When one thinks of rock music, a variety of ideas come to mind. There’s the blues-rock of Muddy Waters, indie rock of Arcade Fire, glam rock of KISS, metal of Iron Maiden etc. With each new generation, a new style of rock is birthed or reborn, modifying and expanding with alongside developments in technology and culture. The politically-charged punk rock of the Clash may only be a brother to the angst-heavy noise of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, but it is also the cousin of B.B. King’s soul-tinged blues and Death Grips’ punkish take on hip-hop whether we recognize it or not. Under this broad family tree that is rock music, each subgenre is connected to one another in an infinite number of ways, and — if one goes back enough — it is Little Richard who is the forefather of it all.
Arguably the most surprising aspect of Little Richard’s career is simply how much his music changed, and this evolution is easy to hear on Fantasy Records new five-disc complete box set. The first disc is the Georgian’s debut album, and one can pick out the energy and rollicking 12-bar blues rhythms that would remain a staple in a musical career that would span over half a century and influence everyone from Bob Dylan to the late and great Prince. Hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally (That Thing)” have their first appearance on this album, songs that would later be joined by the singles “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Lucille” on Little Richard’s self-titled sophomore release. These tracks make another reappearance on disc five’s His Greatest Hits compilation as live versions, giving each song even more character and flavor than the studio versions.
Although Little Richard’s biggest hits are mostly found on the first two discs, it’s discs three and four that are the most enjoyable as complete albums. The former, The Fabulous Little Richard, feels slower, with female backing vocals that accentuate the doo-wop and R&B landscape of the ’50s. The sleepy, dreamy and almost gloomy mood of “The Most I Can Offer (Just My Heart)” and “I’m Just a Lonely Guy (All Alone)” sound as if they were made by a completely different artist than the one who composed “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey (Goin’ Back to Birmingham)”. Even at his loudest on this album, “Kansas City”, Little Richard feels much more tamed than the flamboyant showman that were on the previous two discs, and shows that the Macon superstar is much more than the one-trick pony that most people consider him as nowadays.
Following this subdued, harmonious performance, disc four swings towards the other side of the spectrum by containing some of the loudest, rock-heavy tunes of Little Richard’s career. Horn solos, guitar solos, fiddle solos, and even harmonica solos litter each track on the bridge, and the pounding blues rhythm rolls along faster than a runaway train going downhill. Besides the singing, Little Richard is also doing quite a number on the piano, slamming down full chords as if his intention were to break the keys instead of playing them. “Lawdy Miss Claudy”, “Hound Dog”, “A Whole Lotta Shakin’”, “Groovy Little Suzy”, and “Blueberry Hill” are all standouts, prefacing the minimalistic expressive playing of punk rock and the insane cacophony of noise rock decades prior to their creation. By 1960, Little Richard wasn’t just making music for the baby boomer generation; he was making music for the new millennium.
While the liner notes of this box set state that “[Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Bill Haley] rocked as hard as Little Richard”, it doesn’t fully explain how the Georgian is the living embodiment of rock music. Little Richard, both personally and professionally, epitomized the rock ethos, the credo that the genre is primarily for social outcasts and eccentrics. Not only as a black man, but as a homosexual who wore makeup and was a drag performer at one time, he lived in an age where classical and big band jazz groups were the norm, where women and men had distinctive gender roles, and where whites and blacks in the United States had been segregated only a couple of years prior to the release of his debut album. Whenever he performed, whenever he was straining his vocal chords to get one last syllable out, whenever he danced onstage with his makeup and big hair, he was doing more than making music; he was protesting the only way he knew how. And it is this protest, this rejection of the status quo and the orthodox, which is in every second of every song on this five-disc box set, and what truly makes Little Richard’s music stand the test of time.