Though best known for the Fifties classics that defined early rock & roll, Little Richard’s career was full of fantastic lesser-known moments, as he responded to the arrival of British rock, Sixties soul and Seventies funk, at times returning to his gospel roots while always showing the elasticity of his uproarious bedrock sound. Along the way, he turned in great covers of songs by everyone from Hank Williams to the Rolling Stones while recording excellent originals as well.
“Directly From My Heart” (1957)
Little Richard was known for his absurd vocal power, a formidable arsenal of roars and shrieks. But on “Directly From My Heart,” he’s a master of the polished croon. As the bassist thumps out a knubby riff and the drummer plays ticking triplets, Little Richard twirls gracefully through the song’s title phrase, shading it with melismatic quivers; later he adds a stunning, almost yodel-like effect as he stretches out “away-ay-ay-ay.” He’s able to maintain this smooth, immaculate surface until the final minute of “Directly From My Heart,” when he rips into a series of “baby baby baby” ad-libs. But the tight control he displayed at the beginning of the track makes the final explosion that much more satisfying. E.L.
“Goodnight Irene” (1964)
Lead Belly, the Weavers, and Eric Clapton have all covered this folk standard. But only Little Richard could make the song sound like a funky gospel party. This recording comes from 1964’s Little Richard is Back, his return to rock & roll after becoming a gospel artist. The album took a soulful, laid-back approach, unlike Richards’ fiery early hits – and it works, proving Richard could be just as commanding at a slow tempo. P.D.
“Rocking Chair” (1967)
Richard was commercially struggling in the mid-Sixties, as the British Invasion he’d helped inspire raged on. While some of the material he cut for Specialty Records around this time is not his best, there are some gems, especially this cover of Fats Domino’s “Rocking Chair,” recorded at Abbey Road in London in December 1966, and released as a bonus track from Got Down With It! The Okeh Sessions in 2004. There are no lyrics, just Richard howling and egging his band on as the music gets increasingly wild, especially Richards’ melodic piano pounding. P.D.
“The Commandments of Love” (1967)
Richard landed on Okeh Records in 1966, a venerable R&B label with a history that stretched back into the pre-rock & roll era of “race records.” Released in January 1967, his first album with the label, The Explosive Little Richard, saw him keeping up with the time by delivering a mix of Southern soul and Motown inspired tunes. “Commandments of Love,” written by the LP’s producer Larry Williams, a friend and longtime collaborator of Little Richard, draws heavily from the Flamingos’ classic “I Only Have Eyes For You,” arriving at something that sounded like Otis Redding doing doo-wop. Richard showed how smooth he could be while still giving the angelic melody an earthbound sense of raw urgency. J.D.
“Greenwood, Mississippi” (1970)
In 1970, Little Richard embarked on another comeback with The Rill Thing for Reprise Records, an album that had him covering the Beatles, Hank Williams, and others with a country-rock feel. One highlight is this CCR-style swampy rocker, written by Travis Wammack and Albert Lowe Jr., with Richard testifying about getting back to his country roots over a heavy groove and psychedelic lead guitar. The song cracked the top 100, though the album was a commercial disappointment. P.D.
“Brown Sugar” (1971)
Little Richard was one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest heroes. The first record Keith Richards bought was “Long Tall Sally,” and the band got a master class from him when the Stones toured with him in the early Sixties. “He had the band thumping out ‘Lucille’ for almost ten minutes, which his a long time to keep that riff going,” Keith Richards wrote in Life. “The whole place blacked out, nothing to see but the exit signs. And then he’d come out of the back of the theater. Other times he’d run on stage and then disappear again and come back. He had a different intro almost every time. What you realized was that Richard had checked the theater, talked to the lighting people – where can I come from? Is there a doorway up there? – and figured out how he could get the most effective intro possible.” He and Mick Jagger must have been thrilled when Little Richard covered “Brown Sugar” for 1971’s King of Rock and Roll, his second Reprise album. Richard made it his own, beginning with an overdriven scream, letting out falsetto howls between swaggering verses. It’s fun to hear Richard having a blast covering artists so deeply influenced by him. P.D.
“Green Power” (1971)
The swampy, horn-driven soul shouter “Green Power” riffs on the Black Power anthems of the late Sixties and early Seventies for a good-time ode to weed. “Give it to me! Give it to me! Sock it to me! Do it to me!” he hollers at the song’s end. Of course, his experience with drugs would darken. “I started with a little marijuana,” he later recalled. “Someone said, ‘try it, you’ll like it, a little dab will do it.’ I got my dab. I moved on to angel dust. Let me tell you, the angels had nothing to do with that dust.” But “Green Power,” still rivals Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” in its passionate endorsement of getting high as the answer to all life’s woes and concerns. J.D.
“Settin’ the Woods On Fire” (1971)
It’s no surprise that Little Richard would choose “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” from all the essential songs in Hank Williams’ catalog. It’s Williams’ most joyous, carefree tune, opening with the very Little Richard-ready invitation “Comb your hair, paint and powder/You act proud and I’ll act prouder.” His version gives the original a hot, Chuck Berry-esque guitar lead to set things off, and proceeds to turn the 1952 country classic into a Southern soul scorcher. When he sinks his teeth into lines like “I don’t care who thinks we’re silly/You’ll be daffy and I’ll be dilly,” you can almost see him winking over the piano keys at the flamboyant possibility of his proud and powdered rural party crawl. J.D.
“Second Line” (1972)
“Come on girls!” Richard sings at the opening of this rollicking New Orleans ode to partying at Mardi Gras. He gives dance instructions, shouts out Suzie Q and Messy Bessy Lou, among other revelers, references a couple of his old classic hits, and paints a wild, vivid picture of people in the streets marching around but staying in time. It’s one of his loosest, most outrageously fun moments, with a sweet, syncopated beat from legendary session drummer Earl Palmer, who’d played on many of his iconic Fifties sides. Amazingly, the album it came on, 1972’s The Second Coming, was panned at the time, despite being a funky gem. J.D.
“Nuki Suki (1972)”
Little Richard tried his hand at skronking wah-wah funk on this 1972 cut. The band lays down a fierce vamp, with a pair of itchy, interlocking guitars and long, slicing saxophone lines; Little Richard adds percussive, five-note riffs on piano, pausing before the final note in each line to ratchet up the suspense. The singer alternates between simple entreaties — “gimme some, gimme some” — and the pleasantly repetitive baby-talk of the title phrase: “nuki suki, nuki suki, nuki nuki nuki.” More than 15 years after “wop-bop-a-loo-bop,” Little Richard’s command of gloriously nonsensical lyrics was as strong as ever. E.L.
“Funk Proof” (1975)
By the mid-Seventies, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and George Clinton had transformed the sound of rhythm and blues with the funk revolution, prompting many of rock and soul’s innovators to try to keep up. In 1975, Little Richard recorded a great, now-forgotten single, “Try to Help Your Brother,” that could have easily doubled as something on the soundtrack to Superfly by Curtis Mayfield (another artist who rebranded himself around the same time). But the single’s true curiosity is the B side, “Funk Proof,” a blazing instrumental on which Little Richard got too lost in the brass arrangement and guitar-led groove to remember to shriek and squeal. It could easily have fit on a record by the JB’s. K.G.
“I Saw Her Standing There” (1975)
Forever the picture of rock & roll excess, Little Richard seemed custom-made for the Seventies, when rock & roll grew bloated with giant horn arrangements and sleek production — so his overly augmented rendition of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” sounds like an original. His performance of the song on Night Dreams is a maximalized feast for the eyes: Decked out in a silver cape and a mile-high pompadour, Richard wiggles, squeals, and barks as fire flickers over his face. Always one for one-upmanship, you have to wonder what Paul McCartney thought of Richard out-Richarding him on his own song. When Richard watched the performance again a few years later with David Letterman, he commented, “I’m just so glad God brought me out of that. I never knew I looked like that.” K.G.
“What Am I Supposed to Do Without Jesus” (1979)
In the late Seventies, Little Richard turned to Jesus and rededicated himself to gospel music. His 1979 live album, God’s Beautiful City, is a great curiosity, since half of it features Richard offering testimony both reverently and in his impossible-to-escape flamboyancy. But one of the most interesting songs on it is “What Am I Supposed to Do Without Jesus,” an uncharacteristically quiet number on which he’s accompanied only by acoustic guitar as he nearly whispers the lyrics (or whispers as best he can). It’s surprisingly moving and emotional. You can hear just how worn out he must have been after living a life of excess for two decades. K.G.
“One Day at a Time” (1982)
During Little Richard’s gospel revival, around the late Seventies and early Eighties, he made a typically incredible appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman and sang a heartfelt rendition of Merle Haggard’s “One Day at a Time.” In true Little Richard fashion, he belts the lyrics loudly enough that it surely rung through the heavens right up to the Pearly Gates. It’s a rare moment where you can see how gospel and country & western music blended perfectly to make something distinctly rock & roll — Little Richard can’t even help himself from shrieking here and there like he did in his glory days. Sadly, the song never came out as a single. K.G.
The Eighties were an especially weird time for rock singers who’d made it big in the Fifties: When the sound of rock turned sleek and overproduced, the genre lost a lot of the danger and excitement that Little Richard had innovated at the birth of rock. One of the exceptions is “Operator,” a funky number off Lifetime Friend, Little Richard’s high-water mark in the Eighties. Throughout the song, he commands a fierce boogie-woogie rhythm and even sneaks a few unwieldy shrieks through the dense arrangement of guitar and horns. He even got a fire-breathing dragon to back him up in the video. The song was a minor hit in the U.K., but failed to make an impact on the U.S., where the album’s “Great Gosh A’Mighty” became a hit thanks to its inclusion on the Down and Out in Beverly Hills soundtrack. K.G.
”Get Rhythm” (2002)
Little Richard turned Johnny Cash’s strummed 1956 B-side to “I Walk the Line” into a barreling piano rocker for the 2002 Cash tribute album Kindred Spirits. Recorded during a six-hour session in Nashville, the piano great, still rambunctious at 69, worked with producer Marty Stuart to find just the right arrangement. 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,” Stuart told Mix magazine 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.” Along with delivering the most energetic track on the LP, Richard was also the only contemporary of Cash in the lineup — a musician who, like the Man in Black, was present for the birth of rock. J.H.