Some of my earliest memories involve riding around in the back seat of my mom’s late 80’s Volvo. It had this tape deck that would constantly get jammed. You’d put a tape in that thing not knowing whether or not it was ever coming out. So if you were putting something in, you had better be comfortable with the idea of listening to it, for a long period of time. At one point during my childhood the tape that happened to be lodged in and playing on loop, was Disney’s For Our Children: To Benefit the Pediatrics AIDS Foundation. A wordy title I know. Looking back at the track listings I see that nearly every big name from the 60’s through the 80’s was on that thing. Bob Dylan, Elton John, James Taylor, even Springsteen makes an appearance; all of them singing children’s classics. I didn’t remember any of those saps though. No. There was only one name I vividly remember. One name I screamed for as we cruised around in that maroon shit box. That name: Little Richard. His song: Itsy Bitsy Spider. He is this weeks ARTIST OF THE WEEK: LEGEND.
I can still see myself buckled into the back seat singing my tiny face off. Actually my face probably wasn’t that tiny. I had a big head as a kid. Big head means big face. That’s a weird look. I would beg my mom to rewind that song over and over. As an adult, I seek variety, but as a kid I didn’t get tired of repetition, I wanted what was familiar and awesome. And it really didn’t get much more awesome as a five year old than getting jacked up on Skittles and rocking out to Little Richard’s Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Little Richard A.K.A. Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932. He got his start with music like many of the early rockers, in Church. It was there that Richard began playing the piano and performing for an audience. Richard’s father kicked him out of the house at the age of 13. He then moved in with a white family in Macon that happened to own a nightclub where Richard would perform and hone his craft. He began playing all over Georgia as a teenager under the alias Little Richard. People came out in droves to see the explosive energy and stage presence that Richard became known for. Richard signed with RCA in 1951 but didn’t break out as a national sensation until 1955 when he recorded his hit Tuttie Fruitti.
This song has everything I love about early 1950’s rock; high-energy piano, a blaring horns section and nonsensical lyrics with sexual undertones. I know that third one is super specific but the fact of the matter is, you couldn’t get away with a lot in the 50’s when it came to sexual innuendo, so he tries to be a subtle as possible.
“ Whop bop a loomop a wop bam boom! I got a girl named Sue, who knows just what to do”
Part of me thinks music was more fun when sexual lyrics weren’t so blatant. Granted I live in a world where the Ying Yang Twins’ Wait (Whisper Song) charted at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100. But I wonder what the thought process was for people who thought L.R. was too sexual. I’d like to go Marty McFly style and head back to 1955 to have a conversation with one of these assholes that thought Richard was going to ruin the youth. It would probably go something like:
Rick: This is disgusting!
Rick: This song!
Me: What about her?
Rick: She knows “just what to do!”
Me: Please stop yelling.
Rick: You know what that means don’t you?
Me: She knows her way around a penis?
Me: That’s bad?
Rick: Big time! Wait where are you going?
Me: If you think this is bad just wait till they invent Youporn.
Me: Nothing. Forget it. I’m gonna go drink whiskey, eat red meat, and smoke cigarettes while it’s still considered healthy. Feel free to continue wasting your time complaining about Little Richard.
It’s a hell of a thing to look back at average white America bopping along to a flamboyant black man singing his heart out. It seems like half of the crowd doesn’t know how to respond to him. This music is kicking off, but some of these guys are just sitting there dumbfounded..
Chuck Berry collects most of the praise for spreading rock and roll to the masses but the fact remains that Little Richard was a huge influence. White artists like Jerry Lee Lewis were doing Rich’s thing but had the “benefit” of being white, which some how made his behavior more acceptable. Personally, I’m not a Jerry lee Lewis guy. I can’t respect a man that nicknames himself. That’s not okay. Not ever. When Kobe nicknamed himself Black Mamba I felt the same way. You get a nickname from either your childhood friends or mainstream sports media. You don’t get to Wikipedia something and then adopt it as your surname. That’s the biggest of no nos.
Richard had a steady stream of hits after Tutti Frutti including his follow-ups Long Tall Sally.
This has been my going out anthem for quite some time. It gets me amped. Like Andrew W.K. level amped. He then came out with Good Golly Miss Molly.
1956 and 1957 Richard was on the up and up but suddenly began to doubt his choice to become a rock musician. Just as quickly he arrived, in 1957 he announced his retirement from rock music so that he may be more involved with the church. He fully committed himself, enrolling in Bible College and later becoming a minister. It wasn’t until the Beatles covered Long Tall Sally in 1964 did Little Richard attempt to make a comeback. By that point in time, his style of music seemed to be of a bygone era. He would never again match the fame garnered from his initial hits. As the years passed, audiences became nostalgic for the original rock sound. This allowed Richard to continue touring and performing. Over the years he drifted back and forth between his rock career and the church, but his energetic style and over the top stage persona kept him in the public eye.
Look at that hair. And damn if I don’t respect a man who can pull off eye make up. So far there are two in my book. Little Richard and Prince.
Most of you are familiar with his hits, but there is no better time than now, to dive into his deep cuts.
The guy has too many records to list here in this article but jump on Spotify or iTunes and enjoy! Maybe it will make you as happy as five year old me in the back of that Volvo. I’m chasing that feeling. You should too.