Because we live in a world that is often cruel and unjust, Pat Boone is walking around saying there should be laws against blasphemy (the Constitution not being so relevant in his cosmic worldview), since he was offended by a sketch on Saturday Night Live, while Little Richard is rumored to be gravely ill. That’s no small thing, the Little Richard situation. We are approaching, sadly, a point where very few of the originators of rock & roll are still with us. Of the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the ten artists who set the bar that has been so dramatically lowered in recent years, only Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Don Everly survive, and only Chuck and Jerry Lee are still out there playing. The connective threads to rock’s early years are fraying badly, and the one bright spot in the attention paid to Little Richard’s health is that, if the Gods have a sense of what’s right, it will send people to their music collections and their computers to discover, or rediscover, what Little Richard was about.
I recently wrote a piece on the Ramones and talked about the dual responses of shock and laughter that some artists provoke, like, this is something so radical and absurd, but so conceptually perfect. Hendrix, who played guitar for Little Richard for a while, was like that, and Prince, and Elvis and The Beatles, of course: there were a couple of beats between the novelty of how they looked, how they sounded, what they projected, the audacity of it all, and the realization that this was something that couldn’t have been predicted but now was utterly essential.
I didn’t see Little Richard live until 1965 at the Paramount Theater in New York, a multi-artist (The Hollies, King Curtis, The Exciters…) bill hosted by Soupy Sales. By then, he’d stopped having hit records, but still he was in the air: The Beatles had cut “Long Tall Sally” (so did The Kinks) and “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey Hey,” The Swinging Blue Jeans did “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “Lucille” was on The Hollies’ debut album. Later that year, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels incorporated “Jenny Jenny” into the hit medley “Jenny Take A Ride”. The Everly Brothers revived “Slippin’ and Slidin’” on their Rock’n Soul LP, and followed that with a version of “The Girl Can’t Help It” on the next album, Beat & Soul (The Animals and Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders did that one also). Of course we knew who Little Richard was. He’d be one of the heads on any Mt. Rushmore of Rock & Roll that meant anything. And when he came out on stage he was, as anyone who’d ever seen him could tell you, explosive (The Explosive Little Richard would become, in ’67, the title of an Okeh LP). A lot of artists could play rock & roll. Little Richard was rock & roll.
Those early Specialty singles, the one he built his legacy on – although there were some fine records on VeeJay, Okeh, Reprise, Modern – came rushing at you. I mentioned the Ramones earlier, and Here’s Little Richard, his debut album, still sounds like it must have had the can’t-catch-your-breath impact of the Ramones’ first: bam! bam! bam! “Tutti Frutti,””Ready Teddy,” “Slippin’ and “Slidin’” (how did that even get on the radio??), “Long Tall Sally,””Miss Ann,””Rip It Up,” “Jenny Jenny,” “She’s Got It”…it’s completely crazed. A lot of those songs were hit singles way before the album came out, and a batch of them had shown up on the first two albums by Elvis (“Rip It Up” kicked off the Elvis LP, and “Ready Teddy” popped up on the B side). About Pat Boone, we will not speak, but it’s obvious why Presley and other ’50s rockers like Buddy Holly and the Everlys gravitated towards those songs: they were declarations of principles.
My heart says go go, have a time
‘Cause it’s Saturday night and I’m feelin’ fine
I’m gonna rock it up, I’m gonna rip it up
I’m gonna shake it up, gonna ball it up
I’m gonna rock it up, and ball tonight
What could kids in 1956 have made of that? The wildness, the abandon, the recklessness? Imagine buying the Specialty single of “Rip It Up,” flipping it over, and hearing this:
All the flat top cats and the dungaree dolls,
Are headed for the gym to the sock hop ball,
The joint is really jumpin’, the cats are going wild,
The music really sends me, I dig that crazy style.
He was ready ready Teddy, to rock and roll, and on those two sides of the same 45, he summed up the whole game, and naturally Elvis gripped on to both songs, because that was what he was selling: he was ready to rip it up. And Elvis got it: you see him singing “Ready Teddy” on TV in ’56 and it’s like he’s jumping out of his skin. But Little Richard was leaps beyond.We’re fortunate to have some astounding footage of him on film, in a couple of Alan Freed vehicles (Don’t Knock The Rock and Mister Rock and Roll), and especially in Frank Tashlin’s color and CinemaScope R&R extravaganza The Girl Can’t Help It, where his title song celebrates the figure made to squeeze of Jayne Mansfield, and he gets to pound out “She’s Got It” and “Ready Teddy.” Even though there’s an element of mockery in The Girl Can’t Help It, when the camera is pointed at Little Richard (even in the screen test below), it’s still a subversive jolt, nearly a half-century later. Nothing can contain him. He’s rock royalty.