the root cellar: little richard – the architect of rock and roll

Don’t be a dummy – check out what all those other rock stars in your collection have known for years…”


by john pinamonti


So you say you already know all about Little Richard? Really? Then tell me what label he first recorded for, what great musicians accompanied him, and how many classic songs he put out in less than two years. Don’t know? The answers are: Specialty; Lee Allen, Red Tyler and Earl Palmer; and fourteen top ten r&b and two top ten pop hits in eighteen months (from 1955 to 1957). Obviously you’re smart enough to figure out that maybe you don’t know that much about the man, and that a CD focusing on this incredibly prolific period is bound to be a great place to learn. Little Richard: The Georgia Peach (Specialty Records Greatest Hits – Specialty SPC-7012) is not only great but also essential. Listen and listen good – you HAVE to have these tracks in your collection; otherwise you are illiterate in the language of American music. Don’t be a dummy – check out what all those other rock stars in your collection have known for years.

Richard has said many times that “Elvis may be the king, but I am the Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll!”. Clearly Richard’s melding of gospel and rhythm and blues coupled with his high-energy over-the-top showmanship (culled from his early days working in traveling medicine shows along with the constant influence of southern preachers) created the template for those who followed. James Brown and Paul McCartney learned how to go “whooooo!” from him, lead men from Mick Jagger to Springsteen to Prince to Jimi Hendrix (who played guitar for Richard for a spell on the chitlin’ circuit in ’64 and ’65) learned a thing or two about how to build up a performance to a fever pitch. The really amazing thing is that the “live show” fervor that Richard generated was completed translated and conveyed in these recordings. His pre-Specialty stuff is pretty tame, and the story goes that his first session (the first 3 tracks on the CD) was not really getting off the ground until they took a break and Richard started jumping around singing “Tutti Frutti, good booty”. (Of course, they had to clean his lyrics up for radio airplay – this is why it’s “Tutti Frutti, oh Rootie” – whatever the hell that means!). It’s interesting to note that this is a very similar story to one that took place at Sun Studios during Elvis’ seemingly unproductive first session. Everybody was a bit frustrated, so they took a break to clear the air. Elvis began “clowning around”, playing a revved up version of “That’s Alright, Mama”. This is what caught Sam Phillips’ ear and the rest, as they say, is history.

The biggest factors in these recordings besides Richard’s formidable talents are the studio and contributions of the supporting musicians. Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty, had set up shop at Cosimo Matissa’s J&M Studios in New Orleans, and was smart enough to have guys like writer/arranger Bumps Blackwell, saxophonists Lee Allen and Red Tyler, bassist Frank Fields and drummer Earl Palmer around to contribute to his sessions. It was this merger of Crescent City groove with Richard’s manic piano pumping and soulful shout singing that created something extraordinary. Yes, Richard did successfully record in other towns with other musicians, but if you listen to the tracks done in New Orleans (there are 19 on this CD – including the majority of big hits like Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, Good Golly Miss Molly, Ready Teddy, The Girl Can’t Help It, and Lucille), you’ll hear that there’s just something about the place and people, in the same way that there was something about Sun Studios in Memphis, that adds an extra special element. That element means there’s a little more bounce in the groove, a little more looseness in the performance, a little more crisp funkiness to the beat. It’s that New Orleans thang, baby! Words can’t describe it, but the body sure can feel it.

Final note: The musicians mentioned above, and in particular Lee Allen and Earl Palmer, really deserve their own tribute, as their contributions to innumerable recordings besides Richard’s are staggering. If Richard was indeed the architect of rock and roll, then these guys were partners in his firm. Just as the Funk Brothers were an essential and equal part of the Motown sound, so these gents are a key factor in a myriad of hits by Richard, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Earl King, Lloyd Price and just about any other hit maker that recorded in New Orleans in the ’50’s. And this is all before Palmer and Allen moved to L.A., where they became first-call session guys and played individually with everyone from the Beach Boys to the Blasters to the Righteous Brothers to T-Bone Walker to Tom Waits!

Catch you on the flip side – next issue we’ll take a look at Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Three
December 2002

John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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