Little Richard: 20 Essential Songs
What is there left to say about Little Richard that he hasn’t already said better himself? “I am the innovator! I am the originator! I am the emancipator! I am the architect! I’m rock & roll!” he once exclaimed to an interviewer, before adding, “Now I am not saying that to be vain or conceited.”
No, Little Richard — born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia, in 1932 — was just being honest. His influence is incalculable. The Beatles learned their ecstatic falsetto shouts from him; James Brown said he was “the first to put the funk in rhythm.” In his yearbook, Bob Dylan noted that his ambition was “to join Little Richard,” and nine-year-old David Bowie bought a saxophone hoping to do that as well. Bowie’s glam period, the prancing and strutting of Mick Jagger, the psychosexual convolutions of Prince are all hard to imagine without Richard’s androgynous flamboyance leading the way.
Little Richard was the freakiest of all the great rock & rollers — his sexual expressiveness was untempered by Elvis Presley’s down-home charm, Chuck Berry’s sly wit, Jerry Lee Lewis’s wolfish malevolence, Buddy Holly’s pop sensibility, or Fats Domino’s avuncular geniality. Richard’s feral woo conflated the spiritual and the orgasmic in a way that changed the way musicians communicated desire forever. As Jimi Hendrix put it, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”
A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom. Little Richard wrote the greatest (maybe the first) rock & roll lyric to describe a drum fill he wanted. Or – depends when you asked him – it was how he talked back to his boss as a dishwasher at the Macon Greyhound station. Hearing a hit in the frustrated number Richard pounded out during a break in an unproductive recording session, producer Bumps Blackwell hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to temper the original lyrics' lip-smacking celebration of "good booty" and helpful butt-sex instructions ("If it don't fit, don't force it/You can grease it, make it easy"). "Tutti-Frutti" may have been modified from "explicit" to "suggestive," but Richard's lustfully tumbling onomatopoeia still voiced a carnal glee far beyond the reach of any dictionary words – when he lands on the last two syllables you can practically hear the bodies slapping against each other.
“Long Tall Sally (The Thing)” (1956)
"Tutti Frutti" specialized in lascivious nonsense but its sequel "Long Tall Sally" barrelled forth on lusty innuendo. Little Richard spots Uncle John sneaking Sally through the alley then claims he's gonna tattle to Aunt Mary but the way he sings the song, it's clear he's on the side of the revelers, not the scold. What the two are doing isn't clear, but the subterfuge and Sally's bald head suggests something illicit, even freaky: It's not a place where good guys go. This wildness earned Richard his first R&B chart-topper – and first Top 10 pop hit – and it proved irresistible for generations of rockers, chief among them the Beatles. John Lennon said, "When I heard it, it was so great I couldn't speak," and Paul McCartney studied it, turning it into a showcase during early performances for the Fab Four.
“Slippin’ and Slidin'” (1956)
"Another cat put 'Slippin' and Slidin'' out before I did, Eddie Bo, and it was a hit by him in New Orleans," Richard told Rolling Stone in 1970. "They put mine out the following week, and it killed him, because he didn't have the rhythm, you see, he didn't have that thing I have." Comparing this rock & roll fireball to Bo's cool New Orleans R&B shuffle (titled "I'm Wise") lets us identify Richard's peculiar "thing" – his je ne sais woo. Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry sideman Johnnie Johnson may have been more melodically ingenious piano-pounders, but Little Richard's percussive key smashing is what a Little Richard song requires, taking on the heavy rhythmic lifting so that master drummer Earl Palmer can get fancy underneath.
“Ready Teddy” (1956)
"Ready, set, go man go." That opening lyric is a starter pistol and Richard's voice is the blast signaling that the race is on, sending singer and musicians sprinting past one another toward the end of the chorus. Each verse is essentially an a cappella shout punctuated by bursts of percussion that build up to the sexual excitement of the chorus, making Richard's claim that he's just headed to a sock hop sound like the kind of lie you tell your parents to get out of the house when you've got some much less wholesome activities on your agenda. John Marascalco and Robert Blackwell "brought me the words and I made up the melody and at the time I didn't have sense enough to claim so much money, because I really made them hits," Richard told Rolling Stone in 1970. "I didn't get the money, but I still have the freedom."
Little Richard's songs epitomized rock & roll's commitment to speed and, typically, all the optimism, enthusiasm and restlessness that came along with it. But on this frantic burst of a song (not to be confused with the Louis Armstrong classic), Richard somehow seemingly sings faster than the beat, as though his need to accelerate is beyond his control – fittingly, since he complains about the "jinx" his "bad luck baby" placed on him. It's no surprise that the rawest and most rocking of the Sixties soul greats, Otis Redding, who called Richard "my inspiration" and actually performed with Richard's band, the Upsetters, got his professional start performing "Heeby-Jeebies" at a talent show. Otis went on to win it for 15 weeks straight.
“All Around the World” (1956)
Little Richard's definition of "rock & roll" was pretty simple: fast R&B. "Played uptempo, you call it rock & roll; at a regular tempo, you call it rhythm & blues." Jumpy, light-bottomed and horn driven, "All Around the World" stands apart rhythmically from Richard's more frantically adrenaline-powered hits, but if it's a little slower, it's no less exuberant and definitely no less rock & roll. "Rock & roll is here to stay" was a pervasive message by 1956, but "All Around the World" ups the stakes by insisting that the new sound is a global phenomenon as well – a point Richard would soon help prove by touring as far away as Australia in the next few years.
“The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956)
Usually, Little Richard needed no support: He provided enough vocal power for an entire quartet. "The Girl Can't Help It" is the exception that proves the rule. On this title tune for the 1956 Jayne Mansfield movie, Richard indulges in a call-and-response with anonymous support, shouts that only ratchet up the madness of a two-and-a-half-minute-long catcall. The beat swings – the roll tips a hat to the fact that it was originally slotted for Fats Domino – but Richard pushes his vocals into the red and it's this full-throated wail that lends the record the air of unbridled sexuality.
“Rip It Up” (1956)
There's an implied violence lying within the title of "Rip It Up," Little Richard's second R&B chart-topper. Despite this promise of mayhem, "Rip It Up" actually contains a little bit of breathing room. Richard doesn't scream his vocal – the opposite, actually; he floats his falsetto on the chorus – and the band swings with ease, turning this into a single that actually grooves. His peers took a different tack – Elvis Presley's version rocks harder, the Everly Brothers turned it into a hop – but Little Richard's swing shows his facility with jump blues, an endearing trait for a rocker who always seemed to operate at full tilt.
“Send Me Some Lovin'” (1957)
Little Richard's impact on rock & roll is so unmistakable that his role in the development of soul is sometimes overlooked. "He has done so much for our music," Sam Cooke said in 1962, and Otis Redding (as we've seen) was every bit as much of a fan. Comparing this performance to the versions of "Send Me Some Lovin'" that both soul greats would cut, in their own distinctive styles, shows the different directions that Little Richard's influence could lead. You can hear traces of his caressed consonants and curlicued vowels in Cooke's velvety smooth delivery, and when he notches up the intensity it's like he's sketching a blueprint for the style of soulfully raggedy pleading that Redding would perfect.
“Jenny Jenny” (1957)
Not to slight the dynamic interplay between Lee Allen's tenor sax and Alvin "Red" Tyler's baritone, but "Jenny Jenny" is a less a song than a miracle of modern American engineering, a hyperkinetic streamlined delivery system for the most precious of all postwar commodities: Little Richard woos. That sound traveled across the ocean to Liverpool. "I could do Little Richard's voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing, it's like an out-of-body experience," said Paul McCartney, who was indeed one of the man's best imitators. "You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it."
"Lucille" is pure madness – the drums pound and the horns wail, driving their refrain into submission. In the hands of a guitarist, this brassy blare would be called a riff, and that's precisely what resulted when the song was covered over and over again, by the likes of such heavy rockers as Status Quo, AC/DC and the Sonics, but it sounded plenty heavy in the hands of the Beatles, too. Nothing topped the original, though, and that's all due to Little Richard, who cries like a man possessed with carnal yearning that, no matter how much he begs and pleads, he knows will never be fulfilled.
“Keep A-Knockin'” (1957)
John Bonham ripped off Earl Palmer's intro to "Keep A-Knockin'" for Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" – a tacit acknowledgement that this 1957 single is rock & roll. Purportedly an answer song to Smiley Lewis' laid-back 1955 shuffle "I Hear You Knockin'," "Keep A-Knockin'" is nothing but noise. After Palmer backs into a hard-driving shuffle, Little Richard yells for his guest to just go away, and after that, it's a competition between Richard and his saxophonist to make the loudest racket. Rock & roll never sounded louder, better or more pure than this.
“Good Golly, Miss Molly” (1958)
Illustrating T.S. Eliot's maxim that mature artists steal rather than imitate, Little Richard lifted a catchphrase that a Southern DJ named Jimmy Pennick used to exclaim for his song title, and nicked Ike Turner's piano intro from Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88." "I always liked that record," Richard recalled, "and I used to use the riff in my act, so when we were looking for a lead-in to 'Good Golly, Miss Molly,' I did that and it fit." But of course, "Good Golly, Miss Molly" never sounds like anything less than Little Richard, his voice pushing dangerously into the red on each line, and each time he exclaims the title you'd think he just thought it up on the spot.
“Ooh! My Soul” (1958)
"Elvis may be the King of Rock & Roll," Little Richard once declared. "But I am the Queen." He could be cagey or frank about his sexuality, sometimes in the same breath – "I believe I was the founder of gay," he once told John Waters, while admitting nothing. But from his towering, sculpted pompadour and fluttering mascara-enhanced peepers to his orgasmic whoops and un-macho physical exuberance, Richard was an unmistakable pioneer of rock & roll androgyny, and "Ooh! My Soul" may be his most flirtatiously gender-bent frolic on wax. He barrels through the verses like a hot-dogging star running-back, then cutely squeals the title like a coquettish cheerleader. "Ooh! My Soul" is the sound of Little Richard seducing himself, its post-climactic giggle confirming that he finds his own charms irresistible.
“Kansas City”/”Hey Hey Hey Hey” (1959)
Little Richard cut two versions of the Lieber/Stoller classic in 1955. The conventional first take tracks closely to the original Little Willie Littlefield recording, but on the latter he stamps the song with his personality, breaking into a shout of "hey hey hey hey" that's echoed by an enthusiastic chorus. Before the second take was released in 1959 (around the same time Wilbert Harrison scored a hit with his own coolly strolling version), Richard would record a song called "Hey Hey Hey Hey," about "goin' back to Birmingham," with the same introductory seven-note guitar lick and drum roll as "Kansas City." And that's how Little Richard not only made "Kansas City" into a Little Richard song, but collected royalties from the Beatles when they covered it.
“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (1959)
In 1956, Fats Domino started to have hits with revivals of old popular tunes, taking the 1940 song "Blueberry Hill" toward the top of the R&B and pop charts. Little Richard followed his lead in 1959, reaching back 50 years for the Tin Pin Alley chestnut "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." It's a limber, nimble thing, goosed along by honking horns and propelled by an insistent shuffle. As fun as the rhythm is, the single is all about the singing. Grinning and mincing, Richard walks right along the edge of camp: He's not sending up a beloved chestnut, but he is giving it a sly wink.
“Bama Lama Bama Loo” (1964)
"Bama Lama Bama Loo" is the first of Little Richard's attempts to get back to where he once belonged. After a spell hopping between labels in the early Sixties, he returned to Specialty in 1964 and released this bit of raving nonsense. With its gibberish and screams, the song was clearly intended to evoke "Tutti Frutti" and it misses that mark because he's a little bit older and a little less wild. Canny guy that he is, Richard turns aging into an asset, letting the rhythms slow slightly so they settle into a thick shuffle that grooves.
“I Don’t Know What You’ve Got but It’s Got Me” (1965)
It didn't cross over to the pop charts, but "I Don't Know What You've Got but It's Got Me" became Little Richard's last major R&B hit in late 1965 – and fittingly, the song's sensibilities belong to Sixties soul, not Fifties R&B. A church-y slow-burner so languid it was split in two for its single release, "I Don't Know" finds Little Richard tackling the deep soul emanating from such Southern outposts as Stax/Volt. Not surprisingly, this earthy milieu brings out the best in Richard. He connects to his gospel roots in a way he never quite did on his seminal Specialty sides, proving that he could testify with powerful passion.
“I Need Love” (1967)
Little Richard was pretty much exiled during his mid-Sixties stint at Okeh, attempting to navigate the shifting tides of soul. He eked out a meager hit with "Poor Dog (Who Can't Wag His Own Tail)" but much better was the electrifying "I Need Love." It went nowhere, failing even to crack the R&B charts, but the seven-inch finds Richard riding an uptempo Southern soul groove in the vein of Otis Redding. He makes this splashy sound his own, giving it a snazzy showbiz spin as he modulates his delivery, building to choruses so explosive they're cathartic.
“Freedom Blues” (1970)
Like many old-time rock & rollers, Little Richard was given an opportunity to connect to a new audience at the turn of the Seventies. When he signed to Reprise in 1970, he declined to revive the spirit of his old hits – a temptation Fats Domino did not resist – and dove headfirst into the thick, funky mess of the era. Deeply Southern in its groove, "Freedom Blues" is part civil-rights rallying cry, part paisley-colored sign of the times. What's striking isn't simply Richard's impassioned performance, but how he marshaled counterculture signifiers into a single that still packs a wallop.