Little Richard Penniman
For most rock and rollers, the doors of recording success open and generally not long after, slam terminly shut.
For Richard Penniman, the doors opened very wide in early 1956, and from a recording “success” standpoint, closed a short time later in 1957. But while although Little Richard’s legacy would be strongly defined by his raucous brand of rock ‘n’ roll, his true legacy would distinguish him possibly as the greatest live rock and roll performer who has ever taken the stage.
Born to Rock
I have just completed the very entertaining, a slightly disturbing “The Life and Times of Little Richard by British author Charles White. The book first appeared in 1984. From his initial “emergence” in the fall of 1951, when he laid down his first blues oriented tracks for RCA Victor, up until the time of this book’s publication, Little Richard gyrated between the life of a no-holds-barred rocker to that of a re-missive “sinner” and devout religious minister.
The rise to rock and hall fame wasn’t an overnight phenomenon as it seldom is. Early on Richard stepped into the life of a spirited performer. He quick stepped through stints in the deep South first with Doctor Nobilio, the “Macon Profit”, next Dr. Hudson’s “Medicine Show” dancing – singing in a minstrel fashion. Then it was on to fill-in performances with a B. Brown and his Orchestra at the Winsetta Patio in Fitzgerald, Georgia, (Brown was a musician of some notoriety, with a following and recording success on a small scale), followed by a stint with “Sugarfoot Sam” out of Alabama in a Vaudeville style act.
In rapid succession: The Jolly Steppers, The L. J. Heath Show, early recording sessions (late 1940’s) backed by blues musician Billy Wright (Savoy Records recording artist,) and Percy Welch & His Orchestra; He performed with many blues singers including Marian Henderson, Baby Rose, Gladys Williams, Hamp Swain and so on – all while still a teenager.
Eskew Reeder Jr.
In 1951 Richard would make the acquaintance of a piano playing musician, Eskew Reeder, Jr., who was passing through Macon, Georgia. Little Richard first spotted him at a local Greyhound bus station in the company of a lady preacher, Sister Rosa. Little Richard would befriend the performer who went by the name “Esquerita”who would become his mentor on the keyboards, and from whom Richard would begin to adopt what would be his own rocking and very unique explosive piano style which would mark his performances as unmatched by any other rocker.
Lloyd Price & Specialty Records
Little Richard’s first releases came on the RCA Victor label, recorded in October of 1951. He would cut a total of eight tracks for RCA before moving on to Peacock in early 1953 where he would record another eight tracks all in the classic blues style. There would be no further recording sessions for Little Richard for nearly two years. Then, in 1955 Little Richard would meet the Specialty Record Label star, Lloyd Price who had hit it big with a million selling single, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” (#1 for 7 weeks on the R&B charts in 1952.
Price and Little Richard would become friends, and Lloyd would put Richard in-touch with Art Rube at Specialty Records. Little Richard sent Specialty (based in California) with a two track audition tape (“Wonderin'” & “He’s My Star”). He wouldn’t hear back from the label for many months, nearly a year. But when he did, things would dramatically change. “Wonderin” would be released on Specialty 660 in 1959 and would go nowhere and would appear years later on Specialty, coupled with “Poor Boy Paul”, in 1970 as a last ditch effort to rekindle the Little Richard Magic. “He’s My Star” did not see the light of day or the starlight of night.
New Orleans’ Session that Changed the World
Specialty Records’ producer “Bumps” Blackwell made the journey from California to New Orleans where he would set-up a makeshift studio for Little Richard’s debut recording session. Bumps would bring in a “who’s-who” lineup of New Orleans session men for what would be a two-day session which began on September 13th, 1955. The session men included Frank Fields on bass, Alven “Red” Tyler and Lee Allen on saxophones, Justin Adams on guitar, Melvin Dowden on piano, the great Earl Palmer on drums, and for at least a few tracks, Huey “Piano” Smith.
(Earl Palmer – Huey Piano Smith – Lee Allen – 1st Little Richard Session)
Dorothy & the Dew Drop Inn
The session proceeded well enough with the regular blues offerings, but Bumps felt that something lacking. He called for a lunch break for the session and accompanied Richard to a nearby cafe, the “Dew Drop Inn”. They walked in the door and Richard, spotting a piano in the corner, casually walked up to the keyboard. Rock and Roll History changed at that moment. Richard began pounding the keys and then belted out a nonsensical refrain. It was a ditty that Richard employed regularly in his juke joint stands. Bumps Blackwell listened dumbstruck. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The song was rough, the lyrics were more than suggestive, the tempo was savage…. all the elements were in place.
A young lady musical acquaintance was summed immediately by Blackwell – a youngster, Dorothy La Bostrie, known in local circles for her knack for tricky lyric. The clean-up was quickly completed (Richard’s lyrics could never have received air-play). From the Dew Drop it was back to the makeshift studio.
Twelve tracks were cut on the 13th and 14th of September – One track would quickly take first, the South by storm, and then the country – “Tutti Frutti” would hit the R&B charts would top out at number 2 (for six weeks) paralleled by a rise to number 17 on the Billboard pop charts in November of 1955. Little Richard would churn out a string of the greats rockers ever during his nine Specialty recording sessions from his first to his last in October, 1957, many future classic rock anthems, and most either composed alone by himself or sometimes co-composed.
Interestingly, in 2002, ‘Rock n Rhythm’ Records would release a tribute to this historic occasion, “Dew Drop Inn”.
Little Richard would hit the road with his Specialty sessions under way.
1957 – Richard Goes to Church
And as suddenly as it all began, Richard would walk away from Specialty and recording altogether. The label was frantic and so they back tracked, releasing anything they could locate in the “can” putting out a steady stream of tracks into the early 1960’s long after Richard had departed, even to the extreme of releasing Richard’s two audition tape tracks – “Wonderin'” and “Poor Boy Paul”13 years later, in 1970.
Little Richard would not enter the recording studio again until September of 1959, where he would lay down dozens of gospel oriented tracks for George Goldner who owned the Gone and End labels (and many more). In April of 1963 Richard returned to Specialty for a “comeback” attempt. He cut five tracks – all rock – only one of which – “Bama Lama Bama Loo” would chart – at a meager number 84 in the summer of 1964. The song hit number 20 in Great Britain. But while the hit record days were over for Little Richard, his touring days still had a full head of steam.
Richard’s legacy of “hit” records, while impressive, was a distant second to his live appearances. No other act could follow the wild man with his group, The Upsetters, who were possibly the best rock and roll band to ever take to the stage.
All of these fine musicians were fully capable of not only spontaneous and instinctive delivery, but all could read music as well. In 1960 Richard would enter an obscure studio in New York and record four rock tracks released on the little known “Little Star” label, his first rock and roll since departing Specialty. Following this, Little Richard stuck with gospel, recording into 1963 for many labels including Atlantic.
Over the years, Little Richard’s struggle with morality, his “call” to God, and a never ending pull from doing live Rock and Roll, would rise to peaks and fall to low level valleys. But once on the stage, he simply had no rivals. His concerts sold out around the world, sometimes drawing 30, 40 even 50 thousand hysterical fans. His popularity in live concert would continue for years, even when he retired a second time to return to his ministry.
Richard finally was able to reconcile within himself, his dual calling to Rock and Roll and his ministry. He returned to the stage where he would rock on as hard as ever, and would use the moments in-between songs to witness his beliefs before turning the venue upside down with Rock and Roll as only Little Richard could.
“The Life and Times of Little Richard” is a very entertaining read. All along the way it seems that the moment when he would finally and fatally crash would happen and it just never did.
In his words “I am an artist. I am a star and a creator. I am the originator of this music and these songs are classics. I am sure they were hoping that I would be dead by now, but God gives me longevity, thank and praise His holy name.”
And keep and rockin’….. Little Richard.