Understanding early rock ‘n’ roll, like attempting to decode Shakespeare for the first time, depends on paying attention to the footnotes. For every Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard there were a dozen Warren Smiths or Billy Rileys, and for every “Johnny B. Goode”, there are a hundred songs on the order of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “Frenzy”: brilliant, sizzling slabs of red-hot rock noise that history and oldies radio programmers have forgotten, or never knew about to begin with.
Larry Williams was mostly a footnote, but a spectacular one. In 1957 he was an instant 22-year-old star with three R&B hits (“Just Because”, “Short Fat Fannie” and “Bony Moronie”, the latter two of which were pop crossovers). His commercial clout went into almost immediate decline despite no real dip in musical quality, and within two years, he was booted from Specialty after a drug-related arrest. Williams recorded for a number of other labels in the 1960s but never regained relevance, took a 10-year break, released an ill-advised funk album in 1978, and two years later was dead, a murder or suicide depending on who you ask.
Williams’s Specialty recordings remain his best and best-known, and have been repackaged consistently during the digital era. Specialty’s own Bad Boy (1992) remains the gold standard, and although Williams’s entry in the label’s Profiles series trims nine tracks from that earlier disc, it leaves the biggies intact and results in a near-perfect introduction to the singer-pianist. In fact, Profiles may be the preferred choice for the absolute neophyte, as it isn’t padded with alternate takes and bonus tracks. What’s here is the meat of Williams’s recordings, 33 minutes of raucous R&B that plays like an early LP, with all the pros and cons that implies. The initial trio of hits shows up at the beginning, out of chronological order since “Bony Moronie” really storms from the gate. (It’s also an epic of sorts, running 3:10!). We also get the obligatory covers and “rewrites” (Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia”, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Little School Girl”), dance-as-sex metaphors (“Hootchy-Koo”), and oddball pop songs (“Ting-a-Ling”). We’re treated to some of the best work of drummer Earl Palmer—anyone who scoffs at the musicianship of early rock and roll will change his tune after listening to “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy”—as well as the musical direction of Bumps Blackwell. And let’s not forget “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy”, “Bad Boy” and “Slow Down”, all of which were covered by the Beatles and provided Williams with some much-needed cash flow.
If ever we needed evidence of life mirroring art, look no further than the life and art of Larry Williams. Married three times, he was also a serial exchanger-of-vows in his greatest hits, which of course sound a hell of a lot more jubilant than his biography does. Williams explicitly states his intentions to macaroni-thin Bony Moronie, Short Fat Fannie, Miss Lizzy and the Little School Girl, even going so far as to suggest specifics with the former two (a night in June and Blueberry Hill, respectively). But here’s where the lack of chronological order makes things a little confusing: Bony Moronie pops up in “Hootchy-Koo”, after Lizzy’s already on the scene (in both release-date order and in terms of the running order on this disc). And “Bony Moronie” comes first here, although Fannie was technically the first partner Williams called by name. Guess this bad boy was just waitin’ for the skinny girl. But anyway, since this stuff is so self-referencial, at least a little something is lost when you hear the songs out of order. Then again, “Just Because” would’ve been a pretty sorry opener on this disc of mostly raging rockers, and the lackluster “Let Me Tell You, Baby” would’ve popped up second, so maybe the compilers were on to something. (And speaking of referentiality, “Short Fat Fannie” namechecks “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Rip It Up”, “Miss Ann”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Tutti Frutti”, “Hound Dog”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Jim Dandy”, “Blueberry Hill” and probably some more. Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” had nothing on Larry Williams!)
But complaints about the track order here are pretty meaningless in the long run, as Profiles is, top-to-bottom, the best Larry Williams disc on the market for anyone with a less-than-fanatical interest in the man’s work. Anyone who hasn’t heard this stuff, really should. Not only does it hold up after almost 50 years, it thrills and pulses and teems with life. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t dead, it’s just gone digital.
// Notes from the Road
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