Little Richard: Directly From My Heart

LittleRichard_DirectlyFromMyHeartSolid 3-CD set of seminal mid-50s sides and mid-60s comeback

It’s hard to believe, but Little Richard’s key sides – “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip it Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and others – were recorded in only seventeen months, between September 1955 and January 1957. This will particularly surprise fans who first heard the original releases stretched out another eighteen months, through July 1958. Part of that schedule was due to the natural tempo of radio play and the singles charts, but a larger part was a byproduct of Richard’s late 1957 exit and subsequent hiatus from secular recording.

In the Fall of 1957, at the very height of his fame, Richard stepped out of the rock ‘n’ roll spotlight to devote his life to God and record gospel for End, Mercury, Atlantic and Coral. He returned with a one-off secular single for Little Star in 1962, recorded briefly for Specialty in 1964 (scoring a minor hit with “Bama Lama Bama Loo”), and returned full-time to rock ‘n’ roll with Vee-Jay from mid-64 to late-65. Richard’s stay on Vee-Jay included a number of royalty-recovering remakes that seemed more to imitate his earlier self than break new ground, but there was also new material and contemporary covers that found the showman’s vitality and ingenuity completely intact.

Specialty’s three-CD set cherry-picks Richard’s brilliant initial recordings of the mid-50s and his return to rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-60s. The set includes hits and B-sides that show off his initial failure to find an original sound, the spark lit in 1955, his inimitable string of hits, and his 1960s reworking of his own creation. Most startling to this day are the early hits he cut at Cosimo Matassa’s J&T studio, backed by the finest players in New Orleans. The morning session produced R&B that failed to differentiate itself from his earlier work for RCA and Peacock. But his off-the-cuff lunchtime rendition of the raunchy “Tutti Frutti” turned producer Bumps Blackwell’s head and was quickly spun into gold.

In short order, Richard laid down the most famous portion of his catalog, garnering radio play, chart hits, international tours and feature film appearances. But just as quickly as his fame came, he stopped it cold in its tracks with an October 1957 decision to abandon rock ‘n’ roll. Specialty managed to extend Richard’s chart presence with patched up demos of “Keep A-Knockin’” and “Ooh! My Soul,” the 1955-6 recordings of “True Fine Mama,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Baby Face,” and Little Richard singles continued to pour out of Specialty for another year. But only a 1955 recording of “Kansas City” even grazed the charts, bubbling under at #95 in 1959, and Richard all but disappeared from popular music.

To be more nuanced about his first morning session, there are several highlights among what might otherwise have been pedestrian R&B sides. Richard croons movingly on “Wonderin’,” Alvin “Red” Tyler’s sax adds muscle to “All Night Long,” and Justin Adams’ guitar solo is an unexpectedly raw delight on “Directly From My Heart.” By the time Richard swings into “Baby,” you can start to feel it in his vocals, but the jump to “Tutti Frutti” is really a full quantum leap. Richard’s opening “wop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom” turns everything up several notches, and the band – particularly drummer Earl Palmer – ignites.

Over the next few months Richard built on the invention of “Tutti Frutti,” reinventing its opening call for “Heeby-Jeebies Love,” taking emotional pleading to a new level with “True, Fine Mama” and “Shake a Hand,” lighting up the band’s New Orleans second-line on “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’),” and laying down the rock ‘n’ roll templates “Long Tall Sally,” “Ready Teddy” and “Rip it Up.” The band’s cool groove on “Lucille” contrasts with Richard’s unrestrained vocal, and he sets the studio on fire with his signature “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and the awesomely salacious “The Girl Can’t Help It.” By 1957, even the straight blues of “Early One Morning” succumbed to the edgy power of Richard’s singing.

Richard’s 1964 full return to rock ‘n’ roll found his fire stoked by the gospel he’d been recording. His televised live set for the UK’s Granada transitions seamlessly between secular and gospel material, and his recordings showed new sparks. 1964’s “Bama Lama Bama Loo” has more of a go-go rhythm than his earlier work, and “Poor Boy Paul” has a light Calypso undertow for its novelty chorus lyric. Moving to Vee Jay, Richard spent considerable time re-recording his hits in an attempt to regain royalties he’d signed away in 1957. This set sidesteps those re-recordings in favor of new material and covers that find Richard tackling songs from Leadbelly, Larry Williams, Fats Domino and others.

Though the Vee Jay performances aren’t as incendiary as the mid-50s Specialty sessions, there’s some great material here that shows Richard still expanding his reach. Among the more notable sidemen in his 1964 comeback sessions was reported to be Jimi Hendrix, whose guitar is said be be heard on several tracks, including a cover of Don Covay’s “I Don’t Want What You Got But It’s Got Me.” More definitively documented is the electric violin of Don “Sugarcane” Harris on the blues “Goin’ Home Tomorrow.” Richard successfully reaches back to rock ‘n’ roll’s roots for “Money Honey,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “Short Fat Fanny,” but also rocks contemporary material, such as Nilsson’s “Groovy Little Suzy” and Alvin Tyler’s “Cross Over.”

Richard’s originals during this period included “My Wheels They Are Slippin’ All the Way,” “Dancing All Around the World” and the wonderfully funky “It Ain’t Whatcha Do (It’s the Way How You Do It).” Richard seemed to be searching for his place in the musical landscape of 1964, singing rock, soul and orchestral ballads, and even swinging brassy updates of the Platters’ “Only You” and Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.” Unfortunately, with Vee Jay crumbling amid financial malfeasance (not to mention the loss of the Four Seasons), and the British Invasion washing up on American shores, there was little mainstream chart action and no commercial comeback for Richard’s records.

And that lack of notice is a shame, as Little Richard was still in top form in 1964. Vee Jay managed to release two full albums before dribbling out the remaining material over the following decade. Specialty’s three-CD set provides a good selection of the label’s seminal mid-50s recordings and Vee Jay’s comeback material, and represents a way-station between single-disc hit anthologies, the foundational original albums Here’s Little Richard and Little Richard Volume 2, and the all-in Specialty Sessions box set. The 36-page booklet includes liner notes from Billy Vera, and plenty of photos, but is sorely missing session dates and personnel listings. The tracks are all mono, except for stereo on “Bama Lama Bama Loo” and “Dancing All Around the World.” [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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