So where do we start?
Elvis worshipped him. Bob Dylan’s boyhood ambition was to join his band. On 27 December 1960, at Litherland Town Hall, the first step on their yellow brick road, The Beatles opened up with ‘Long Tall Sally’. Mick says when the Stones were on tour with him he’d watch his moves to learn how to entertain. Jimi was fired from one of his bands for trying to upstage him. My biggest influence, says Elton. Then there was Nod.
The first sighting I had was of his shoes, black with silver toecaps, and baggy pants. Then the camera panned upwards to this black guy in a brown silk suit with a pencil moustache and high quiff, swaying to and fro as he bashed the keys on a baby grand piano with its lid up. ‘Ready set, go man go, I got a gal that I love so.’ And there he was, hollering away, backed by four horns, guitar, bass and drums, rocking up a storm, an image that remained unchanged for six decades.
That was The Girl Can’t Help It. I was ten. I missed Don’t Knock The Rock but saw his second movie in our local Odeon. It was an otherwise forgettable romantic comedy, produced as a starring vehicle for platinum-blonde sex goddess Jayne Mansfield, but its influence far outweighed its limited ambition. When I first saw David Byrne in his baggy suit I wondered whether he got the idea from seeing Little Richard in The Girl Can’t Help It.
The records all arrived around the same time. ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Jenny Jenny’ and more. Richard’s recording of ‘Tutti Frutti’ was my first exposure to rock’n’roll before I heard Elvis, albeit only just. It was a 12” 78rpm disc on the London-American label, brown and silver, played in a classroom at school in Cross Hills and to this day I can recall with absolute clarity not just the actual room where I heard it but where the wind-up gramophone was located and even where I was standing in relation to it. And also, of course, the bomb-drop shock of that opening line.
All of Little Richards great rock’n’roll songs were recorded between September 1955 and October 1957, and a year later, to my profound distress, he gave it all up for God. I remember reading about that in NME and cadged the money to buy Here’s Little Richard, the first non-Elvis LP I ever had.
Elvis had his sneer, Chuck his duckwalk, Bo his square guitar, Buddy his Strat, Don & Phil their harmonies and Jerry Lee his 13-year-old bride, but Little Richard outshone them all when it came to showmanship. He was, I think, the purest of all the rock’n’roll pioneers. There was something elemental in his frantic, unrestrained delivery, that voice screaming from the rooftops, a blood-curdling shriek, and the gibberish of the lyrics: nothing exploded the eardrums like “Awopbopaloobop alopbamboom”. If you didn’t know what it meant you weren’t alive, man.
‘He’d scream and scream and scream,’ wrote Nik Cohn in Rock From The Beginning, his seminal treatise on rock’n’roll, subsequently retitled Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. ‘He had a freak voice, tireless, hysterical, completely indestructible, and he never in his life sang at anything lower than an enraged bull-like roar. On every phrase, he’d embroider with squeals, rasps, siren whoops. His stamina, his drive, were limitless. And his songs were mostly total non-songs, nothing but bedrock twelve-bars with playroom lyrics but still he’d put them across as if every last syllable was liquid gold.’
That’s the best description of Little Richard’s enormous voice that I’ve read anywhere. It gets to the nitty gritty better than all the quotes from the rock stars whose opinions were solicited by those who wrote stories about Richard’s demise in the papers and on line today.
Interestingly, they didn’t include Noddy Holder, whose singing voice most clearly resembled that of Little Richard to my ears, unless you count Paul McCartney who when he wanted to could imitate Richard about as well as anyone. Slade’s first hit, of course, was ‘Get Down And Get With It’, a cover of a Bobby Marchan 1964 B-side, but Slade’s version was more along the lines of Little Richard’s cover of the same song from 1967. The very best rock’n’roll track The Beatles ever recorded – or Paul sang – was their 1964 cover of ‘Long Tall Sally’ on an EP I still treasure.
Noddy has recalled seeing The Girl Can’t Help It in a Wolverhampton cinema – sorry picture house – in 1957, an experience from which he never recovered. “When I saw Little Richard dressed in a silk suit with that big bouffant greased hair, pounding the piano, screaming his head off, shaking his arse, the band behind him just swinging, I just flipped,” he told Neil McCormick of the Daily Telegraph in 2005. “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This is what rock and roll is: shock, performance, primal beat.”
In 2003 at Omnibus Press I published a revised edition of Charles White’s book The Life and Times of Little Richard: the Authorised Biography, and was dumbstruck to learn that his biggest UK fan was a dentist from Scarborough. It’s a great book, full of tall tales and downright filth, all about the man whom Charles dubbed the Quasar of Rock. There’s also the best account anywhere of the dubious origins of ‘Tutti Frutti’.
Ooh, my soul!