Picks and Pans Review: The Specialty Sessions
The atomic fireball that was Little Richard first crossed the charts in 1956 with “Tutti-Frutti,” a novelty number turned rock-and-roll burner, the likes of which—”A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom!”—had never been heard before. In short order, the gospel-voiced protorocker from Macon, Ga., was shouting, screaming and one-key piano-pounding his way through such signature hits as “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Jenny, Jenny” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.”
They’re all here and they make for plenty of fond memories, as well as stand-up-and-stomp listening. But the songs you’ll go back to more often might just be from the selection of lesser-known ballads, blues tunes and oldies that fill out this chronologically arranged compendium of Richard Penniman’s brief but groundbreaking years at Specialty Records (1955-57) and his short-lived return to the company in 1964.
He dropped out of music to enter the ministry in the late ’50s—inspired by a near accident in a plane—then returned to performing, only to quit again in 1975 when his brother died of the effects of drug abuse. He came back in the ’80s, both as a singer and actor, in the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
For a taste of L.R.’s more subtle cries and tears, check out the earlier takes of the bluesy “Baby” and the soulful “All Night Long,” recorded with his own road band, the Upsetters. And don’t miss the slow-driving “Directly from My Heart to You” or the rock steady R&B ballad “Lonesome and Blue,” two of many tracks backed by, among others, such crack New Orleans session men as drummer Earl Palmer and powerhouse tenor saxophonist Lee Allen.
Among the oddities you’ll find on this rich if sometimes ragged mix of masters, demos, alternates and outtakes are Little Richard’s heavy grinding versions of two old standards, “Baby Face” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” While much of the studio banter is incomplete or nearly inaudible, there are some prize snatches, such as producer Art Rupe instructing Little Richard to go “all out,” as if he needed nudging in that direction. (Specialty)