Rock 'N Roll Beginnings
All around, seemingly everywhere, the music was happening. It was colliding and exploding over and over to form its own lusty and resilient genre—rock ‘n’ roll. It was the 1950s, and the music was all around, finding itself, finding an audience.
Rock ‘n’ roll, as many historians will argue, may in fact date back to Jackie Brenston’s (and Ike Turner’s) “Rocket 88”, recorded in 1951. Then there’s Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”, first recorded in 1955 in New Orleans at Cosimo Matassa’s studio and later released in 1957 on L.A.-based Specialty Records. (Matassa himself is an important figure in the development of early rock ‘n’ roll, by virtue of whom he recorded—Fats Domino, Ray Charles and others). Hearing “Tutti Frutti” today on Concord Music Group’s expanded reissue of the original, Here’s Little Richard it’s hard to argue that it is not the seminal rock ‘n’ roll song. Fifty years on, “Tutti Frutti” would seem, with this re-release, as strong a contender as any for “first” status.
The Concord reissue of Here’s Little Richard includes the singer’s well known songs: “Tutti Frutti”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Jenny Jenny”, “Ready Teddy” and “Rip It Up”. In addition to these, the Concord disc features two bonus tracks—“Baby” and “All Night Long”—and two videos, screen tests of “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”. The disc also comes with liner notes from musicologist Lee Hildebrand, who states that the tunes “are quite possibly the most exciting and incendiary recordings in the annals of popular music and constitute a body of work upon which Richard’s reputation as one of the primary architects of rock ‘n’ roll is measured”. Primary architect, indeed.
Little Richard recorded for Specialty Records for only a brief 25-month period. He was fortunate even to be signed. Specialty head Art Rupe happened to be looking for a singer/guitar-player “like” B.B. King. (There is nobody quite like the Blues Boy.) Although not overly impressed with Little Richard’s two-song demo (“Baby” and “All Night Long”), Rupe nonetheless signed the Macon, Georgia-born Little Richard (birth name, Richard Wayne Penniman) anyway. Little Richard didn’t exactly come from nowhere. He’d recorded with RCA and Peacock Records before his Specialty stint. But he hadn’t recorded “Tutti Frutti”, and much of what he initially laid down for Specialty was indeed standard fare, undistinguished (as hard as that is to believe).
Session pianist Huey Smith was a part of those initial recordings. On the second and last day of recording, Smith was out of the room and Richard, during a break, (echoes of Elvis Presley and “That’s Alright Mama”) banged out a risqué “Tutti Frutti” on the piano. With only 15 minutes of studio time remaining, Smith, having returned, could not learn the piano part quickly enough, so Richard played it, and sang a toned-down version of the original lyric. And play it he did.
According to Hildebrand, “Richard attacked the piano with incessant even eight note patterns which was decidedly different from the shuffle rhythm drummer Earl Palmer was laying down behind him. Swing and shuffle beats had been the primary pulse of rhythm & blues until Richard introduced [the] even eights that would come to drive most R&B and rock music and still do today.”
Then there’s Richard’s voice: the opening, near-hysterical declaration: “A Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom! / Tutti Frutti, aw Rudy / Tutti Frutti, aw Rudy”. It’s the stuff of legend and mystery: where did this Little Richard come from?
Well, he came from the same milieu many of his colleagues did: Sunday church gospel, sprinkled with blues and R&B, a musical stew that had been coalescing for quite some time.
“Tutti Frutti” shot to No. 2 on Billboard’s R&B charts and to a creditable No. 17 on the pop charts. Rolling Stone magazine rated it number 43 on its list of the greatest 500 songs of all time. But listening now to the remastered take, that judgment seems too measured and conservative for a song that blows away everything you know about music and its primal pleasures. And rock ‘n’ roll, at its most basic, is nothing if not primal. For all of those times Little Richard may have had to argue for his importance in laying the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, “Tutti Frutti” today seems argument enough. And if influence matters—and it does—then Richard is right in believing that he may have started the whole thing.
Sadly, for us at least, Richard soon abandoned rock ‘n’ roll for the church, and thus began his essential decline. He has returned to the music on more than one occasion over the years. Today, at nearly 80 years old, he should rest easy. This re-release confirms his hysterical, maniacal brilliance.
Here’s Little Richard is history made loud and with abandon, and we owe Concord a note of thanks for reminding us how important this recording, all of it, truly is.
// Notes from the Road
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