Repeat after me: “Wop Bama Leema Lama, Wop Bop a Lu!”
Now say this, loudly: “Bama Lama, Bama Lu!”
Now don’t you feel better already? I knew you would… most can’t help it…
One more now…
Now, shout this out at the top of your lungs: “Wop bop a loo bop, a lop bom boom!”
Feels pretty great, eh?
Ok, that is enough for this week’s rock ‘n roll therapy session. You have just received your first Teenage Mantras written by the legendary Little Richard, rock ‘n roll’s pioneering alchemist who influenced generations with his off-the-hook, inspired and fun run of hits from the 1950s.
Long before David Bowie plucked his eyebrows…. before Wayne County became Jayne County… before Lou Reed and Andy Warhol walked on the wild side…. before Reg Dwight transmogrified into Elton John…. before Marc Bolan got his solid-gold easy action T-Rex-tacy on… Before Eno and Bryan Ferry’s Roxy Music … before Freddie Mercury and Queen… before Robert Smith donned his big wigs in The Cure … before Morrissey…. before Adam Lambert…. it was Little Richard who trail-blazed a brave path of androgyny, ambi-sexuality, shocking (for the times) make up, amazing hair, wild stage antics and anthemic earworms which would inspire generations to come.
Paul McCartney learned how to do many of his trademark rock and roll shouts from Little Richard.
People of a certain age who were there in the 1950s know all about Little Richard. Some of us who have done their research (like me!) have discovered the wonders of Little Richard after hearing so many bands cover his songs, from Elvis Costello to John Lennon to Frank Zappa. Fortunately for you, Dear Readers, Little Richard’s music is alive and well for you to explore anew. It is, in fact, back in print on vinyl records and even longer playing multi-disc CD sets that have recently been issued / reissued.
This wondrous Little Richard renaissance (if you will) began quietly on Record Store Day a few years ago when the long out of print and hard to find first album by Little Richard was reissued on vinyl — red vinyl at that — for a very reasonable price. This was significant. The reissue was nicely prepared including period-accurate Specialty Records label and artwork. It sounded real good and, frankly, finding an original pressing in “new” condition has always been next to impossible (unless you were prepared to spend hundreds of dollars from a pricey collectors shop).
Then something else happened in 2014: Little Richard’s SECOND album was reissued on Record Store Day on lovely white vinyl!
What a joy to finally own good sounding pressings of some of the most influential rock and roll recordings in pop music history in their original format : long playing vinyl records!
But, never having owned an original pressing I had no idea how this reissue stacked up. Until, that is, a recent happenstance discovery at a garage sale where I found a decent condition original stereo pressing of the second Little Richard album. This is one of those albums that used to always be on the walls of used record shops going for hundreds of dollars. Now that there have been reissues and that the top tier of the baby boom is purging their coveted collections as they downsize their lives, these records are starting to pop up in surprising places for more reasonable prices.
Anyhow, here is the interesting and good news item for you, Dear Readers: the vinyl reissues sound just ducky!
(Good Golly! Did he just say ducky?)
Additionally, the good folks at Concord Music Group — current owners of the Specialty Records catalog — have just put out a three (count ’em, 3!) CD box set compiling “The Best of the Specialty and Vee Jay Years” by Little Richard, which (full disclosure) they kindly sent me to check out for this review. This is an old school box set replete with a neat little cardboard sleeve containing three jewel boxed CDs and a nifty informative booklet with liner notes penned by composer and music historian Billy Vera.
You know you want it all in all its pink-hued glory!
Listening to the new CDs, which I have to assume are culled from the best available sources, I’ve been able to do some comparison and contrast to the reissue LPs. The cool thing is the LPs sound markedly better than the CD, which should be a relief to some of you conspiracy theorists out there who insist that all modern day LP reissues are being mastered off of CD sources. Nope. The CD sounds thinner than the LP version, considerably so.
]]>In fact, the new reissue LP sounds quite a bit better than the original pressing (the one I just picked up at that garage sale). Now, this may also have something to do with the fact that the original pressing is stereo and the reissue is Mono, so the latter would arguably sound punchier. The stereo isn’t quite “fake” stereo, but it does sound like it has added reverb for a sense of enhanced presence in comparison to the more powerful Mono mix.
All that said, the CD box set is a real handy thing, with three jam packed discs and an interesting booklet with some fabulous pictures of the man behind the scenes. I mean, this is a guy who could pull off questionable cover versions of then popular standards — “By The Light of the Silvery Moon,” “Baby Face” — which he was urged to record to appeal to a broader audience (this detail is on the liner notes to his second album, by the way). Now, for some of you this may be overkill but for those of you who want an easy education on the roots of rock ‘n roll from the man who taught Paul McCartney how to wail like a banshee and who — along with Jerry Lee Lewis — inspired Elton John to rock the piano every bit as hard as a guitar or saxophone, this set is a great starting point.
I’ve found the set quite enlightening, especially the third disc of material from the Vee Jay era (which I’d never heard before). It shows just how versatile a singer Little Richard is and what an incredible voice he has. On some of the tunes he sounds more like a seasoned gospel-infused blues singer this side of Big Joe Turner and Solomon Burke, than the rock ‘n roll shouter for which he earned his initial fame (“Money Honey” “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me”). On other tunes such as “Without Love” you hear the versatility of his voice as Little Richard delivers a near tear-drenched soulful country-western ballad that would make Tom Jones cower in a corner.
On a swingin’ Martha & The Vandella’s-inspired dance arrangement of The Platter’s mid-50s hit “Only You,” Little Richard switches from a growly rock blues voice to a near Yma Sumac like falsetto in an quite stunning instant.
Thanks to this set I get to play connect the dots a bit: I was tickled to realize that the set’s title track from the Specialty years — “Directly From My Heart” — was a song written by Little Richard, replete with a ripping guitar solo. You see, one my musical heroes, Frank Zappa, covered that song on his 1969 collection called Weasels Ripped My Flesh featuring an electric violin solo by the great Don “Sugarcane” Harris. Jumping ahead to Disc Three on this Little Richard boxed set, on the bluesy “Goin’ Home Tomorrow” (which sounds like an update on “Directly From My Heart”) there is in fact an electric violin solo there which I suspect is probably Don “Sugarcane” Harris (especially as he calls out to “Don” just before the solo).
Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey! How cool is that?
I love the funky New Orleans swamp take on Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)” which sounds more like an outtake from Captain Beefheart’s Clear Spot album than a Little Richard tune!
The sound on Directly From My Heart is uniformly quite good in original Mono and Stereo for the later period material. Overall it sounds real solid. Now, setting realistic expectations, don’t go into this anticipating a sonic wonder like the classic early 60s Roy Orbison recordings on Monument. But these tracks have a raw appeal all their own and the CD is a pretty decent showcase without too much evidence of digital artifacts hurting my ears.
If you want a “just enough” of the Little Richard experience that is more in tune with what your parents and grandparents heard back in the day, you should seek out the Record Store Day reissues on vinyl. If you want to go a bit deeper in appreciating this legendary singer’s broader scope, definitely pick up the new box set because Little Richard knows how to do the rock ‘n roll… and the blues… and gospel and more!
You’ll get the Heeby-Jeebies!
Ok, one last time, say it again out loud: Wop Bama Leema Lama, Wop Bop a Lu!