A year before he died, Johnny Cash was the subject of a tribute album with some of music’s biggest names: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Dwight Yoakam all sang the works of Cash on 2002’s Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash (one of two Cash homage albums released that year). But it was Little Richard who delivered the most revved-up performance, a rambunctious rendition of “Get Rhythm,” the 1956 B-side to “I Walk the Line.”
Recorded during a six-hour session in Nashville, Richard, still vivacious at 69, worked with producer Marty Stuart and engineer Claude Achille to find just the right arrangement — his arrangement. “As Richard played the piano runs, he would definitely say, ‘I’m going to do that there,’ or ‘Don’t crowd me there,'” Achille said in a 2002 interview with Mix magazine.
Richard, who died Saturday at 87, threw himself into the performance, no doubt remembering his own childhood washing dishes in a Macon, Georgia, bus terminal as he sang about the song’s “little shoeshine boy” with the “dirtiest job in town.” Listen to the way he draws out “street,” turning it into a multisyllabic word. He adds hiccups to “rhythm” too, and brings it all home with one last elongated “blues.” Pleased with himself, he offers an ad-libbed “thank you.”
Stuart, who played electric guitar on the track, was awed. “I didn’t know Little Richard [before this project], but I was a fan, and my instinct told me that Little Richard would absolutely get it,” he told Mix in 2002. “I wanted to give him a song that he could absolutely tear alive, and we made some real rock ‘n’ roll that night.”
Many of the artists on the Kindred Spirits track list had close ties to Cash. Rosanne Cash was his daughter, of course; Hank Williams Jr. was a friend; and Stuart was his former son-in-law and band member. But only Little Richard was a contemporary of Cash — a musician who, like the Man in Black, was present for the birth of rock & roll.