's parade of niceness so as not to scare parents to death. No parent could be scared by Fats Domino. No parents could listen to Little Richard without wondering what the world was coming to.

Almost everyone could love a born entertainer like Fats singing such oldies but goodies as "Blueberry Hill," ""My Blue Heaven" and "When My Dreamboat Comes Home." But Little Richard was there to make trouble. It's not for nothing he named his bands "The Upsetters." His message to the world was "a-wop-baba-loobom-a-wop-bam-BOOM!. " (Emphasis on the "boom!")

His band was soon fabled in tours through the south for, as Richard later claimed, doing everything that paranoid white parents were afraid they were going to do. And Richard's subversive gift of chaos brought to 45 rpm records a lot of black slang that wasn't exactly G-rated.

"Good Golly Miss Molly/You Sure Like to Ball" had been a Top 10 bit before White America figured out he wasn't screaming about dancing. "Miss Ann" -- one of the earliest performances on "Here's Little Richard" -- is a whole different song when you realize it's about an arrogant, condescending, high-toned woman. "If she thinks I'm going to let her be free/How wrong can Miss Ann be" probably has a nastier agenda than anyone thought on AM radio.

Listening to Fats now, you can understand how no one back then could resist him. The music was different, but he was no more challenging than Nat "King" Cole. His death, earlier this week, was rightly a cause for universal recognition. He got people listening. Richard got people to "hear" while Beethoven was rolling over and giving Tchaikovsky the news.

Of all the records of early rock, I have the closest relationship to the exhilarating and revolutionary craziness of "Here's Little Richard." Elvis' first two LPss were fine, but Richard was a milestone.

To understand how callow I was in my pubescence, I long considered it one of the triumph of my life the moment when I traded my copy of Baudelaire with Aubrey Beardsley illustrations for "Here's Little Richard." The fellow to whom I traded it went on to graduate from Harvard and work for the CIA (which I know because his father was my doctor and told me). He is, alas, now buried in Arlington among heroes.

I'll just have to celebrate that orange album cover of Richard sweating and screaming that still adorns the reissue. It is historic.

The original record is included here on one disc but a whole other disc of outtakes is a revelation. You can hear the version of "Baby" that so rightfully disappointed Blackwell. You can hear Richard losing his patience  on "Slippin' and Slidin'" with the great tenor saxophonist Lee Allen who keeps forgetting to take his solo and, thereby, providing the "crazy" interlude Richard wants.

When a voice from the control room asks about shifting guitar volume, it almost sounds like Richard Pryor's standard parody of white people's voices in his comedy routines (where everyone sounds like a relative of Elmer Fudd). The racial context in which Richard was performing becomes crystal clear.

So does the wild unpredictable joke this volatile young man was playing on the world in "Ready Teddy," "Rip It Up" and "Long Tall Sally." When Elvis and Pat Boone covered his songs, the joke was complete.

In 2017, we can hear exactly how benign Fats Domino was. But we can also hear why, after a couple decades, Richard went back to his gospel roots and felt a necessity to repent and preach the word of God.

Nobody will never know the way he does now, at age 84, how much in this life he has to answer for.

Look at him in his most recent TV interview and he looks like an elegant, stylish, elderly bald man with eyes that could still penetrate deep into the core of America.

And see things the rest of us would have difficulty imagining.


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