10 Great Little Richard Songs You've Never Heard
Little Richard is remembered best for his groundbreaking run of 1950s hits, but the late "Tutti Frutti" belter sporadically recorded gems over his last 50 years.
Back in the day, a sassy Black queen colonized humanity with her powerful other-worldly offspring, but enough about the plot of Aliens.
Between 1955 and 1958, the queer, Black, Southern, non-gender-conforming Little Richard unleashed a torrent of primal singles onto square White America and permanently bent the arc of culture worldwide. His brazenly decadent voice and jackhammer-on-nitrous piano style innovated the sound of rock 'n' roll, celebrating the joys of sex ("Tutti Frutti"), sex, ("Good Golly, Miss Molly"), and sex ("Long Tall Sally"). But his round-robin retreat from secular music, combined with his nose-first dive into narcotics, resulted in a minimal recording career.
During his last 40 years, Little Richard had been a constant media presence due to his willingness to appear in anything from a Monkees' television special to Baywatch to a GEICO commercial. Yet he quietly amassed a trove of high-quality songs through duets, soundtrack inclusions, cameos, and forgotten tracks that highlight his eccentric power.
Little Richard - "Hurry Sundown" (1967)
Poverty, bigotry, and patriarchal violence defined Little Richard's childhood, which may be what attracted him to this song, one about a father who benevolently prays for his children's improved future. This introspective and brass-filled B-side to his single "I Don't Want to Discuss It" refined Richards's unfiltered moonshine vocal into an aged bourbon, perfect for this contemplative and weary civil rights ballad:
"Don't mind struggling / I don't mind livin' on a little / If someday my kids / Are laughing together / And having things I never own."
"Hurry Sundown" belatedly entered the public consciousness in 2017 when it appeared in the Better Call Saul episode "Sunk Costs".
Quincy Jones feat. Little Richard - "Money Is" (1971)
A new decade brought a new sonic palette, and Little Richard dipped into chicken-scratch funk. Quincy Jones scored the incredibly-hard-to-Google film called $, and Richard was a guest vocalist on this lead track. It's a bouncier version of the street smartness that Curtis Mayfield would bring to Super Fly a year later, but when your crime caper leads are Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn, the bounciness of Little Richard is pretty appropriate. Here he throws down his criminal qualifications, with lyrics that Jones would recycle for his platinum-selling song "The Dude":
"I got a Ph.D. in how to make ends meet / I graduated from the college in the street / Inflation in the nation don't bother me / Cause I'm a scholar when it comes to the almighty dollar."
Little Richard - "Great Gosh A'Mighty" (1986)
In 1976 Little Richard retired from rock 'n' roll to serve the Lord with his ministry, a pattern of self-acceptance, and self-hatred that he repeated throughout his life. But after the success of Charles White's authorized biography Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard (1985), he concluded that he could unite his conflicting impulses by creating faith-based rock music. He partnered with his one-time musical director Billy Preston and wrote the rousing "Great Gosh A'Mighty", which he performed in the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Only on close reading did one release it was an undercover gospel song:
"I've been looking, I've been wondering / Have you heard the Living Word? / I've been looking, I've been wondering / Wooooooooooooooooo!"
Little Richard with Fishbone - "Rock Island Line" (1988)
The American folk song "Rock Island Line" dates back to 1929, but folk singer Lead Belly's records popularized it in the 1940s. It's propulsive rhythm and double-speed lyrics have made it an endearing cover song ever since, and in 1998 Little Richard cut a version with Fishbone for the album Folkways: A Vision Shared - A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly. Alongside songs by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and U2, Richard brought 100% of his locomotive-strength rockin' energy to every hyped-up shuffle beat, every speedy lyric and every impossibly high note.
U2 with B.B. King - "When Love Comes to Town" [Live From the Kingdom Mix] (1989)
Speaking of U2, in the late '80s, they were deep into their fascination (or fetishization) with American culture. With their growing success, they advanced from writing about famous Americans ( Billie Holiday, Martin Luther King), to performing with famous Americans (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson). Having already nabbed blues legend B.B King for their smoky duet "When Love Comes to Town," they asked Little Richard to add a fiery sermon to the "Live From the Kingdom Mix" edit, who weaved in high-octane exaltations about love and joy. The man was in his element!
"You got to have it / Don't you need it? / Everybody need / Everybody / Everybody need / Everybody / I don't care how much money you got / I don't care how many mansions you live in on the hill / You need love / Wooooooooooooo!"
Living Colour - "Elvis Is Dead" (1990)
In the late '80s, Living Colour were deep into their fascination (or fetishization) with sound collage. With their growing success, they advanced from sampling famous Americans ( Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy), to performing with famous Americans (Queen Latifah, Doug E. Fresh). Having already nabbed sax legend Maceo Parker for their fandom-mocking "Elvis Is Dead," they asked Little Richard to add a fiery—
(Editor: Wait, did you just cut-and-paste this section from the previous entry?)
No, I "sampled" it.
(Editor: <pause> Carry on.)
Having already nabbed sax legend Maceo Parker for their fandom-mocking "Elvis Is Dead", they asked Little Richard to add a fiery rap to the funk-metal bridge, encouraging Presley's fans to relax their zombification urges. And really, who's more qualified to tell Elvis fans to shut up more than the Architect of Rock' n' Roll?
"Presley was a good performer, on stage he was electrifying / When he was ill, his fans got sick and moaned when he had died / To all you pimps making money on his name / How do you sleep, don't you feel the shame? / He went through the test, he's out of this mess / Be my guest and let him rest"
The video is a live performance from The Arsenio Hall Show featuring Fishbone's Angelo Moore on sax, presenting a beautiful, cross-generational AfroPunk moment years before AfroPunk's creation.
Little Richard - "The Hokey Pokey" (1992)
Children love high-energy nonsense rhymes, so releasing a children's record from the man who sang "Bama Lama Bama Loo" seems fated. From his album Shake it All About Little Richard terrorizes the playground chestnut "The Hokey Pokey" as if the song was on fire, and the only way to put it out was to wail into his microphone. I'm sure the irony of him—an artist once branded as a threat to teenagers—having released a kid's album on Disney was not lost.
I mean, that's what it's all about.
Funkdoobiest ft. B-Real - Wopbabalubop (1993)
James Brown remains the most-sampled classic rocker due to his catalog's depth, length, and relentless funkiness. Still, Little Richard samples are also prized nuggets that hip-hop producers have fashioned into custom rides for fresh raps. His unmistakable opening line from "Tutti Frutti" gets remodeled into the chorus of Funkdoobiest's slow-rolling and smoked-out "Wopbabalubop". Funkdoobiest was part of Cypress Hill's Soul Assassins collective and Cypress's buzzy atonal boom-bap runs all through this "Insane in the Brain" soundalike.
Little Richard & Tanya Tucker - Somethin' Else (1994)
Eddie Cochran's 1959 hit gets a fresh coat of paint and taken out for a spin. In the accompanying video, you can watch Little Richard read the lyrics from a page, but by the ferociousness of his voice, you'd swear he'd been practicing this song his entire life. Country singer Tanya Tucker matches him swagger for swagger and passion for passion, to the point where one wishes she'd recorded a straight rock album during her career.
Joe Walsh – "But I Try" (2012)
As legend has it, Joe Walsh's early band The James Gang recorded a 1971 jam session with Little Richard then forgot about the tape for 40 years. The result—the scorching groove-rocker "But I Try"—displays Little Richard's piercing vocals and feverish piano playing in fine, passionate form. Yet within a year, he'd stop recording, and Joe Walsh would leave The James Gang, stranding this song in a vault until Walsh released it on his 2012 album Analog Man.
Although not known at the time, it was the last new(ish) Little Richard song ever released.
- Esquerita: The Other Originator of Rock 'n' Roll Camp - PopMatters ›
- Little Richard: Here's Little Richard - PopMatters ›
- Little Richard: Get Down with It: The Okeh Years - PopMatters ›
- Little Richard Live at the Toronto Peace Festival, 1969 - PopMatters ›
- Little Richard: Mono Box - The Complete Specialty and Vee-Jay ... ›
- By the Book: 'Rocking the Closet: How Little Richard, Johnnie Ray ... ›
- Little Richard: The Rill Thing / King of Rock and Roll / The Second ... ›