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The Sound and the Fury

November 17, 2020

Another Side of Little Richard

Little-Richard-Second-Coming-OV-398 copy

After his 1950’s heyday, the rock pioneer enjoyed a varied and hit-filled career

By Gillian G. Gaar

Where do you go from up? That was the dilemma facing the post-1950s Little Richard. The flamboyant performer had become a legend for churning out such rock ‘n’ roll classics as “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” among others. But then, at the height of his fame, he took a sabbatical, either to rededicate himself to the church, or to break his contract with Specialty Records, depending on which story you believe.

Little-Richard-The-Rill-Thing-OV-396 copyEither way, his career momentum stalled, and the era of his greatest musical influence was over. But he continued releasing records for decades to come. And Omnivore Recordings is revisiting some key albums in his career in four new reissues: The Rill Thing, King of Rock and Roll, and The Second Coming (all originally released on Reprise), and Lifetime Friend (originally released on Warner Bros.). All four albums have bonus tracks, primarily single edits.

The Rill Thing (1970) was Little Richard’s first album since 1967’s The Explosive Little Richard, as well as being the first album he self-produced. He embraced his Southern roots by recording at Rick Hall’s FAME Record-
ing Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, working with the studio’s terrific in house band. The album gets off to a strong start with “Freedom Blues,” a forthright plea for social justice co-written by Richard and his longtime friend Esquerita, a sentiment perfectly in keeping with the political spirit of the era. Released as a single, it returned Richard to the record charts, No. 28 R&B, and No. 47 pop.

This is an album oriented toward the blues, something you can readily hear in the great groove of “Greenwood, Mississippi” (also released as a single). There are also nods to his past. “Dew Drop Inn,” (named after a New Orleans nightclub) co-written by Richard, Esquerita, and Keith Winslow, begins with the same frantic drum intro that opened Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’,” though it doesn’t get quite as frenzied.

Among the covers, “I Saw Her Standing There” (the B-side of the “Greenwood, Mississippi” single) is an obvious choice for him to do, since the Beatles’ original was something of a Little Richard homage to begin with. His is a bluesier version, and he shows you how those “woos!” should really be sung. “Lovesick Blues” is a more surprising choice, but Richard did grow up hearing country as much as R&B and gospel.

If you ever wanted to hear Richard cover the Rolling Stones, Three Dog Night, Martha & the Vandellas, or Creedence Clearwater Revival, then King of Rock and Roll (1971) is the album for you. But the title track sets the stage before we get to those wide ranging covers. It’s a fun piece that has Richard reclaiming his title to the throne with a lot of lyrical references to his previous accomplishments, before he gets to the chorus and proclaims, “I’m the King of rock ‘n’ roll!” Yes, you are, Richard, yes, you are.

Little-Richard-King-Of-Rock-And-Roll-OV-397 copyNever got the chance to see Little Richard preach? Well, you’ll get some idea of his fiery sermonizing style here, via the extended spoken intro of “Joy to the World”: “I’ve been talkin’ about love for a long time! Because honey, I’m the man that started it all! The emancipator of soul, and the king of rock ‘n’ roll!” “Dancing in the Street” opens in a similar fashion, with Richard issuing the command, “Now come on everybody, get together! Come out here on the floor! And let’s rock some more!” before diving into the funk.

Funk is the rhythm that’s driving this album, with both “Brown Sugar” and “Born on the Bayou” getting taken down to funky town and glad they made the trip. And there’s more love for Hank Williams as well, with a very sincerely delivered “I’m So Lonesome I could Cry,” balanced by a raving “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” This album’s bonus tracks also include numbers left off the album, making it well worth picking up.

The Second Coming (1972) is the wildest, hardest rocking album of the three Reprise efforts — not surprising for an album that has a track entitled “Rockin’ Rockin’ Boogie.” And what a sizzler it is! Perhaps one reason for that is due to Richard’s reuniting with his Specialty-era producer (and sometime manager) R. A. “Bumps” Blackwell for this record. In any case, it rocks with the vigor of his 1950s work.

His reworked version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” here called simply “The Saints,” is a track that he could’ve been recorded in the ’50s, wailing sax and all. And naturally a performer whose music was about getting audiences out of their seats would co-write a number like “Second Line,” which refers to the second line of dancers in New Orleans parades. “It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way How You Do It,” another original, is a pleasingly tough little number.

Elsewhere, “Prophet of Peace” ties in with the spiritual aspect of the album’s title, as does the instrumental “Sanctified, Satisfied Toe-Tapper,” a real slow burning cooker. Among the bonus tracks are two songs that appeared on the soundtrack for the 1971 film $, (also known as Dollars), a comedy starring Goldie Hawn and Warren Beatty: “Money Is” and “Do It — To It.” They’re both fine pieces of funky soul, written and produced by Quincy Jones.

Little-Richard-Lifetime-Friend-OV-399 copyThe albums didn’t generate much in the way of sales, and Richard ended up leaving Reprise. He threw himself into live work, but his drug use escalated, and by the end of the decade he’d quit secular music again. But in the 1980s, another comeback commenced, starting with the publication of his autobiography, Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard in 1984. He followed that with an appearance in the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), co-writing, with Billy Preston, “Great Gosh A’Mighty” for the soundtrack. The song peaked just outside the Top 40 at No. 42, and quickly led to a new album, Lifetime Friend, released the same year.

“Great gosh a’mighty, it’s been a long time coming!” Richard shouts with glee in the song.. It was true enough; his last full album had been the 1979 gospel album God’s Beautiful City. But a careful listen to the lyrics reveals that this is also a religiously-themed work — rock ‘n’ soul, in both senses of the latter word. It’s not an earthbound, but a heavenly friend he wants to connect with in “Operator.” The laidback “Somebody’s Comin’” is a song of salvation. The spirited “I Found My Way” is a terrific rock/rap mashup. And “Big House Reunion” turns heaven into a club for the ultimate afterparty. There’s too much emphasis on ’80s-style synthesizer, which makes the record sound dated. But Richard finally managed to find a way to bring his sacred and secular interests together.

The four albums also make the case that Richard was as much a strong singer as he was an expert rock ‘n’ roll shouter. They offer a great look at another side of the performer rightly hailed as one of the prime progenitors of rock ‘n’ roll.






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