Depending on your age or environment, the term “rock ‘n’ roll” can conjure an image as innocent as a jukebox in a soda shop, as threatening as a switchblade in a dark alley, or as distant and detached as an old movie populated from what seems like people from another planet. For the converted, however, it will undoubtedly inspire visions, among others, of records – 45s mainly – and the iconic labels that adorned them. The deep blue with silver lettering of Chicago’s Chess Records. The musical notes that danced around the bright yellow rays of light that illuminated Memphis’ Sun. The little yellow and white label with the bold scrawl across the top promising a whole lot of fun within its grooves: ‘Specialty’.
Specialty was started in Hollywood by Art Rupe, a Pennsylvania transplant who voraciously studied and analyzed what went into a hit record, dissecting songs and using a stopwatch and a metronome to determine why some songs became hits and others didn’t. He ended up establishing a set of rules that guided how the records on his label would sound. That may sound constricting and anti-art, but it wasn’t all academic. As he once told Grammy-winning musician/writer Billy Vera, author of 2019’s Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story (and who also provides the exquisite liner notes to this package), some of the music moved him so much, it brought him to tears.
In 1994, when not only compact discs ruled the music industry, but deep-dive box sets were still all the rage, Rupe released The Specialty Story, an exhaustive five-CD, 130-song overview of the seminal label. Although that collection was reissued in the early summer of 2021 for the first time on streaming platforms, an all-killer-no-filler sampler of the label’s crème de la crème was compiled and released through Craft Recordings as Rip It Up: The Best of Specialty Records just a couple of months later digitally, on vinyl and CD.
This condensed collection does hit the highlights of the boxset. Yet, it also stands on its own as a strong introduction for the more casual rock ’n’ roll listener, the uninitiated but curious, or the long-time fanatic that wants another slab of vinyl emblazoned with that iconic Specialty label. (The vinyl comes in two versions: classic black and a limited-to-500-run of opaque yellow.)
As for the music, what’s found on Rip It Up: The Best of Specialty Records is undeniable, inarguable, incontestable. There are the pre-rock ’n’ roll hits of Roy Milton & His Solid Senders (the strolling groove of “R.M. Blues”, the shuffling, jumping swing of “Information Blues”, the late-night kiss-off “Best Wishes”) and brothers Jimmy (“Drunk”) and Joe Liggins (“Pink Champagne”). Also, there are early soul burners by the fantastic Percy Mayfield (the incomparable and prescient “Please Send Me Someone to Love”, the smooth sway of “Lost Love [Baby Please]”) and the legendary Sam Cooke (with his Soul Stirrers on the stirring, “I’ll Come Running Back to You”). Rip It Up doesn’t let up once throughout its 18 tracks, and it whizzes by in its less than 50-minute running time.
Specialty is most remembered – and most revered – for its contribution to the annals of rock ’n’ roll history. There’s the awe-inspiring wail of Lloyd Price, whose “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” still thrills in its sensual groove. Plus, hear the oft-overlooked-but-still-vital Larry Williams (“Bony Moronie”, “Short Fat Fannie”). Then, there’s the name more associated with Specialty Records than any other, Little Richard.
Represented by four tracks, deservedly more than any other artist here, Little Richard’s shadow is long and inescapable in the world of rock ’n’ roll in general and Specialty in particular. You may have heard these tracks your entire life, from television commercials or on kids’ shows, at karaoke night at the local hotel lounge, or the theme park while you’re taking a turn on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Placed in the context of the rest of the timeless tracks on this collection, however, hearing “Long Tall Sally”, “Tutti Frutti”, “Lucille”, and “Rip It Up” still excites the senses, makes the pulse accelerate, the hairs stick out, the big toe shoot up in the proverbial boot.
Yes, the second half of the filthy couplet, “Tutti Frutti, good booty”, may have been sanitized for white audiences to the nonsensical “oh, Rudy.” But as any rock ’n’ roll fan knows, the filthiest part of that song is the opening and closing worldless exclamation, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom. Its driving rhythm helped cement the fact that Little Richard was the first to put the rock in rock ’n’ roll.
He might be the biggest name here (along with Sam Cooke), but Little Richard is hardly the only highlight of Rip It Up: The Best of Specialty Records. Suppose this collection merely serves as a primer for the much more comprehensive box set, or it offers a chance for both older collectors and first-timers to own a new physical product boasting the Specialty label. In that case, it’s done its job as proving that Specialty forever deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Chess and Sun as an originator of the rock ’n’ roll sound that still powers the backbeat of pop radio to this day.