Saturday, April 12, 2014

Music Reviews: Little Richard, King Floyd

Little Richard
Little Richard (born Richard Penniman) likes to refer to himself as "The Architect" of rock-n-roll. He certainly is one of the founding fathers. He was and is a flamboyant larger than life personality who had massive influence on a wide range of disparate peer and subsequent musicians such as Otis Redding (who worked in his band), Elton John, Bon Scott and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Prince, Tina Turner, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix (who also briefly worked in his band), Jerry Lee Lewis, Queen, David Bowie, James Brown, Bruno Mars, Wilson Pickett (who copied and extended his hard screaming style of singing), Bob Seger, Billy Preston and many many more. 

Like fellow 50s stars Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Ike Turner, Little Richard transformed up tempo blues and R&B shuffles into rock-n-roll. For his part Little Richard was himself heavily and primarily influenced by gospel performers such as Marion Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Rosetta Tharpe (who gave the teenaged Little Richard his first big break in show business) and also pop or blues performers such as drag queen pianist and singer Esquerita and jump blues singer Billy Wright. 

More than any of his contemporaries, Little Richard brought an expressive performance style to his live shows, something that would and did drive both men and women to frenzies. He may have been among the first performers to inspire women to throw their underwear at him. As he was often performing in the segregated south this wasn't always the safest thing to have happen. 

Where Elvis Presley might swivel his hips and Chuck Berry would do his trademark duckwalk (originally designed to hide a problem with one of his pants legs) Little Richard raised the bar exponentially on what people could expect to see at a rock-n-roll show. Along with his EXTREMELY loud tenor voice, Little Richard also would play the piano with a foot on top, hump and bang the piano, jump on top of the piano, scream (in key of course), strip off his top and occasionally more, use light shows, and just generally put on a physically demanding show that would always leave him totally exhausted and the audience begging for more. He would do all this in heels, sequins and capes, a six inch pompadour, plucked eyebrows and caked on makeup. 

Although Little Richard's shows in the South started out segregated by the end of the show often blacks and whites would be dancing in the same place or worse yet, together, something which scandalized the authorities.

The famous powerhouse New Orleans based session drummer Earl Palmer, who played on most of Little Richard's 50s hits, said that he helped invent rock and roll just by dropping shuffle rhythms and moving to straight-eighths out of desperation to try to keep up with Little Richard's frantic right hand. Little Richard was quite capable of playing various slow blues and gospel shuffles but it's on the fast numbers that he really shines. His voice is so loud I almost imagine it making the speakers and microphones jump in the studio. It's often overlooked as to how much rock-n-roll grew out of New Orleans music.

You can hear a little of what Palmer was talking about by listening to "Directly From my Heart" and "Lucille". "Lucille" is a sped up rewritten version of the first song. As you might notice some of Little Richard's 50s hits sound quite similar to each other. From Earl Palmer's pov this is because rock-n-roll was nothing more than really fast blues. He's said that much of Little Richard's music was quite simple but extremely exciting.

Little Richard rarely spoke publicly about his sexuality, maybe in part because it was so obvious to everyone who knew him. His band members were mostly straight and occasionally joked about flying under the radar with groupies who wrongly assumed they were all like Little Richard in terms of their preferences before discovering that they weren't. Little Richard has also said an effeminate image also helped him become something of a crossover success with white audiences.

So although his style was not entirely an act it's certainly something that he may have deliberately exaggerated. There were few quicker ways for a black man in the 1950s South to get in serious, criminal or even deadly trouble than to be seen as interested in a white woman. Little Richard avoided that by confounding people who didn't know what to make of him. Ironically though, songs like "Miss Ann" appear to be about a romantic dalliance with a white woman. Although his biographies, a few of his statements, and stories by some of the aforementioned band members tell of Little Richard's same sex interests and escapades, he was also married for a short time and allegedly also had relations with women. Perhaps definitions just don't apply to Little Richard. In his first big hit "Tutti-Frutti" , he had written these lyrics:
"Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don't fit, don't force it / You can grease it, make it easy"
Unsurprisingly the record company determined those lyrics might be a bit hard to sell in segregated decidedly gay-unfriendly 50s America. Another writer was bought in to help Little Richard reshape and rework the song. Because Little Richard is strongly religious, like many other similar gospel and pop performers down through the years he has occasionally struggled with what he saw as his sinful secular lifestyle and has repeatedly withdrawn from and returned to performance, at times even becoming a preacher.  Check out "The Rill Thing", "The King of Rock-n-Roll", "Freedom Blues" and "The Midnight Special" for examples of his seventies sound. 

He made three albums on Reprise that were of a piece with then current rock, soul and funk stylings. Little Richard has made various comebacks over the years but of course now age and health concerns have strictly limited his public appearances and performances. Still, if you don't know Little Richard, you don't know rock-n-roll. Not really. He's one of the last people still alive who actually started rock-n-roll. WOOOOOOOOOOOOO! SHUT UP!!!

Good Golly Miss Molly  Jenny Jenny Tutti Frutti Keep a knockin  Directly from my heart

Lucille Long Tall Sally I don't know what you've got (w/Jimi Hendrix) Rip it Up
Send Me Some Loving Slipping and Sliding  Miss Ann  Ooh My Soul  Wondering
The King of Rock-n-Roll  The Midnight Special  Freedom Blues Heeby-Jeebies
Shake a Hand  Ready Teddy  She's Got It  The Rill Thing By The Light of The SIlvery Moon

King Floyd
King Floyd was a New Orleans funk/soul singer who attained some brief fame in the early to mid seventies. His first hit , "Groove Me" became a hit by accident. No one wanted to distribute his first single so Floyd and his record company were reduced to trying to break it themselves by handing out free copies to DJ's or other trend setters. "Groove Me" was the B-Side with "What Our Love Needs" as the A-Side. Floyd and his management thought that "What Our Love Needs" would be the hit. 

One radio DJ who received the record played the A-Side for about a month with not much interest coming in from listeners. A different DJ took the single to a party where as it turned out everyone wanted to hear "Groove Me" for the entire duration of the party. That's how the song broke in New Orleans. It soon rose to national prominence. It stayed on the R&B charts for 20 weeks. It reached as high as #6. Floyd's next release was the lyrically innocent but sonically downright naaasssty "Baby Let Me Kiss You". The way Floyd groaned and moaned the song it sounded to some people as if "to kiss" wasn't the only transitive verb that Floyd intended to perform upon the young lady. 

The song was pulled from some radio stations for being risque but perhaps because of the controversy it did even better than "Groove Me", reaching #5 on the R&B charts. Even today that song is still less profane and more erotic than a million modern songs full of profanities.

King Floyd had a very down home New Orleans/southern sound to his music which made sense as his early hits were overseen by New Orleans legend Wardell Quezergue, a pianist, arranger, producer and bandleader who was one of the godfathers of the New Orleans music scene. Quezergue had worked with everyone from Fats Domino to Jean Knight and Dave Bartholomew among others. King Floyd also recorded with the Memphis Horns and the Muscle Shoals group.
King Floyd was not a great singer or one who was going to blow people off the stage with volume. But I liked his work. He was smooth without being syrupy. Check out his ode to monogamy "So True". On most of his early work the bass is VERY prominent, and often even carries the melody, something you hear often in some funk music. 

There's also a fair amount of space in the arrangements. I LOVE LOVE LOVE his song "Handle With Care". It's so simple and yet so intense. "Think about it" is an Otis Redding song which Floyd sings in Redding's style. "Don't Leave Me Lonely" is a string laden tearjerker ballad. I like the guitar fills but find the song a bit saccharine. But everyone has different tastes, no?
All good things come to an end. As happened with many soul or funk musicians of Floyd's generation the advent of disco brought a swift and premature end to his commercial music career. Floyd tried to adapt by recording the disco tune "Body English" but after that he found himself without a record company and never again had any sort of hit. 

He passed away in 2006.  His work was consistent. If you are curious about early seventies funk or simply are tired of overproduced simplistic modern R&B you could do worse than to listen to some of Floyd's work. Music like this is why I love live bands.

Groove Me  What Our Love Needs  So True I Feel Like Dynamite  Handle With Care
Baby Let Me Kiss You  Hard to Handle Body English  Think about it  Can't Give It Up
Don't Leave Me Lonely Woman Don't Go Astray
blog comments powered by Disqus