On the starting line
Once I got out of Clive’s bedroom I began my quest in earnest. I looked everywhere I could but there were no signs of my heroes. This was probably due to two things: firstly I was an eleven year old kid living in the Delta region of the Deep South (Thames Delta that is – Walton on Thames) and there was very little in the way of record shops or live venues (Walton on Thames was not renowned for its boulevard cruisin’ in red Cadillac’s or its jiving’ Honky Tonks and Juke Joints) and secondly my heroes were still out of circulation. Woody was going down with the terrible Huntingdon’s Chorea which would stop him performing and writing anymore. Don Van Vliet was probably living out on his trailer in the desert with his mum Sue and hanging out at school with Frank Zappa. Roy was causing mayhem Blackpool way with Beat poetry, feigned madness, army desertion and pregnant girlfriends. Bob was doing his Little Richard impersonations and starting out on the road to putting together his auto-constructed mythology and was about to start singing to Woody in the sanatorium. Son House hadn’t been rediscovered and had yet to relearn the guitar, get back in the studio and be trundled out to white audiences.
I filled my time in by substituting in other heroes.
Hard on the heels of Buddy and Adam I soon discovered Elvis, Eddie, Cliff and then the revelation of Little Richard. He was explosive! ‘Here’s Little Richard’ was an immense album. I got obsessed with it. That voice belting out that basic thumping Gospel influenced yet wholly secular primitive Rock ‘n’ Roll along with his wild pounding piano. He was the true King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. There was no one to touch him. Elvis, who copied a lot of his songs, was a pale imitation in more ways than one. I remember sitting on the sofa with my 52 year old big fat jolly Nanny (Grandma), who was shortly destined to have a stroke and die, and watching a Little Richard, come-back, hour long TV show in the early 60s. He put everything into it. The sweat was beaded on his face and dripping off him. He stood and hammered the keys, played it with his foot, backside and elbow and pulled off every trick in the book while my Nanny roared him on and bounced around causing the sofa to suffer earthquakes. My Nan was a rocker!
My school had a fete and I took my Dansette in with my record collection and performed as a Juke Box. I charged six pence a play and only played Little Richard all afternoon. I didn’t get to make much but I had a great time!
I finally got to meet my hero not so long ago when he played in Bradford. I took my younger son Henry with me as an essential part of his education (I also took him to see Chuck Berry, Rambling Jack Elliott, Love, The Magic Band, Lazy Lester & Jerry Lee Lewis and got him to see Bo Diddley, the Fall, the Buzzcocks and John Cooper Clarke). The Little Richard Show was a strange affair. There seemed to be three elements to it. There was the Rock ‘n’ Roll – but lacking in the energy and athleticism – he was in his mid seventies – but there was also this cloying evangelical Christian crap and a very camp gayness all of which did not quite gel with raw Rock ‘n’ Roll. It left me feeling dissatisfied. I would have loved to have seen him in 1957 when he was revolutionary. Even more disturbing was going back after the show to see him. He was doing a poster signing. There was a long queue and two big black heavies on the door who were distinctly underworld. They collected your £30 quid off you with a very heavy warning: you went in shook hands, had your poster signed – if you tried to get anything else signed, like my original ‘Here’s Little Richard’ album from my childhood it would be taken off me and smashed. I got the feeling that there would likely be a few more things broken in the bargain.
I walked up to get my poster signed by the great Mr Penniman with the guy from the support act. He’d done a great version of ‘Casting my spell’ and I said that it sounded just like the Measles version that I used to love. He was nice and friendly and turned out to be the lead singer with the Measles.
The next few years were quite fallow for me and lacking in real heroes. The charts, which we all drooled over, were full of sanitised Pop stuff – Fabian, Bobby Darin, Bobby Vee and Bobby Rydell. Some of it was OK and I quite liked Del Shannon, Roy Orbison and Dion & the Belmonts but I drew the line at Bobby Vee and Fabian and had headed off back into the 1950s for my fix. I devoured all the Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Eddie Cochran I could get my hands on and added some Shadows, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, and early Elvis before discovering the bombshells of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
I didn’t know what I was searching for. I thought I’d found it in good old Rock ‘n’ Roll. It hit you right in the belly and got you moving. I thought everyone should record fast rockers. Rock ‘n’ Roll was great but it wasn’t the whole caboodle. I would grow up a little.
I had a lot to learn.
The lean years ended in 1963.