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.
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!
Looking at the Beatles from a singles perspective is not a trip down memory lane for me, as I was born more than a decade after the curtain came down. The value in reviewing the singles is the opportunity to see the Beatles’ musical history unfold from another perspective. There are several Beatle single collections, and the Past Masters pair, though it has serious flaws in the second volume, seemed as a good a source as any.
Past Masters Volume One pretty much covers the era leading up to and culminating in Beatlemania. Here goes:
“Love Me Do”: Worthwhile only because it was the first. The song itself is a bore, with moronic lyrics and generally dull music. This kind of stuff was never going to get them to the toppermost of the poppermost. “Please Please Me” (not included on this collection but covered in my review of the album) would do the trick.
“From Me to You”: This was the follow-up single to “Please Please Me.” At that moment in time, they could have followed up “Please Please Me” with a cover of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” and it would have been a hit. “From Me to You” lacks the natural flow of its chart-topping predecessor; the rhythm is positively clunky and the falsetto “oohs” at the end of the bridges sound contrived.
“Thank You Girl”: I’ve always loved this bouncy little tune. The John & Paul harmonies are marvelous, and I love the way the 2009 remaster notches up the bass. It’s a fun song to sing, whichever part you choose.
“She Loves You”: This song is as exciting today as it must have been when it exploded over the airwaves in 1963. Ringo’s opening drum roll is a perfect lead-in, and his drum work is exceptional throughout. The harmony is so strong that when singing along, I find myself oscillating between John’s main melodic line and Paul’s harmony; both are musical delights. I love the unusual Em-Cm chord change in the primary chorus, echoed with an interposed A in the post-chorus. And shit, do they let their voices rip on the coda! Though George Martin thought the closing sixth was corny, I think it’s perfection. They know they’ve got it, baby!
“I’ll Get You”: This is a solid early-period tune that is often overlooked. The combination of John singing in a lower register with the background harmonica makes for an unusually appealing combination. I love the bridge, despite the occasional lyrical fumbling. Ringo must have been hot that day, for he really moves this song forward by raising the intensity of his attack in all the right places.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand”: While it’s never grabbed me quite as much as “She Loves You,” that’s like comparing different vintages of Romanée-Conti. The crescendos on the bridge capture all the excitement of Beatlemania in a few seconds, and Ringo has another great outing with his fills at the end of each verse and his support of the crescendos. I’m not exactly sure what George had in mind with his rather weak contribution on lead guitar; fortunately John Lennon is one of the greatest rhythm guitarists who ever lived and more than made up for it.
“This Boy”: Meh. I never cared for this one much. It’s too reminiscent of the dramatic early-60’s girl band songs they covered on Please Please Me. The harmonies are nice, but pale in comparison with a seriously overlooked number you’ll find further down this list.
“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” and “Sie Liebt Dich”: Meh. Nowhere near as exciting as the English originals. More marketing strategy than music.
“Long Tall Sally”: Now, let’s get something straight, people! I love Little Richard. I think Little Richard did more to expand the limits of early rock than anyone on the scene at the time. He took risks, he pushed the envelope and he sang like nobody before or since. That said, I have to take McCartney’s version of “Long Tall Sally” over the original. He imbues it with all the passion of a young kid who just made the greatest discovery ever: no-holds-barred, balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll. Respectfully channeling the soul of Little Richard, this is McCartney realizing his early dreams in spasms of joy. I would have loved to have seen the gig in Litherland described in the intro to Bob Spitz’s The Beatles: The Biography:
The hall was packed with teenagers, many of whom had gathered at card tables along both sidewalls to await the next act. The majority were attired in what was respectfully called “fancy dress” for what remained of the holiday festivities. The well-scrubbed boys, whose dark suits were also their school uniforms, looked stiff and self-conscious, while girls, sheathed in tight calf-length skirts and white shirts, paraded gaily to and from the upstairs bathroom, applying last-minute touches to their makeup. Those who danced drifted casually across the big, open dance floor, keeping an eye on the stage as the band shuffled into place behind the curtain. Promptly, amps crackled in resistance: John and George plugged into a shared Truvoice that saw them through infancy, while Paul switched on his trusty seafoam green Ampigo. The audience stirred and half turned while Bob Wooler crooned into an open mike, “And now, everybody, the band you’ve been waiting for. Direct from Hamburg—-“
But before he got their name out, Paul McCartney jumped the gun, and in a raw, shrill burst as the curtain swung open, hollered, “I’m gonna tell Aunt Mary/’bout Uncle John/he said he had the mis’ry/but hegotalotoffun . . . “
Oh, baby! The aimless shuffle stopped dead in its tracks. The reaction of the audience was so unexpected that Wooler had failed, in the first few seconds, to take note of it. Part of the reason was the shocking explosion that shook the hall. A whomp of bass drum accompanied each quarter note with terrific force. The first one struck after Paul screamed, “Tell,” so that the charge ricocheted wildly off the walls. There was a second on Mary, and then another, then a terrible volley that had the familiar bam-bam-bam of a Messerschmitt wreaking hell on a local target: an assault innocent of madness. The pounding came in rhythmic waves and once it started, it did not stop. There was nowhere to take cover on the open floor. All heads snapped forward and stared wild-eyed at the deafening ambush. The music crashing around them was discernibly a species of rock ‘n’ roll but played unlike they had ever heard it before. Oh ba-by, yeahhhhhh/now ba-by, woooooo . . . It was convulsive, ugly, frightening and visceral in the way it touched off the crowd.
“I Call Your Name”: One of the sexier numbers The Beatles catalog, John strikes again with a great vocal and those fabulous syncopated attacks on the rhythm guitar. I only have two regrets: I wish that they would have passed on the opportunity to give George a solo; and I wish that Mama Cass turned this rocker into a soft pop creampuff. I’ll also note my intense irritation with the digital remixes that give too much prominence to the cowbell in the center channel before moving on to . . .
“Slow Down”: Because Lennon was not technically the lead singer, he’s doesn’t get the credit he deserves for having been one of the greatest pure rock singers in history. This version of the Larry Williams original knocks me on my ass every time I hear it, especially when he really ramps it up on the last verse. When he sings “The best little woman I ever had,” I don’t need to jack off to have an orgasm.
“Matchbox”: One of my favorite Ringo vocals, the band supports him with solid, straightforward work in this Carl Perkins classic.
“I Feel Fine”: Famous for its opening feedback, it should be equally famous for Lennon’s guitar riff, which helped make a song with a simple I-IV-V structure much more musically interesting. Whenever I hear this song, I see images of girls in sleeveless dresses and bouffant hair-dos dancing in discotheques. McCartney said the drum part was taken from Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” and yep, he’s right! Nice for him to admit it!
“She’s a Woman”: The best part of this song is McCartney’s bass part, a precursor of the more complex bass parts that would define his style. The song is musically dull, however, and doesn’t have the memorable riff that carried “I Feel Fine” over the finish line. Still, I’ll take the original over Jeff Beck’s cover with its kitschy talking guitar any day.
“Bad Boy”: A definite miss. The twin of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” John should have quit with the Larry Williams numbers while he was ahead.
“Yes It Is”: A seriously neglected harmonic masterpiece that wound up as the B-side for “Ticket to Ride.” Dave Rybaczewski wrote a marvelous piece describing the creation and recording of this gem, conclusively demonstrating its innate superiority over the more popular “This Boy.” You can read his essay at Beatlesebooks.com, but I can’t resist quoting him on the excellence of the harmonies: “The similarities with ‘This Boy’ in the verses amount to the three-part harmony throughout and the doo-wop chord pattern used. However, the harmonies are much more unpredictable, weaving up and down around John’s lead, while the doo-wop chord pattern in only used in the first four measures and is then complimented with much more extraordinary progressions.”
“I’m Down”: A let-it-all-hang-out number that was the highlight of the Shea Stadium extravaganza, McCartney’s a capella opening burst still makes my legs quiver. Often overlooked is the low-register blue-note harmonies that support that lead vocal, a brilliant variation that gives the song depth.