Back during the ubiquity of “Get Low”, Dave Chappelle famously pondered how “skeet skeet” could get on the radio, concluding that “white people don’t know what it means yet”. In that assessment of Lil’ Jon, he summoned another diminutive, flamboyant pioneer of new sounds and screams, the man who proudly and sneakily slid “sure like to ball” onto the radio. “Little” Richard Penniman was one of a handful of acts that simultaneously spun popular music and an entire generation on its ear, and thus altered the trajectory of American history.
The Very Best of Little Richard is exactly that: the rock legend’s very best recordings, remastered for their best sound thus far. It is poised to supersede previous comps as the best available single-disc Little Richard collection on the market. All the classics — “Tutti Frutti”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Jenny Jenny”, “Lucille”, “Good Golly Miss Molly” (still ballin’ away after all this time) — are present and accounted for, and presented alongside a couple new collector-baiting rarities.
Upon revisiting these 50-year-old recordings, it’s clear that Little Richard’s voice is still an instrument of power. Whatever his technical limitations, the man could express raw, unhinged sexuality and moments of climactic glee with an evangelical fervor: the jubilant exultations of the church transplanted into the equally transcendent realm of the bedroom. Ray Charles and Sam Cooke may have derived a more pronounced (and reverent) gospel influence, but only Little Richard made gospel’s hallmarks sound so blasphemously (and liberatingly) dirty. His primal energy is, even today, captivating: he sings like an otherworldly, demonically possessed madman, jarred into nonsensical syllables at the very sight of a lusty, voracious woman. There’s a crack in his voice for every goosebump on his skin, a lofty “woo!” to accompany his every animalistic quake. Even with the words “loose booty” changed to “aw rooty” for airwave acceptability, the meaning of “Tutti Frutti” is abundantly clear. His vocal skills were more diverse than most assume: “Send Me Some Lovin’” shows Little Richard could deliver a lovelorn ballad with dignity and restraint, while “Baby Face” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” apply his unconventional voice to Tin Pan Alley standards.
What’s jarring is how much this style of singing has thoroughly disappeared from the pop landscape. The raspy shouter died when soul got smoothed out in the ’70s, and has seldom been replicated (never profitably) since, confined mainly to rote blues performers and white roots rockers. Little Richard’s influence is undeniable, but his presence within modern pop to tough to decipher. Current R&B crooners like Usher and Ne-Yo will occasionally allow some roughness in their voices, but never use it to sustain an entire song. Nowadays, only in hip-hop (see DMX, Lil Wayne) can a gruff vocal thrive with any degree of commercial success. Thus, Little Richard’s ultimate legacy may be more social than aesthetic: the sensual freedoms he helped mainstream have had a longer shelf life than his actual, very singular sound. (Compounding this irony is the fact that Little Richard’s hypersexualized music masked his own homosexuality.)
Little Richard’s wild, frantic romps epitomize the promise (and incipient complications) of post-war America. Early rock and roll, like its era’s concurrent innovations (television, fast food, interstate highways), was all about instant gratification, and Little Richard’s music and career followed suit. On “Rip It Up”, he confesses, “Saturday night and I just got paid / Fool about my money, don’t try to save”, and such is the guiding sentiment of the new consumer era that rock and roll helped herald. These recordings are immediate: giddy, mystifying bursts of delight, joyous and danceable barnburners that hit the hips, the gut, and the genitals before the head can process the blow. Little Richard’s career was every bit as immediate: of the 25 cuts here, all but two were recorded between 1955 and 1957. He lived like his records, and after reveling in secular pleasures, he renounced rock and roll for the Christian church that informed his groundbreaking 45s. Beginning in the early days of the British Invasion, Little Richard made periodic comebacks: he toured with the Rolling Stones, recorded with a young Jimi Hendrix, and received reverent covers (and fawning praise) from the Beatles.
Unfortunately, this Very Best does not branch beyond the Specialty recordings — his most essential and influential work, no doubt, but hardly the only facet of his storied career. Absent are his 1960s country flirtations, 1970s civil rights hymns, and 1990s duets, all proof that an artist in decline can be as intriguing as an artist at his peak. Whatever their value as curiosities, though, nothing from those eras can compare to Little Richard’s indelible ’50s megahits. They can, however, surpass the disappointing rarities on the compilation. A 1955 demo of “Baby” plods along for four minutes of only competent singing and less-than-competent playing. A 1956 rehearsal take of “Hound Dog” won’t give Graceland’s accountants any sleepless nights. And the 1964 live medley of “Ain’t That a Shame / I Got a Woman / Tutti Frutti” is murky, unremarkable, and mislabeled, as it’s hardly a medley at all. Instead, Little Richard recites (possibly edited) snippets from his fellow piano men, more a quick nod than a respectful salute, before busting into his own signature tune. Little Richard’s onstage ferocity, especially from his heyday, is largely undocumented, but this past-his-prime live track is hardly a favor to it. (Ditto Billy Vera’s perfunctory liner notes.)
But minor quibbles aside, the first 20 tracks stand among the finest feats of rock and roll, and they bulldoze by in rapidfire fashion. Very Best proves that had Little Richard gone into hiding (or even died) in 1958, his place in rock history would have been unchanged. This is a man who earned his keep and changed the rules, and as evinced on these records, had a hell of a fantastic time while doing it.