[18 March 2004]
No one can dispute the place Little Richard holds in the rock and roll pantheon.
One of the original shouters, the man who came closest among his early peers to bringing the language of explicit sexuality into the popular lexicon, his earliest recordings are among the best and most important in popular music history.
Songs like “Long Tall Sally”, “Tutti Frutti”, and “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” were among the most aggressive of the early rock records while Little Richard Penniman’s look—a black man in make-up with a huge teased and slicked pompadour—and overt flamboyance made the hip shake and lip quiver of Elvis Presley seem almost tame by comparison.
He had a voice that, as Langdon Winner wrote in the 1980 edition of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, “set America on its ear.”
His sides with Specialty Records were, in a word, special.
“Along with Elvis Presley’s early sides for Sun Records,” Winner writes, “Little Richard’s first day with Specialty gives us the chance to say, ‘Rock ‘n’ roll begins right here.’ “
But like all of his early peers, Little Richard’s explosion on the scene was short lived. After eight top 40 hits—all of which hit the top 10 on the rhythm & blues charts—Little Richard vanished from the charts. He quit rock and roll in 1957, taking up preaching and singing gospel.
And while he has enjoyed a sort of resurgence over the last decade or so—though his recent popularity with bit parts in movies and on television has been as a novelty rather than as the rock and roll icon he is and should be remembered as—he has never recorded a song as vibrant and as powerful as those he recorded between 1955 and 1958.
These are the facts. And the evidence supplied by the recent release by Sony of Get Down with It: The Okeh Years does nothing to contradict that verdict. The 17-song compilation of soul, country and rock and roll hits lacks the fire and originality of his late ‘50s hits and catalogues a grouping of songs that, for good reason, never managed to register on the charts. Winner called this mid to late ‘60s output “a stream of dreadful remakes” and while the songs here are far from dreadful, they certainly do not match his earliest output, nor do they stand up well when matched against the best soul and R&B singers of the late ‘60s.
On cuts like “I Don’t Want to Discuss It” or Sam Cooke’s “Well Alright”, Little Richard turns in workmanlike performances that ultimately go nowhere. The contrast is pretty striking when you compare the Delaney and Bonnie version of “I Don’t Want to Discuss It”, recorded with more energy and passion just a few years later, to the relatively tepid Little Richard version.
It is this contrast that is so frustrating, this lack of fire and excitement, the exact qualities that made this son of a Georgia bootlegger (at least that’s the story he tells) such a lurid sensation when he first took the nation by storm are nowhere to be found.
Three cuts in particular demonstrate just what is missing on The Okeh Years—versions of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances”, Berry Gordy’s “Money”, and Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. The three songs should have been perfect vehicles for Little Richard’s incendiary style, full of sex and animal magnetism, but they fail to ignite the passions, coming off as rather limited soul covers.
Think of Pickett’s version of “Land of 1,000 Dances”, a song that fairly burns from the speakers, Pickett shouting with unrestrained glee as a staccato horn section fills the gaps. The song in Pickett’s hands is a tour de force and sweaty sex appeal. Little Richard’s version on The Okeh Years substitutes speed for that wicked edge that Pickett finds, leaving the song a shell—a danceable shell to be sure—of its glorious self.
“Money” should grind out with the same kind of gusto—as it does on the Motown piano-banging romp by Barrett Strong or on the guitar-driven rock out by the Beatles—as should the Lieber-Stoller blues of “Hound Dog”, a song recorded as a fiery rocker by Elvis Presley and sexy blues by Big Mama Thornton. Little Richard, however, despite having a big horn section backing him, fails to deliver on the songs’ promise, offering what turn out to be rather pedestrian covers of a pair of classic rhythm and blues cuts.
There are some good efforts here—in particular, the Watson-Williams composition “Poor Dog (Who Can’t Wag His Own Tail)” and Larry Williams’s “I Need Love”. And “Don’t Deceive Me”, written by Chuck Willis, offers Little Richard a chance to get down in the blues mire, bringing up a pained quality that is lacking on the disc’s other ballads.
Overall, however, this disc’s flaws are too great to ignore. Anyone interested in what Little Richard’s legacy should turn to his earliest work. And anyone interested in late ‘60s soul should turn to its true masters: Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, the Stax/Volt artists, Motown and Sly and the Family Stone.