[15 February 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
David Kirby’s Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll is not a biography of Little Richard. Nor is it, as its subtitle could suggest, strictly a historical recounting of the genesis of the world’s most popular musical art form. No, it’s more of an extended essay exploring the inextricable links between the two. It’s also an unabashedly biased ode to ″Tutti Frutti″.
Though he also pays respects to Little Richard’s other seminal work on Specialty Records in the mid-50s, Kirby’s true love is for the two-minutes-and-55-seconds of raw, aural energy that is ″Tutti Frutti″. His primary assertion in Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll is that ″A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom″ was the shout heard ‘round the world, and that it triggered an entirely new revolution in America.
Varying personal opinions and concurrent musical contributions aside, he’s probably right. ″Tutti Frutti″ probably is the one song in which all the elements initially coalesced in proper combination, the single spark from which all that became the flames of rock ‘n’ roll were coaxed. That would make Richard Wayne Penniman of Macon, Georgia the torchbearer. Doesn’t have quite the right ring to it—however apt the visual image—does it? That’s why Little Richard is ″The Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll″. Because he designed it, damn it! He built it, brick by brick and beat by beat! Who could have imagined it, huh? An entire empire founded on a dirty little ditty with a nonsense name. That’s rock ‘n’ roll.
At least that’s the way Kirby sees it throughout this endearingly informal rambling across the pasts and presents of Little Richard, Macon, rock music and what Greil Marcus refers to as ″Old, Weird America″. In fact, his tale of his relationship with this music and the world it created is a bit like the song he singles out. Fast, loose, and full of energy; short, sweet and undeniably stirring; kind of scatter-shot, a little bit repetitive and a whole lot of Little Richard. It’s an almost irresistible book, mainly because Kirby’s affection is so apparent as to be infectious.
However, he does get a bit redundant at times with certain information, particularly when he’s quoting other works. Though occasionally annoying, it’s a forgivable flaw in an otherwise rollicking read. The repetition could even be considered a part of Little Richard‘s charm. It’s cyclical like some late night conversation with friends in which you’re arguing the merits of your personal favorite performer and your naturally keep coming back to their greatest accomplishments to make your case.
Kirby certainly does a convincing job of supporting his argument. Whether you’re a die-hard Little Richard fan already, or you just know him for his ″whoooo!″ and the makeup; whether you think Elvis is The King, or that The Killer was the real wild one of rock and roll, you’ll come away from Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll believing Little Richard was indeed the man who started it all.