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Little Richard: Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneer

It’s strange how some things happen. Here I was relaxing at home and working on a new blog entry about two Little Richard albums that I own and love when the story comes up in my newsfeed that he has passed away. I was so sad and shocked to hear the news! Not because I was such a huge fan, but because it really is the end of an era.

Despite not being the biggest Little Richard fan in the world, I was nevertheless touched by his music, inventiveness, creativity, and immense talent. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that without him, pop music would absolutely not exist as we know it today. There would be no rock, and there would be no RnB, Soul or Rap as we know it. If we go right back to the beginning of Rock’n’Roll, it’s easy to see that his collaboration with and influence on other artists created the mosaic of music that came afterwards.

Did you know that he played with the Beatles in Hamburg in 1962 before they were famous? Did you know that he toured with the Rolling Stones? Did you know that Jimi Hendrix, then unknown, played guitar in Little Richard’s backing band and on some of Little Richards’ songs in 1964? Fashion-wise, David Bowie claims he was influenced by Little Richard’s Rock’n’Roll androgeny, but then so was Prince. John Water’s famous moustache was inspired by Little Richard as well. You do know that James Brown imitated Little Richard’s style and created his own in the process, right? And did you know that when Little Richard first started performing in the states to segregated audiences, the white kids would actually break past the barriers to join the black kids to dance?

If you didn’t know any of that, then with all of the tributes coming in from stars who were influenced by him, I’m sure you know now. Think of all the names I just dropped in the paragraph above, and there are many more that I could add, now consider the influence that THOSE artists have had on the world, and you’ll see why Little Richard was so important! It’s exponential. Despite never reaching the heights of fame that came to some of his fans and to those he influenced, he was an absolute legend in the music world and he will be missed. 

Considered in the context of the early to mid 1950s, early Little Richard was insane! It was way over the top and out in left field compared to everything else that was happening in music and fashion at the time. Although early rock’n’roll  isn’t really my cup of tea, his early music had an energy and a style that was all his own and was certainly contagious! It was a style that many would imitate and that would go on to influence millions. He was also a man who wore make-up and sequins, did drag, and was flamboyant at a time when it was distinctly unwise to do so. Although he finally came out decisively as gay later in life, he hummed and hawed about it a lot in the early days. It wasn’t really a secret but, unlike some other stars, he was Little Richard. There was nobody else like him, and somehow, it was tolerated at a time when it was not acceptable.

He lived a very interesting life on his own terms.

He truly did things his own way, even going so far as leaving the whole music business behind to become a preacher. This was done as his way of making good on a promise he made to God when a flight that he was on looked like it was in trouble and might crash, Little Richard promised God that if He would spare him, he would leave Rock’n’Roll behind and join the seminary; then he actually did it! Now that takes some balls! Of course, he was kicked out of the seminary and came back to Rock’n’Roll… but that’s another story, haha! Like I said: He never walked the easy path.

Upon returning to show business, Little Richard had a hard time climbing back up to the top. He went through a few different record companies and released a few albums, but none of them were the “comeback” he had been hoping for. Maybe, in a way, his departure for the seminary had hit the brakes on his career a bit too hard. The styles had changed by the time he came back to Rock’n’Roll and he just never really seemed to get back in sync with the times. Despite the setbacks, he was a trouper. He recorded rather steadily throughout the 60s and 70s. In fact, it is two of these later albums that were meant to be the sole focus of this post, as opposed to an overview of the man himself! So let’s get to it, shall we?

I recently came across an amazing song called “I Don’t Want to Discuss It” on a compilation of RnB and Soul from Sony Music (Europe) and Music on Vinyl called “The Northern Soul Story Vol. 2: The Golden Torch” ((MOVLP154). As the album was playing, and I was grooving to the funky sounds, this particular track caught my attention. Curious as to the artist, I checked the track list on my LP and was shocked to discover it was none other than Little Richard! This was no “Tutti Fruiti” or “Long Tall Sally”. This was a gorgeously recorded funky Northern Soul track that sounded nothing like the scratchy Rock’n’Roll I had previously always associated with Little Richard. Curious to see if I had anything else from Little Richard in my Northern Soul collection I started looking through the albums and was pleased to find “A Little Bit Of Something (Beats A Whole Lot Of Nothing)” lurking on another LP in the same series, “The Northern Soul Story Vol. 1: The Twisted Wheel” (MOVLP153). It turns out that this song was just as good and just as much of a Northern Soul scorcher. Now my curiosity was really piqued.

It turns out that both of these tracks were recorded during Little Richard’s brief tenure on Okeh Records, with “I Don’t Want to Discuss It” being the album opener on his 1968 album “The Explosive Little Richard”. I read a few reviews of this period of Little Richard’s output but they weren’t particularly complimentary. Based on what I was reading, however, I got the impression that the reviewers were disappointed that these albums weren’t just more of the same 1950s stuff. THAT, however, was precisely what I did NOT want. Now I was really excited! My next step, therefore, was to check out the music itself via YouTube and Spotify.

Mind. Blown.

I was busy doing some cleaning and other assorted chores around the house as the music blasted out of the speakers. THIS was the kind of music I wanted! I knew that it was an album I wanted to own on vinyl when I realized that I was picking up the lyrics easily and singing along as I worked. It hints at Rock’n’Roll, but it is much more savvy and funky. The music on this album was very much in the vein of Motown and other RnB soul of the late 60s that I love. A lot of the horns and rhythm of the album brought James Brown to mind, though with actual lyrics that I could understand and less… James Brown-ness, haha!

I immediately set out to find a copy of it in good shape. Happily, I succeeded in finding a 1970 US pressing in excellent condition for about $5.00 from a seller in Denmark that I shop with frequently due to their great international shipping prices. One of the advantages of falling in love with lesser known or underappreciated albums is that they are usually easy to find at a decent price! 🙂

As I was browsing Little Richard’s late 60s/early 70s Discography I came across another album that looked interesting; His first album for Reprise records after leaving Okeh Records, 1970’s “The Rill Thing”, which was considered by many to be his comeback album. I followed the same investigative road map and checked it out on Spotify. This album showcases another new side of Little Richard , though it still has a bit of the RnB vibe of “The Explosive Little Richard” it is grittier and rockier. I had to have it!

Remember what I said about lesser known albums being easier to find at cheap prices? “The Rill Thing”, having produced his biggest hit in years, “Freedom Blues” as well as a moderately successful follow-up single “Greenwood, Mississippi” (which sounds like C.C.R.!) was not as easy to find in good shape for less than $20… so it languished on my wish list for a few months until…Yes! You guessed it! My Danish record seller came through for me again! I added the album to my basket and waited impatiently for it to arrive!

(These being pre-pandemic days, the post office delivered the album to my door in under three weeks. God knows how long I would have to wait now! *sigh*)

I may not have a taste for his early music, the stuff that made him famous, but more and more I am discovering that I like his later output! (**note: I just ordered a copy of his 1986 album, “Lifetime Friend” after previewing it on Spotify!)

Do you like that Motown vibe but you just don’t know where to start aside from “Supremes Greatest Hits” or a collection of “Motown’s Best”?? These two albums are a GREAT place to start! They are the only two Little Richard albums that I own, but I wouldn’t trade them for the world! Another great place to start are the above mentioned Northern Soul collections… but that’s another post for another day…

And that’s a wrap for today! I am going back to listening to “The Rill Thing” while I do these damn dishes…

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Little Richard’s passing shouldn’t go unnoticed. Spend some time with his music and let yourself feel the joy and exuberance that he brought to his craft.

Here for your listening pleasure are the two albums I mentioned, as well as a couple of extra tracks recorded during the same Okeh Records recording sessions as “The Explosive Little Richard”. I know you’ll enjoy them! PLAY LOUD!


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