I recently finished reading Billy Vera’s fascinating documentary-like book about the legendary and influential record label: Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story. In the book, the author presents a not entirely flattering portrait of legendary rockstar Little Richard — who had his greatest fame in the 1950s with a slew of ground breaking smash hit singles on Specialty Records. Despite that success, the artist apparently had a bumpy career at times.
Accordingly as the so called “rock ‘n’ roll revival” movement began in 1969, with the ascent of groups like Sha Na Na even playing at Woodstock — later followed by George Lucas’ American Graffiti and the immensely popular TV show Happy Days — Mr. Penniman embarked on a series of new albums for Reprise Records. These albums have recently been reissued.
I’ve owned some of these recordings over the years but tend to dismiss them. Don’t get me wrong, they sound good for what they are. Solid tracks are tucked away on The Rill Thing, The King Of Rock ’n Roll and The Second Coming. Yet, as an album listening experience, they tend to leave me a bit flat. They fall apart (again, for me, at least) on continuity — just as the vibe is getting good ‘n soulful and even a bit funky, he’d revert to the old 1950s song writing styles and mannerisms.
I wonder at times if some label executive was pushing him to do this to capitalize on the oldies movement of the times. I can imagine some knowing persona saying something like “C’mon Richard… sing something with ‘A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, A-lop-bam-boom!’ in it… these kids’ll eat it up…”
Live, at that time, it was probably fun to see the legendary Little Richard perform all his classic hits and some of these new tracks. No questions there. But on these albums at least, it felt a bit forced to me at times. These Reprise Records albums have been re-issued recently my Omnivore Recordings and they sound perfectly fine on the CDs I’ve heard.
All that said, one of the big happy surprises Omnivore Recordings issued on Record Store Day last year is an unreleased Little Richard album that should have been issued back in 1972 but for some reason laid near dormant in the archives. It was put out by Rhino Handmade as part of a retrospective of his Reprise years, but never as a stand alone record and never on vinyl.
The album is called Southern Child and is — I think — exactly what Little Richard should’ve been doing at that time moving forward: rich, gut-bucket-tinged, blues-dripping, slinky, sexy and at times lightly psychedelic rock music with a hint of southern country-western twang. It was as far removed from the “Tutti Frutti” aesthetic as he could get at the time, and much of it worked really well.
Southern Child could have taken his career in some fascinating new directions had it been released back in the day.
The songs on Southern Child sound quite wonderful with a rich acoustic guitar base fortifying many of the tracks. Perhaps the album could’ve benefitted from a proper re-mix, but in general the fidelity is solid. I love the opening triad of the near raucous stomper “California (I’m Comin’)” followed by the ear-worm hook of “If You Pick Her Too Hard (She Comes Out of Tune)” and “Burning Up With Love.”
I can’t help but think that a bluesy title like “Last Year’s Racehorse (Can’t Run This Year’s Race)” might have been a bit autobiographical, a hint that he might have known he needed to do something different. This song would have been a good one for The Stones to have covered around the time of Exile on Main Street (or perhaps for the Jamming With Edward side project album)
On Record Store day Omnivore Recordings released Southern Child on vinyl for the first time — bright yellow colored vinyl, in fact! They seem to have sold out quite quickly but if you look around online or at your favorite music store you can probably find it out there.
It is worth mentioning that the cover art for Southern Child is epic. If Prince was still alive I’m sure he would have approved: it shows Richard dressed in purple chaps (with nothing on apparently underneath) while milking a cow!
You can find Southern Child streaming on Qobuz and Tidal in 24-bit, 44.1 kHz fidelity. It is there in the third “disc” as part of a three “disc” retrospective of his Reprise years. For Qobuz, click here and for Tidal click here.
But really, you know you want the vinyl. I know that I do! I hope to pick up a copy out at an independent record store one of these days.