Little Richard: Kings of Rock’n’Roll Series
Little Richard is perfect for the late night TV freak circuit: he’s funny, loud, outrageous, superficial even on important issues and willing to talk when he has absolutely nothing to say. Sometimes he’ll even sing, but that’s not necessary because, just as Raquel Welch is more a Star a “Personality” than an actress, Little Richard is now more a Star than a singer. That’s show biz. When you’re the King of Rock and Roll you can talk about your clothes and mug your way through conversations and bang out songs you made more than ten years ago and make albums like this one.
On one of Little Richard’s talk show appearances, after smirking, preening, leering and gesturing wildly in between the commercials for a while, Richard leaned toward the host with a little-girl mixture of coquetry and boldness and asked if he could do something he’d never done on television before. Something he’d always wanted to do. The host was hesitant at first but then, giving the camera one of those “aside” looks
What is this freak going to do now? invited Richard to go right ahead. The Georgia Peach, looking like a Miami Beach matron in a flashy lounging outfit, stood up, flung his arms in the air and dashed down into the aisle among the audiences. He ran on tippytoes, arms flailing, squealing like a kid on Halloween, made a circuit through the aisles and returned flushed with girlish excitement and satisfaction to his seat on stage. That was it. Shut up!
The new album is the vocal equivalent of running through the studio audience and just as disappointing for its lack of real audacity behind the pretense of outrageousness. Much of the album seems designed around the Talk Show Personality rather than the Singer, giving it the sticky veneer of a jive extravaganza. It begins with a deep voice intoning. “And it came to pass that in the year of rock and superstars. King Richard returned from exile to claim his throne,” which gives way to crowd adulation, shouts of “Long live the king!” and royal fanfare. Ah, the excesses of ego.
The opening and title cut is, however, one of the best, perhaps because it’s modeled so closely on Richard’s classic jump numbers. “Good Golly Miss Molly/Gonna tell everybody/Every Johnny, Joe and Jack/That the King is back”: hitting every word like a hammer on rock just like in the old days. “King of Rock and Roll” goes on to enumerate and dismiss other performers with big reps (for instance: “Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul,but who wants to be the queen when you’re the King of Rock and Roll”) and it sounds great.
The longest cuts versions of “Joy to the World.” “Born on the Bayou” and “Dancing in the Street” are burdened with more talk show jive than they can successfully withstand. Part preacher, part hustler, Little Richard rambles on witlessly mostly about himself: “I am the Georgia Peach … The beauty’s on duty … I’m the star and don’t you ever forget it.” while an unconvincing recording studio “live audience” can’t quite seem to make up its mind whether it’s at a political rally or a revival meeting, although the automaton shouts of “right on” create an appropriately mindless atmosphere. The treatment of the material is further undermined by a vapid girl chorus who croon away in the background, their expression virtually unchanged from song to song. Unfortunately, Little Richard doesn’t do much better. His delivery, while spirited, is too often monotonous devoid of emotional depth and rarely reaching peaks of excitement. With this treatment. “The Way You Do the Things You Do” is dull and “Brown Sugar” becomes all Top 40 gloss with none of the calculated nastiness or implicit disgust that characterized the original; the girls even chant “sugar sugar” behind Richard.
At other times. Little Richard drops his poses and just sings and for a few cuts reassures us he can still do it. “Green Power,” the single release, is the best thing here: a tight, building R&B number that has Richard rasping and screaming along in top form. He isn’t interested in the politics of color the chorus sings, “white power,” Richard responds, “I don’t want none;” they suggest “black power” and he yells, “Go away, child, you know I just had some” just m-o-n-e-y in the tradition of “First I Look at the Purse” and the obvious “Money.” The last lines, sung in a staccato rush, are fine: “I want it got to have it don’t have none need it y’all.”
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the cut that follows, is a Hank Williams song done with feeling but perhaps a bit too much dragged-out phrasing; although reminiscent of Otis Redding on “Dock of the Bay,” and a pleasure if for no other reason, again Richard fails to cut as deeply as he might. “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” and R. Penniman’s own “In the Name” are good, rousing songs more typical of Little Richard, but allowed to droop in the production.
The production and arrangement is credited to H.B. Barnum who has apparently been around some time doing things like this, even working with Little Richard in the past. Aside from wasting some very good songs, Barnum has buried most of the instrumentation, unremarkable though it may be. After doing such a tasty production job of his own on The Rill Thing. I’m surprised Richard would allow this, but then he was probably so flattered by the voice mix and carried away by all that talking Ooo my soul! that he didn’t even notice. In one of his harangues, he tells us, “I left my throne to walk hand in hand with my people … While I was spreading love, others came to claim my title, my people and my throne and that’s when I heard that call again. It said, ‘King, go back!'” Oh shut up.