Little Richard: The Very Best of Little Richard

Little Richard's Specialty hits stand the test of time, but the rarities in this package do not.

Little Richard

The Very Best of Little Richard

Label: Specialty Records
UK Release Date: 2008-08-18
US Release Date: 2008-07-29

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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