Now that we’ve covered the back-to-the-basics movement with the Ramones, it’s time to really get back to the basics.
Little Richard never saw one of his records reach the top spot in the pop charts of the day. He only made it there vicariously through white guys like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley who offered more sanitized and palatable versions of the originals for the white kids who tuned into American Bandstand. “Long Tall Sally” made it to number six, but most people remember The Beatles’ version, where Paul McCartney did his level best to emulate the fantastic singer he had heard in his Liverpool youth (and made a pretty good show of it).
Music critics often identify artists and others who are “influential.” Most of their claims are exaggerated, because music critics are often just another moving part in the hype machine (note the current overuse of the word “legendary” as an example of media-generated crapola). When it comes to Little Richard, though, it’s hard to exaggerate his reach. The liner notes on The Georgia Peach cite Little Richard’s claim that “there would be no Michael Jackson, Prince, Elvis, James Brown, John Fogerty, Otis Redding, Beatles” had he not come first. I can certainly see his flamboyance, his vocal style and his energy manifesting themselves in the work of several artists on that list, and I’m a little surprised that David Bowie and the entire glam rock movement failed to make the cut, given Little Richard’s early gender-bending inclinations. There’s some truth in all of this, but I think Little Richard’s greatest influence came from his willingness to put everything he had into a performance, to hold nothing back, to let it all out. When you listen to The Georgia Peach, you hear Little Richard let it fucking go, capturing the liberating, playful and carnal essence of early rock ‘n’ roll.
The Georgia Peach covers the period of eighteen months when Little Richard worked for the Specialty label from late 1955 to 1957, during which he recorded all of his major hits. Let’s rock!
Tutti Frutti: A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom! Jesus fucking Christ almighty! A phrase originally invented to mimic the sound of the drums, it bursts from deep in Little Richard’s throat to open one of the greatest songs in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. His glissandi on “I got a ga-a-a-a-al” hit me in the gut no matter how many times I hear him pull it off. The stop time lines that end the verses pretty much do the same, but when his combo starts rocking in the instrumental passage with Lee Allen blowing the shit out that sax, Huey Smith pounding the 88’s and Earl Palmer letting it rip on the drums, it seems to have the effect of raising Little Richard’s energy to even greater heights: on that last verse, he is a man on fire. Goddamn, this is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about! Hip-shaking, earth-shaking, blues-shattering rock ‘n’ roll!
Baby: An uptempo blues number sung in a higher register, the band once again raises the temperature in the instrumental and drives this sucker home with some fabulous sax support. I love Richard’s control over his vocal dynamics and phrasing, a skill that is on fabulous display here.
I’m Just a Lonely Guy: Richard wrings out all the passion in his soul in this ode to losing his sweetie. How he can scream and hold a note an octave above where he winds up a second later is simply amazing; any score of Richard’s vocals would blast off the staff like a rocket before miraculously landing on the exact point on the melodic line. Interestingly enough, this is the first track where we really hear the guitar, the quintessential instrument of rock ‘n’ roll. I guess it’s not!
True Fine Mama: Little Richard tinkles the ivories beautifully in the opening passage to this song with a rhythm reminiscent of Elvis’ “All Shook Up.” The call-and-response vocals are fabulous, and when they riff on the word “honey,” it’s a little bit of heaven.
Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey: I can’t imagine The Beatles took any time at all deciding which version of “Kansas City” to cover, as Little Richard’s version leaves Wilbert Harrison’s loping rendition in the dust. Richard sounds like he’s dressed to the nines, strutting cockily to the station to catch that train to bring his baby home. His glides and glissandi are marvelous, and you can clearly hear the pieces McCartney tried to emulate, with pretty good success, especially the “Bye” where Richard slides the note upwards to end in a sound that’s a combination of scream and squeal. Ooh, baby!
Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’): Lee Allen gets an extended solo on tenor sax here, and holy shit, was he a great sax player or what? Richard’s vocal is slightly subdued compared to others, but he cradles the melody with care, revealing another facet of his vocal talents. On nearly every song on The Georgia Peach, I find myself becoming fascinated and fixated with the way he enunciates a certain word. On this one, it’s the word “surrender” in the verse after the instrumental: smooth, oscillating, tender and seductive. How did he do that?
Long Tall Sally: This album is one masterpiece after another, isn’t it? Richard belts this one out like there’s no tomorrow and Lee Allen does it again with another growling solo. But Richard is so fucking into this song that he steals the show, gloating triumphantly that “he’s havin’ me some fun tonight.” McCartney did a faithful tribute and put everything he had into this song, but folks, there’s nothing like the original.
Miss Ann: The liner notes tell us that “Miss Ann” is a euphemism for a white woman, and Richard lived in a terrible era when black men were killed for even innocent interactions with Miss Anns. In that sense, this is an extremely subversive song, because not only is Richard (who co-wrote it), talking about having relations with Miss Ann, he’s talking about possessing her . . . and he sings these verses with cocky, macho confidence:
Oh, oh, oh, miss Ann, you’re doin’ something no-one can,
Yeah, yeah, yeah, miss Ann, you’re doin’ something no-one can,
Because believin’ and deceivin’, it’s drivin’ me to grievin’ now . . .
If she thinks I’m gonna let her be free, how wrong can miss Ann be,
If she thinks I’m gonna let her be free, how wrong can miss Ann be,
I’m in love with miss Ann, and that’s the way it’s gonna be.
Oh, Why?: An intriguing song where the narrator dreams of being arrested for an unknown crime involving a woman, Richard delivers another solid performance, but I’m still wondering exactly what he did to get arrested. The song could very well be an expression of the constant fear of the police that black men naturally feel in a racist society.
Ready Teddy: Damn, there they go again—that combo rocks, even at high-speed! Earl Palmer delivers one of the great drum performances of early rock in the instrumental passage and there’s Lee Allen nailing it again. Richard belts it out in a song structurally similar to “Jailhouse Rock” with its stop-time storytelling.
Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey: The longer version of the fragment attached to Kansas City, this one lacks the pzazz of some of the others, but to paraphrase McCartney’s last word on The White Album, “It’s Little Richard. It’s The Georgia Peach. Shut up.”
Rip It Up: A song based on the classic rock theme of blowing your paycheck on a good time, this is one song I have a problem with. Why do they tone it down in the chorus? The reverse logic doesn’t work for me: when you say you’re going to “rip it up,” you should sing it like you’re going to “RIP IT UP!”
Lucille: Okay, Richard, I forgive you now. Actually, all you had to do is sing one word: Lucille. The master of the glissando is also the master of the portamento, in this case the rising glide on the woman’s name, ending in a scream that communicates both intense sexual frustration and memories of sexual satisfaction. I know the song has great rhythmic support and all that, but I just want to hear him sing her name again and again.
Heeby-Jeebies: I don’t care for the lyrical structure here because it makes Richard’s vocal performance too choppy and doesn’t give him room enough to work that magic with his voice.
Can’t Believe You Want to Leave: Nobody delivers a “baby, don’t leave me” song like Little Richard, with the possible exceptions of Otis Redding and James Brown, but since Richard claims musical parentage over those two gentlemen, I’ll hold to my assertion. Unlike the previous song, Richard gets to do crazy wonderful things with vowel vocalization, using his vibrato to intensify his feeling that he’s going to lose his mind if he can’t have this woman. That’s the way I like my men to feel about me!
Shake a Hand: Richard’s gospel training is most evident on this song, particularly in the opening line, but this song suffers from a relative lack of commitment from the band. Maybe they were exhausted; Little Richard’s energy has got to be draining after extended exposure.
All Around the World: This song sounds like was written to pander to fans of to the new fad, rock ‘n’ roll. Skip it.
She’s Got It: This sexually-charged number gained wide attention after it was featured in the film The Girl Can’t Help It as the perfect musical backdrop to Jayne Mansfield’s undulating display of tit power. The video passage below opens with Richard and the band doing “Ready Teddy,” followed by some moronic dialogue between Ms. Mansfield and Tom Ewell, and finally, her famous rack set to la musique de Penniman:
Jenny, Jenny: The first of two future Mitch Ryder hits, I will take Little Richard’s version any time. The counterpoint saxes slay me and Richard delivers the vocal like he’s got the girl by the arm, trying to shake some sense into her.
Good Golly, Miss Molly: The stronger of the Ryder pair, I’m still trying to figure out how this song made it past the censors of the time. What did they think “sure like to ball” meant? Did they really think it meant “dance?” Needless to say, Little Richard’s energy is irrepressible on this one, as he delivers a vocal that is as close to orgasm as you’ll ever hear. This video is from the Muhammad Ali 50th birthday tribute, proving that once you’ve got the groove, you can always bring it back:
The Girl Can’t Help It: A wonderfully primitive ode to female power that kicks off with classic train-emulation saxophone, Little Richard nails another vocal with a combination of growl, glides, tonal shifts and almost girlish delight at the thought of a woman’s bounty. Her heat turns bread into toast, cooks your steaks well done and leads grandpa to the Fountain of Youth. Guys! Give it up! Stop making war and messing around with stupid shit like football and do what you really want to do: give it up! Editorial commentary aside, this song kicks ass, and while I’d love to show you the film performance, YouTube only offers a clip that is irritatingly out of focus.
Send Me Some Lovin’: I hear Richard’s feminine side on display here in the first verse, but he mans it up a bit as the song progresses, restricting himself to a few twitters here and there. Not my favorite.
Ooh My Soul: Here he goes for submissive femininity on the tagline, balancing that with hard-ass masculine growl during the verses. Go for it, dude! Break those paradigms!
Keep A Knockin’: The liner notes say that Richard claimed this as his composition when it is in fact a street song of unknown origin. With this performance, let’s give it to him! This is what I’m talkin’ about when I say this is a guy who let it all out in a performance. I love the way he shifts between octaves in the final verses.
Whole Lot a Shakin’ Goin On: I’ve never cared for Jerry Lee Lewis: he’s too slick and too satisfied with himself. This version doesn’t do much for me either: it sounds like Richard misses his cue on the first line and the guitar solo doesn’t begin to come together until it’s halfway finished. Still, it ends with a rush of energy that makes it a fine finish to a fantastic album.
I don’t know what you do after sex, but I know what I want. Cigarette!