music, rock 'n' roll

Stayin’ Alive: Little Richard

Little Richard Penniman is 84 years old. Recently, I scored his first album, “Here’s Little Richard”, mainly because I had heard so much about this record by the man a lot of people would say was the most dynamic performer of the 1950’s. I looked up some info on the album, as I’ll often do when an artist/album/movie attracts my attention. Reaching #13 on the pop albums chart, it is Little Richard’s highest charting album and it contained two of his biggest hits: “Long Tall Sally” and “Jenny, Jenny”. The lead-off track, “Tutti Frutti”, is a legendary recording that has since landed on many lists of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll recordings of all-time. The album ranks #50 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 albums and “Tutti Frutti” comes in at #43 on their list of the top 500 songs of all-time. Impressive. So, all this made me want to read up on Little Richard. Or should I say re-read up.

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I was 13 or 14 years old when I read the definitive Little Richard biography, “The Quasar of Rock” (30 years later I’m still not sure what the title means). At that time, it was the biggest book I’d ever read. So, all these years later I found myself going over his life story again and I was looking for anything that really stood out that I could maybe build a post around, something I thought you people should know. His is an interesting story, for sure. An admitted gay man, (I was shopping for Little Richard t-shirts and saw one that said “The Real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is a Gay Black Man from Macon, Georgia”) he was an absolute wild man in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, scoring many hits with songs that are nothing less than definitive of the genre. After several years of hits, he – like Jerry Lee Lewis – became convinced that he had been called into the ministry and (unlike Jerry Lee) Little Richard quit rock ‘n’ roll to be a preacher and release albums of gospel music. After several years of this, he returned to secular music and excelled in live performances but was never again a factor on the charts. He had trouble maintaining record contracts and was embroiled in litigation over monies owed him by his original record label, Specialty Records. All this is pretty common stuff. Where his story gets truly remarkable is when you consider the impact he had on some of the greatest artists ever and on the evolution of many genres of popular music.

In general, his style was influential. He was loud, flamboyant and possessed of a raspy, shouting singing style that was soon to become a hallmark of rock. Two of soul music’s pioneers – Sam Cooke and Otis Redding – stated that Little Richard had contributed greatly to soul’s development. Redding had also spent time in Little Richard’s band. James Brown was quoted as saying that Little Richard and his band, the Upsetters, were the first to inject funk into their rhythm and a biographer added that their music provides a bridge between ’50’s rock and ’60’s funk. Ray Charles said in 1988 that Little Richard was “a man who started a type of music that set the pace for a lot of what’s happening today”. Bo Diddley called him “one of a kind” and said that he influenced so many in the music business. Many of his contemporaries covered his music including Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley. Notably, Presley once told Little Richard publicly that his music had influenced him and that he was “the greatest”. Pat Boone noted that “no one person has been more imitated than Little Richard”. Ike Turner once claimed that most of Tina Turner’s early vocal delivery had been based on Little Richard. In high school, Bob Dylan played Little Richard songs with his band and stated in his year book that his ambition was “to join Little Richard”. In 1966, Jimi Hendrix said “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice” (Jimi also took to emulating Little Richard’s pencil-thin mustache). Bob Seger and John Fogerty were influenced by him, Michael Jackson said that, prior to “Off the Wall”, Little Richard had been a major influence on him and it was often pointed out that Prince adopted a physical appearance that was almost identical to Little Richard’s – right down to the colour purple. It is well known that the Beatles were heavily influenced by him. Paul McCartney idolized him and channeled him when he wrote rockers such as “I’m Down”. Indeed, “Long Tall Sally” was the first song Paul performed in public. Perhaps most significantly, during the Beatles acceptance speech at their Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, George Harrison made it plain when he said “thank you all very much, especially the rock ‘n’ rollers. Little Richard there, if it wasn’t for him…it was all his fault, really”. And when John Lennon first heard “Long Tall Sally” he said he “couldn’t speak”. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were both profoundly influenced by him with Jagger adding that Little Richard was his first introduction to R&B and referring to him as “the originator and my first idol”. David Bowie went even a step further. He called Little Richard his “inspiration” and stated that when he first heard “Tutti Frutti” that he “heard God”. The band Bluesology once opened for Little Richard and the band’s piano player, Reginald Dwight, was inspired to become a rock ‘n’ roll piano player and changed his name to Elton John. As a teenager, Farrokh Bulsara performed covers of Little Richard songs and went on to find fame as Freddie Mercury. Little Richard inspired Lou Reed to “go to wherever that sound was and make a life”. John Bonham, drummer for Led Zeppelin, was fooling around one day emulating the pounding drum intro to Little Richard’s “Keep a-Knockin'”. Jimmy Page jumped in and the iconic “Rock ‘n’ Roll” was born. The late Bon Scott, original front man of AC/DC, idolized Little Richard and aspired to sing like him and guitarist Angus Young decided to take up the guitar after listening to Little Richard. It has also been said that recent performers including Andre 3000 and Bruno Mars have channeled Little Richard in many of their recordings and performances.

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And here’s a couple of bonuses for you: in 2010, Time Magazine ranked “Here’s Little Richard” at #2 on it’s list of the most influential albums of all-time, the highest ranking rock album on the list. He was ranked 8th on a Rolling Stone Magazine list of the greatest artists of all-time. That’s huge. I mean, look back at the names listed above. I find it interesting that those who say they owe Little Richard a debt are the most influential and world-shaking artists ever. All the big hitters – Presley, Dylan, the Beatles, etc. – have pointed to Little Richard and have publicly stated their debt to him, that he inspired them, that he made them want to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s crazy that on that list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All-Time everyone supposedly ranked ABOVE Little Richard says they were influenced by him. Every one (except Chuck Berry) have said ‘Little Richard is the man. He started me on the road to where I am now. He’s the greatest’. And yet they’re ranked HIGHER than him. Makes you wonder if Little Richard gets all the respect he obviously deserves. Maybe the real king of rock ‘n’ roll really is a gay black man from Macon, Georgia.

Little Richard In Concert At Epcot Center

 

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 5 – Hollywood

Day 5: Hollywood – Released from the Army in 1960, Elvis Presley found himself right back in uniform. King went straight to Hollywood to play Specialist Tulsa McLean in “G.I. Blues”. This film is actually a great example of what is good and what is bad about King Movies. “G.I. Blues” is probably his most comedic film that features one of his best comedic performances. Presley breezes through the film with confidence, sings some great songs, and looks fantastic. The cast is pretty good and King interacts with them well and delivers some funny lines with impeccable comedic timing. On the flip side, however, there are some key things wrong with the film that unfortunately became part of the ‘formula’. The bulk of the film takes place in Germany but of course Presley never shot any scenes there. He’s acting up against a screen for some scenes and for others a stand-in is used. The cast, as I said, is not bad but some of the actors are the goofy, lightweight type that we will see ad nauseam in the films to come. Along with the great songs are some lame ones and the soundtrack ‘features’ a lullaby sang to a baby. His next two films were serious dramas, both excellent: “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”. They weren’t received well and performed relatively poorly at the box office so he found himself back in a playful romp, the greatest of all King Movies and my favourite film ever, “Blue Hawaii”. This film featured an exotic locale, pretty girls and 14, count ’em, 14 songs and became Presley’s most successful film. So, the die was cast. People didn’t want to see Serious Elvis. They wanted Fun Elvis. And that’s the paradox: you know “G.I. Blues” and “Blue Hawaii” became the blueprint for every derivative and lightweight film to follow and you wished he would make more serious films. But, man, Fun Elvis is so enjoyable!

The films of Elvis Presley deserve to be studied at length. Presley’s time in Hollywood needs it’s own book or website – I’ve been making notes to this end for years. There is a general and widespread misconception regarding them. Not about their quality, unfortunately, but about the level of enjoyment they – and many other ‘bad’ movies, for that matter – can provide. As I say, there is a paradox at work here: you find yourself frustrated with the lack of quality of most of the films while at the same time you are enjoying them immensely. Again, it’s so hard to accurately and thoroughly report on this area of Presley’s career in such a short space. I think it can be summed up thusly: the years Elvis spent in Hollywood are the years when Col. Tom Parker did the most damage to his client’s reputation. It’s also the time when Parker’s business practices reached the height of thievery and the pinnacle of abuse of power. In a nutshell, basically every deal Parker made in Hollywood for ‘his boy’ succeeded in benefiting himself more than Elvis and showed a blatant disregard for the effect that releasing a succession of family-friendly, light comedy films overloaded with poor songs would have on the reputation and legacy of his only client. Elvis’ acting ability was undervalued and commerce was not only valued by Parker over art but was held up as the only reason to be in Hollywood.

Now the good news. Elvis Presley’s 33 films are infinitely enjoyable. From a strictly critical standpoint, they are hard to defend. They are the very definition of ‘guilty pleasures’. Elvis Presley loved to go to movies as a young man and when the opportunity came to go to Hollywood to make his own films he jumped at the chance and had aspirations of following in James Dean’s footsteps. He wanted to make serious films with no singing. His first four films showed promise: these four showed him in his natural, untamed state, the songs he was made to sing were, for the most part, good – some even great – and he was surrounded by quality actors. Also, keep in mind that in one of them he shoots his brother and in two others he kills men; one he kills with a switchblade in an alley. They were gritty, vibrant and two of them were the best dramas he ever made. But the evil colonel’s plan went into effect when Elvis returned from the Army. And so began a cycle of film contracts that benefited Elvis, yes, but the Colonel even more, box office hits mostly bereft of any artistic quality and songs so asinine that, taken out of the context of the films they were used in, they are slight, ridiculous tripe. It’s even baffling to me that this is what qualified as an album release by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1960’s. Soundtracks. Eight to twelve tracks from the movie with maybe a spare leftover song from the past to flesh it out. The Colonel’s theory was that the films would sell the records and the records would sell the films. For financial reasons, the Colonel had his own stable of songwriters and they filled the movies with songs about fat men overeating, songs about shrimp, about how hard it is to dance in a small vehicle and lullabies sung to babies and small children. They were plot devices not songs. The movies gradually began to feature poor casts and ridiculously claustrophobic studio and back-projection filming techniques. And yet…and yet. Much like Cary Grant and John Wayne, Elvis Presley exuded a natural charisma and a magnetic personality that allowed him to basically play himself in most of his films. And it’s this charm above all other things that makes them so enjoyable. As for the soundtracks, as ridiculous as some of the songs are, Presley’s voice, his style of singing and his way with a song makes a lot of them more-than-listenable. It also helps that there are some genuine gems to be found in these films. The movies are wonderful as ‘comfort viewing’. Often they feature great photography of some beautiful locales, great looking female co-stars, they feature scenarios and lifestyles that any young (or young at heart) person would love to find themselves in and they feature Elvis being Elvis.

By 1967, though, Presley had had enough. He wanted – needed – the exhilaration of live performance again. So, the wheels were set in motion to stop making movies and get back to making records and back to the concert stage. Author Alana Nash has written a mesmerizing book on Col. Tom Parker and his relationship with EP. In this book, she puts forth an astounding notion. Elvis didn’t write his own songs. As previously stated, Parker had a stable of songwriters who were not affiliated with Elvis because they were great songwriters but because they were willing to give up a large percentage of their portion of the profits gained from songwriting to Colonel Tom. These songwriters simply did not have what it took to write songs with a style or a quality to rival the output of Bob Dylan, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Therefore, Elvis spending the bulk of the 1960’s in the vacuum of Hollywood and the family-friendly musical comedy served to preserve his celebrity and keep him visible during this turbulent, political era. Talent and charisma aside, the notion is put forth by author Nash that Presley did not have the apparatus in place to stay relevant during the music scene of the ’60’s. The movies kept him alive in the industry until the time was ripe to bust out of the celluloid prison he was trapped in.

When he emerged, he embarked on a season of artistry that rivaled the significance of his first years. His timing was perfect. Yet again.

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