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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20th Anniversary of a Life-Changer

I like movies. Some movies I really like. Some I watch over and over because I continually ‘get something’ from them. Some movies have even greatly affected my way of thinking and feeling. Some have actually helped shape my character – who I am as a person. But only one has changed the course of my life.

Now, let’s get this over with: as a Christian person, I believe God has directed my path through life. But I also believe He can use anything to achieve His purposes – including a film about a bunch of drinking, smoking, gambling, skirt-chasing, F-bombing young guys touring the cocktail lounges of Hollywood. I’m talking about the movie “Swingers”, which is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. It started a chain of events that changed my life.

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It’s October, 1996. I’m weeks away from my 24th birthday. Keep in mind, I’ve grown up loving oldies: popular music from the 1950’s and ’60’s. I love where they ‘take me’ and have a general fascination for the culture and entertainment of mid-century America. So, I’ve traveled through life studying and collecting this music which later began to include the classic rock of the 1970’s. I love Elvis Presley and the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’50’s so much so that I once made the ridiculous statement that ”The Fifties’ actually started in 1954′. I couldn’t conceive of anything substantial having happened in music before Presley and his contemporaries. But I’ve always been aware of ‘other stuff’ going on in the music of the past. The music I hear in the background of my ’50’s movies, for example. And what about Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole? When were they active? Surely not the ’50’s. That decade was just about rock ‘n’ roll. Wasn’t it? And then came the early Sixties with Motown and vocal groups and then the Beatles came and then the hippies, etc. But what about the other side of the coin? What about the singers and the lounge acts? What about the shows in Las Vegas showrooms? This is what I’m beginning to contemplate at this stage of my life: what were the adults listening to at this time? Anyways, by this point in ’96, my main man, Harry Connick, Jr. has released his album, “She” which is a fascinating blend of rock and New Orleans funk. As a follow-up, he has recently – this is summer, ’96 – put out “Star Turtle”, which is even more steeped in New Orleans funk. He is touring and bringing his Funk Band to Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on November 4th. Here’s where a very dear friend of mine and her husband at the time come in. Fans of Harry as well, the three of us decide to go see him. They treat me as a gift for my birthday which is on November 3rd. So I’m anticipating this show, sensing that Harry is putting down something just a little bit different.

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November 3rd, 1996. Sunday. I turn 24 years old. I’m working the night shift, maintenance at McDonald’s. I get there a bit early and I’m going through the entertainment section of the Toronto Sun. On the very back page I see a picture of three sharp looking guys strolling in front of a Las Vegas casino. I’m intrigued. My first thought is that it’s an article about some new fashion or culture trend coming out of Las Vegas or Los Angeles. I read it and it’s about the movie “Swingers” which does, indeed, depict a new culture trend: the cocktail/lounge revival then taking place in Hollywood. This interests me and the wheels start turning. Days later, again at work, a buddy of mine, Bouncer, comes in saying he was just at a sneak preview of a movie. “Swingers”, he answers sheepishly, figuring I won’t have a clue what he’s talking about. When I express interest, he says I would love it. These guys are like me, he says.

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The next day, November 4th, 1996. As this interest is brewing, my friends and I head down to the Danforth to see Harry. The show Harry lays down is one for the ages. He takes a turn on every instrument on the stage – at one point playing bass while walking up and down the aisles. It’s a full-on, no-glamour, sweaty funk work-out. I get home late that night, head spinning. You see, I know the oldies inside out. Nothing has happened in classic rock that I have missed. Is all that maybe getting old, though? I’m ripe for something new. I’m at home that night, listening to “Star Turtle” and scanning my cassettes. I have no funk. Maybe jazz? What I have at this point is the soundtrack from the Thelonius Monk biopic “Straight No Chaser” and a Frank Sinatra collection of some of his recordings from the late ’40’s. That’s it. So, the next day I head downtown to a couple of my favourite used record stores looking for albums by the Ohio Players, et al. At this point, I’m still learning that the Ohio Players and the Ohio Express are different bands. If you know these two, you know they are VERY different. But this is the thing that is starting to grab me: I know all there is to know about the music I listen to. I don’t just enjoy listening to it, I love to learn about it, to know about it. But now I’m learning that there is music out there that I know nothing about. Not only is the music fascinating me  but I’m getting hungry to learn about it. Despite my stupid comment about the ’50’s, I’m starting to realize that something else was going on in music during that decade. Something cool.

November 8th, 1996 and “Swingers” opens in Toronto and by now I know I have to go and see it. I’m starting to worry that this smaller film may not even make it out to the hinterland of Kitchener, Ontario, where I was living at the time. But it does make it there and I do make it out to see it. It was a matinee Saturday and, not having a car, I have to walk there. An hour and a half, 7 kms (4+ miles). It’s freezing. There is about six people in the theater and two of them get up to leave early on. One particularly head-shaking memory I have of the film is that Dean Martin sings over the opening credits and, at the time, I have no idea who I’m listening to. Now, of course, I know Dino from a mile away. Also distinctive at the time were the video game scenes. These just serve to help me relate to these guys as opposed to just wishing I could be like them. Suffice it to say, I enjoy the film. But more than just enjoying it, it serves as further evidence that there is a whole culture and lifestyle out there that I know nothing about. And what is even better is that this culture had it’s own soundtrack – music I know nothing about. Over the next few weeks, I begin to explore this world I had been introduced to. Most importantly, I make it out to see the film again on a cheap Tuesday night. This time I go with my buddy, Hash. The key thing here was that after two weeks playing in Kitchener, “Swingers” was gone from the theaters there. It had only played in my town for two weeks but I had been twice to see it. Then, of course, I had to find the soundtrack on CD. Another difficult task but I find it and buy it even though it costs north of $25. The search also begins for albums by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the neo-swing act that is featured in the movie. I begin to seek out lounge music CDs, as well. To my surprise and delight, my go-to record store, Encore Records, actually has a lounge section. I buy a volume of Capitol records’ “Ultra-Lounge” series called “Bachelor Pad Royale”. It wasn’t what I expected and I was quite thrown off but I grew to love it. I buy a couple cigars. I try making Manhattans in my apartment. I’m at the movies early that December to see “Jingle All the Way”, of all movies. While I’m waiting to go in, I ask one of the girls that works there if she could check in the back for a “Swingers” poster. Keep in mind at this point no one knew what I was talking about when I mentioned “Swingers”. I remember one guy thought I meant “Sleepers”, a movie out at the time with Bacon, DeNiro, Hoffman and Pitt. She’s easily able to find me a poster which she gives to me for free. It’s still on my wall. The soundtrack for “Jingle All the Way” featured Christmas music by the Brian Setzer Orchestra which became another act I begin to seek out.

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By now it’s the middle of December. Now, for the past two or three years, my friends and I have been regulars at the local Kelsey’s roadhouse. So, I figure maybe Kelsey’s isn’t a cocktail lounge in Hollywood but it’s a good place to start and I begin to envision hanging out there with my friends and also maybe exploring some new venues downtown, maybe with some live music. I’m adding to my music collection, my wardrobe and planning for my upcoming Christmas holidays when I’ll really have the time to ‘get a nightlife’: really start exploring this cocktail culture with my friends. Only one problem: nobody’s up for it. Christmas break comes and I get dressed up sharp as I can, put some tunes on in my apartment and wait for the gang to show up. One by one they can’t for some reason or other: other friends, family, girlfriends, wives, other commitments. See, I was single and living by myself in a town where no one else in my family lived. I worked a crap job. I had all the time in the world. Only no one else seemed to. This is the way it stays into the new year, 1997. Which gets me thinking. Firstly, every one of my friends is pivoting into adult life with all it’s time constraints and responsibilities. Secondly, I have an infinite capacity for mid-century American culture. I’m totally ready to live in the past. I’m all in: jazz and lounge music, cocktails and slacks. But I’m learning that although my friends can dig it, they’re not as captivated as I am. And thirdly: maybe it’s time for me to do some pivoting, too.

So, I decide to get a student loan and go to college. I’ll work my night job, go to class in the day and work on a novel I’m writing every other minute of the day. Which is, like, four. In the spring, my mom invites me down to visit her and my stepfather in Florida. I decide to leave my student loan application with my friend who was going to check on my cat, Reef, asking him to mail it away midweek. While in Florida though, I share my plans with my folks who make me see that if I go ahead as I was planning, I would never have time to work on my novel. They suggest I cut ties in Kitchener and move north to work at their trailer park. I’d live in a 60′ house trailer, work digging ditches and selling sausages and I’d be able to write without worrying about sustaining myself. At first I think there is no way I can leave all my friends and my home and go where I don’t know anybody. The point they made me see was that everybody does what is best for them so I needed to do the same. I could testify to this truth as my friends were moving on and doing what best suited their lives. So I make the monumental decision to quit my job and move. I give McDonalds nine weeks notice and hand in my resignation which reads “That’s it, I quit, I’m leaving the band (John Lennon)”. I’m prepared for an emotional final shift that March – when I get the call to not come in. With pay. They didn’t want me to be there with nothing to lose. Who knows what I’d get up to my final shift. So, real touching from them. I tell all my friends I’m moving and say my goodbyes. Before leaving town I’m sure to make two purchases: black, hi-cut canvas Converse and a package of white undershirts.

So, April 1st, 1997, is when I reached my own pivot point. I moved to rural southern Ontario to run the Dog Patch Diner, selling hot dogs, sausages and coffee. I did dig many ditches, preparing to lay wires for hydro-equipped campsites. One night eight weeks later, I had closed up the diner for the night and was walking back to my trailer with a box full of dirty dishes. I walked by two girls and heard one ask the other “who is that?” It’s me, honey, your future husband. I met Andrea that May long weekend and eight weeks later I asked her to marry me. We’ve been together ever since. I left the Dog Patch Diner for a factory job and I’ve been there ever since. To this day, I haven’t worked on that novel for one minute.

As time went by, drinking gin martinis or Jack Daniels and water alone in my basement – and sometimes being called upon late at night to check on our babies in their cribs – soon made me reassess and to question just how much I was getting out of drinking. It eventually went by the boards. But with the tolerant approval of my wife, I delved deeper and deeper into “mid-century modern” culture. My music and movie collections – and my wardrobe – continue to grow. I always say I’ve got 24 favourite movies: 11 from my young adult days and 10 from my adult life. And three absolute favourites up on top of the pile. “Swingers” is number three because I rank those three in the order in which I was introduced to them. Out of all of those 24 movies I love so much, only one has caused me to get up and seek a new life.

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