Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Here's Little Richard (1957)



This is a nasty, abrasive brew that must be played as loudly as possible for full impact -- it's out of the gate with the searing, crazy, dangerous vocal on "Tutti Frutti," the rantings of a possible psychopath against the draggy, tripped-up, rapid-fire jump blues his fingers lurchingly emit. The adults were right to fear this music; it's a harrowing missive from a world of gangsters and whores and girls named Sue who know just what to do, uncles groping Sallies ducking back in the alley, flat top cats and dungaree dolls -- neon, twisted, demented. From the first breathless seconds it only lets you stop and catch up at the unfortunate interval during which you have to flip over the LP.

"Tutti Frutti" follows the initial shock of Richard Penniman's confrontational, ferocious vocal style with a refusal to comply to follow even the rules that the first anarchic seconds lay down -- there's that "wooo!" and the announcement that there's another girl, crazy Daisy. The sax is only half as insistent as Little Richard but that's enough, as no instrument can live up to that "ow OWWWWWWW" that gutturally bursts forth from somewhere inside him. The song is hellishly repetitive, driving relentlessly into its groove with piano and sax and voice competing frantically for attention, while all the while Earl Palmer's drumkit pounds and plots with abandon, periodically asserting itself with an incongruous fill.

That's how Here's Little Richard spends its first two minutes. No time to lose -- "True Fine Mama" brings Penniman's piano up in the mix and has its notes chaotically higher and lower than they should be, then a vocal so high pitched that its seemingly random, dadaist assortment of caveman-vocab words, an exorcism almost -- "YESSSS true fine mama, don't go away," each word like a stab -- leaves the tolling of the backup singers stranded. They can't keep up with that voice, a potent and terrifying and erotic mixture of ecstasy and misery. Its perversity tops out with that refrain of "honey honey hon-eyyyyyyyyy," baby talk elevated to histrionic confessional. The band -- Lee Allen and Red Tyler on sax, Frank Fields on the bass, Edgar Blanchard with lead guitar -- tries the best they can to get Penniman to calm down by handing him a plodding ballad but this too he blows to smithereens, breaking your speakers in half with his gruff, tireless atonal madness. You almost can't even hear the band faithfully meandering along as he wails and cries on top of them, destroys them.

Yet as of "Ready Teddy," he only seems to be settling in, with the "go man go" an impatient request to a rhythm section that picks up and picks up more but still can't quite fall in behind its leader, who finally gives up and goes nearly a cappella for a stretch -- and finally, the twitching saxophone lick, something as fucking dirty as he is. On "Baby" he delights in the naughtiness of winking "man like me" in a feminine, tough-as-nails vocal performance that suggests Etta James, so soft and cracking and hopped-up he overtakes your senses -- but if you have the time to listen closely, and the sweat's probably too heavy by now for that, you might catch the genius under the bluster: the nuance in "wanna loooOOve me so," but generally Richard's game is that the genius is the bluster. The others just let the song die out melodramatically, a decaying monster of a big band falling apart -- and Penniman enjoys this, squealing whenever they take over, his relationship with their pounding and sauntering delighted, as they fulfill his emotionally exhausting avant garde performance.

The only sort-of rational composition here is Little Richard's most fully-realized song, "Slippin' and Slidin'," and he does kind of have the reins on it between hyperenergetic piano lines, but just barely. The vocal is controlled, at first, but it's just a trick so that you sense how big and threatening he is when he gets pissed. The sexual pleading in "slippin' and a SLiIIIIIIIdin', peepin' and a HIIIIIIIdin'" belie an unflagging tempo -- and fit well with another madly filthy sax break.

Then you have to flip the record over, and yet again you first hear that ashen, tireless roar of a voice. "Long Tall Sally" is a drunken rant, literally one-note, that in just two minutes becomes a shapeless revelation of great and sumptuous ideas that there is simply no time to explore in full, except for the catharsis and triumph of "having some fun tonight." His return to each verse, not composing himself at all except in terms of tight and invisible self-control he always exhibits as a performer, finds him no less emphatic than before; he's bashing out a mess of notes on the piano but they're unrecognizable.

The derangement evident on "Long Tall Sally" is present on "Miss Ann," just menacingly slowed down until it seems to forecast the dirtiest of '70s funk, then somewhere after another rant about "believin' and deceivin'" the drum picks up and the whole thing is elevated, up on top of this whirpool of full-on drunken cacophony. No wonder that on "Oh Why," Penniman dreams of being charged with a crime, a story he tells with palpably real pleading and desperation while the band comes on all Sweet Smell of Success. Richard eventually gets his energy back on "Jenny Jenny," caterwauling with more nonsense yet about "spinna-spin," spinning like a spinning top. And "She's Got It," though it just recommissions "Lucille" and "Slippin' and Slidin'," bears no mark of epilogue to a wildly unhinged party. "Rip It Up," all fevered anticipation, hot groove, and yearning for sexual release, is too much: it's hard to stand it and sweat it out knowing what's coming, knowing that the Great Ball is tonight.

Here's Little Richard is an obnoxious, enormous, shocking record -- the few things about it that aren't wild and unpredictable are mashed down into the mix like scrap metal, and everything conservative the band pulls out is laughingly tossed aside by Richard Penniman, whose absolutely fearless and nearly surreal absence of exhaustion or tempering is primarily what allows this to remain such an electrifying, magnetic, treacherously powerful recording. It's atonal, amoral, naturally divisive -- the ravings of an audacious egomaniac and a sex-crazed symbol of youthful corruption, building up and falling apart in sensual rhythms before our eyes and ears. Isn't. It. Fucking. Glorious???!!

The Specialty Sessions (1954-60)

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