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LITTLE RICHARD 1932 – 2020

It was the mid-fifties, probably 1956, I was listening to AFN [the American Forces Network] coming in over static-laden airwaves from Stuttgart in West Germany at about 9.30 one weeknight. Suddenly my ears sprang to attention as a wild and frantic sound came screaming from the tiny speakers of our ancient wireless receiver. It was Little Richard and ‘Tutti Frutti’ and I’d never heard ANYTHING even vaguely like it before. It was the most exciting record I’d ever heard and still is.

It changed my life!

I went to the record department of our local electrical store the very next day. Even though we didn’t have a record player in our house, I needed to own THAT record!

At the time, I had no idea what age or colour ‘Little Richard’ was, I was completely unable to conjure up any image in my mind’s eye. It was purely the sound of that record that entranced me, the incredible energy, the churning, rocking, irresistible steam-rolling rhythm coupled with his amazing vocal performance. Equally compelling was the B-side, ‘Long Tall Sally’, and I listened to these two sides almost continually, whenever I got a chance, for many of the weeks that followed. Soon there were more gems; ‘Rip It Up’, ‘Ready Teddy’, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’, ‘She’s Got It’ and an actual glimpse of the man himself in 1957 when ‘Six-Five Special’ showed a clip of Richard and his band from the film Don’t Knock The Rock. In this movie, when it eventually reached my home town of Dublin some months later, we got to see Richard performing ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’ with his superb band, innumerable times, as we followed the movie from one cinema to another (one or two viewings were nowhere near enough!).

Me and my pals were devouring all the other great rock’n’roll artists by this time, but none had quite the impact or charisma that Little Richard delivered. A year later, in 1958, we got to see him in glorious DeLuxe Color in the greatest rock’n’roll movie ever made, The Girl Can’t Help It in which, in addition to the title track, Richard performed ‘Ready Teddy’ and ‘She’s Got It’.

Richard toured America continually from 1955 to 1957 on the back of his many hit singles and his energetic shows brought black & white teenagers together, often for the first time under one roof. Doug Sahm described how wild Richard’s shows were in those years, recalling the time when he and Augie Meyers, as teenagers, climbed onto the roof of a ballroom outside San Antonio where Richard was appearing.  This show was so wild and the audience became electrified to such an extent that the police had to be summoned to try to keep control and the whole show ended in a riot.

In 1957 after an Australian tour, Richard decided to quit rock’n’roll to become a preacher. He informed the boss of his record label, Art Rupe of his decision. Art was not too pleased as Specialty Records had invested considerable resources in building Richard’s career and so it was agreed that Richard would quickly record some new songs and forego all future artist royalties on sales of his old Specialty records, something Richard later deeply regretted.

Richard then entered bible college in Alabama to study theology and thereafter concentrated on recording and performing gospel music. Until 1962, when he came to England as part of a European tour at the behest of promoter Don Arden, Richard’s intention was to perform just gospel music, but he soon changed back to performing his old rock’n’roll hits, following pressure from Arden and the UK audiences which consisted mainly of teddy boys.

Thereafter, Richard switched between gospel & rock’n’roll as the mood took him, re-recording most of his old hits countless times as well as continuing to cut religious material. During the 60s and early 70s, he cut many great soul and rock’n’roll records, although major chart success eluded him.

In 1984, Ace Records entered into a licensing deal with Specialty Records and this gave us access to not only every master that Richard had ever recorded for that company, but also permission to use some amazing previously unpublished photographs of Richard, which we found in the Specialty Records vaults.

Ace immediately set to work to release the finest quality reissues of Little Richard’s Specialty recordings. A superb 16-track compilation entitled “His Greatest Recordings” housed in a gatefold sleeve featuring some great previously unseen photographs, followed by top quality reissues of his first three Specialty albums. Then a long-awaited 8 LP box set, complete with rare and unissued recordings, commencing with ‘Baby’ and ‘All Night Long’, Richard’s demos for Specialty, recorded at Radio WBML on 9th February 1955 and send to Art Rupe at Lloyd Price’s suggestion.  The final recordings on the box are three live recordings from a June 1964 concert at the Paris Olympia, made after Richard had returned to Specialty in 1964 to cut some new recordings including his hit ‘Bama Lama Bama Loo’. Also included on the box set were various takes of six songs cut in one day, 18th October 1957, to secure Richard’s release from his Specialty contract. Ace currently has two great CDs of Little Richard’s Specialty recordings, ‘The Original British Hit Singles’ and ‘Little Richard’s 22 Classic Cuts’.

‘Little Richard’ Wayne Penniman was not a modest man. He considered himself ‘The King of Rock’n’Roll and many would argue that Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry could each be said to have given him a run for his money. However, Little Richard’s wild, emotive, charismatic performances, coupled with his incredible voice and unique vocal ability AND a larger than life image - pompadoured hair, face heavily layered with cosmetics AND those incredible baggy pants of his wonderful silk mohair suits, placed him firmly at the head of the rock’n’roll posse.

Ted Carroll

Selected releases