Tributes to Rock Genius – Little Richard

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Little Richard

Little Richard was undoubtedly the most raucous and flamboyant of the early Rock ‘n’ Rollers. His wild act and set the pace. His voice was the loudest and the best. His material was the most raw and rocking. Elvis copied a number of his songs which became Rock ‘n’ Roll standards – ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Rip it Up’, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, ‘Ready Teddy’ and ‘Slippin’ ‘n’ Slidin’’.

For a time he could not do any wrong.

I fell in love with him the first time I heard him and his first album ‘Here’s Little Richard’ got played to death in my house to the background shouts of ‘Turn it down’. I even went so far as to do a living jukebox at my school fete featuring me, my Dansette and Little Richard’s album. I played tracks on request for the princely sum of sixpence (2.5 pence). I made a few quid and Little Richard blasted out right over the school field all afternoon. There were plenty of takers.

Richard Penniman was something of a mixed up soul. He was a black bisexual man from the Deep South who had been brought up in the Bible Belt and had religion seasoned into him. It didn’t sit easy with his penchant for R&B (the music of the devil) and a love of orgies. He found it, like many others from the same region, hard to reconcile.

Richard started out in R&B after emerging from Gospel singing in the church. His voice and appearance created quite a stir but he was confined to the chitlin circuit and Black record labels. That all changed in 1954. He signed to Specialty and produced the dynamite single ‘Tutti Frutti’. There was no looking back. That single set the tone and created a whole act. The R&B was jettisoned and the Rock ‘n’ Roll persona was adopted. He was wild.

In the fifties he vied with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. They were all superb but Little Richard was on fire.

He made that cross-over to the White audiences and got his records played on White radio. You cannot emphasise what a big deal that was back in those shadowy days of segregation. He broke down barriers.

I watched him perform on BBC in the early sixties. I was about thirteen and my sixteen stone Nan was sitting next to me loving it. He stood at the piano, pounding it with his hands, bottom and foot. The sweat flew off him. His voice roared and the songs pounded. This was Rock ‘n’ Roll. It didn’t get any better than this. Little Richard was loud, aggressive and really rocked. His voice whooped and roared. Nobody else came close.

With his great pompadour hairstyle, pencil thin moustache and great oversize suits he looked the part. The band were tight. Everything worked.

But that first brief fiery album and singles were about it.

On a tour of Australia an engine on his jet caught fire and Little Richard decided that was enough. It was a sign from God to quit his low-down ways. He threw his rings off the Sydney Harbour Bridge, gave up Rock ‘n’ Roll and went into Gospel singing and preaching.

Specialty had lost their star and tried vainly to recapture and recreate the style with singers such as Esquerita and Don and Dewy. The nearest they got was the brilliant Larry Williams.

In the sixties the allure was too great and Richard went back into Rock. But it was weird. The music scene had moved on. Rock ‘n’ Roll was no longer the rage. The Beatles were on the scene. Richard took on a most peculiar persona with sequins, heavy make-up and a strange hairstyle. He made his living doing live versions of his early Rock stuff with some new rather mediocre albums along the way. At one stage he even had Jimi Hendrix in his band. His act was still wild, his voice was still great, but he was no longer producing that raw Rock ‘n’ Roll and had this strange camp style that seemed at odds with the music. The act was almost a parody and send-up. You wanted to shake him and get him to go back producing the wild, raucous Rock of the fifties. There are times when it is not good to move with the times. It felt as if he was being pulled in different directions. Apart from the odd stand-out track there was little to get excited about. The music did not measure up to those 1950s monsters.

I saw him at a gig in Bradford in the 2000s and it was one of the strangest ever. Little Richard seemed split in three. There was one third great Rock ‘n’ Roll, one third camp acting (Oooh get outa here!) and one third preaching. I suppose that was the only way he could reconcile it all.

Little Richard was one of the early pioneers of Rock Music. He set the trend. His exciting style was the greatest of all. No other Rock ‘n’ Roller was as visceral. Little Richard put the dynamite in Rock ‘n’ Roll.

We’ll remember those early days.

If you are liking my tributes you might like my book. You will find numerous brilliant artists you may never have heard of plus all the familiar ones. Why not find out what I’ve got to say about them?

Tribute to Rock Genius – Linton Kwesi Johnson

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Linton Kwesi Johnson

Looking more like an Oxford Don than a fiery Reggae Poet Linton Kwesi is none the less a mean dub poet with strong political overtones and an unflinching honesty, integrity and willingness to tell it how it is. He hails from Brixton via Jamaica and took up the cause of the Blacks during the turbulent times of the late seventies and eighties when the National Front took racism on the streets, the police harassed and added to the problem; the result was riots and murder. Where-ever there was injustice, prejudice or conflict Linton was there to chronicle it, put it in verse in Jamaican patois and reveal the cause and effect. It was like having a Black Woody Guthrie with a reggae vibe.

He teamed up with the Reggae producer and musician Dennis Bovell to put his vitriolic couplets to a reggae beat.

Dread Beat and Blood saw Linton fixing on the Brixton discrimination and oppression that led to the Brixton riots. It was very prophetic.  The chilling ‘All Wi Doin is Defendin’, ‘Dread, Beat and Blood’ and ‘Five Nights of Bleeding’ were followed by the even better defiant ‘Forces of Victory’ with its brilliant ‘Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)’, ‘Fite Dem Back’ and ‘Time Come’. The Bass Culture album was more of the same with ‘Reggae fi Peach’ and ‘Iglan is a Bitch’.

I saw Linton in Hull reading his poetry, standing there in his three-piece suit and spectacles like the University Professor he is. The poetry burned holes in your brain.

We need more like Linton. We need more of that stuff from Linton. Linton where are you? Where is that rich voice of yours?  Where are those words that send the blood coursing through parts of the body usually dry? It’s not just Blacks who feel injustice; we can all feed off your words.

If you are liking my tributes you might like my book. You will find numerous brilliant artists you may never have heard of plus all the familiar ones. Why not find out what I’ve got to say about them?

Tribute to Rock genius – John Lee Hooker


John Lee Hooker

In the 1940s John Lee Hooker recorded under numerous names to avoid contractual disputes. There were hundreds of little recording studios, some in rooms above grocery stores or such like, and John must have signed a myriad of exclusive contracts. He probably spent his days going from one to the other laying down exclusive tracks. At the time he was mainly acoustic, had a great imagination and improvised a lot. So even if it was the same track that he started off laying down by the end it would be something different.

Like every other blues singer who stayed in the business he went electric after the war and by the 1950s had developed a number of different styles. His most successful was his boogie style. He’d always had this natural broken rhythm. It was quite typical for the Mississippi Bluesmen to base their songs round a repetitive rhythm. It was most pronounced in the North Mississippi Country Blues but it pervaded the area. Coming from a poor share-cropping background John would have been steeped in it. John’s was different because he would interrupt and break that rhythm. It created a more jerky style. When coupled with John’s deep, rich, resonant voice it was hypnotic. His first hit came with ‘Boogie Chillun’ using that boogie style. It was different to the piano boogie of the 1930s and 40’s but even more effect on his electric guitar in the sweaty blues clubs. It created a great rhythm to dance to.

Unlike other Blues singers from Mississippi John migrated to Detroit and missed out Chicago. That was mainly because he worked in the car industry performing in the blues clubs in the evenings. He made Detroit his home and signed to labels such as Vee-Jay and Modern. He did record some stuff for Chess and I wonder how his style would have fitted in there alongside Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. But that was not to be.

When the British Beat boom took off in 1964 John found his boogie style particularly popular with the British Bands. Numbers like ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘Dimples’ were on the repertoires of many bands. The Animals were firm devotees and did a great version of his chilling ‘I’m Mad’. He toured Britain and found an eager young white audience.

As time passed some of John’s songs became standards with people like Johnny Winter and George Thoroughgood giving them a real shift of gears. ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer’ being a real crowd pleaser. Others like ‘I’m in the mood’ and ‘Tupelo’ were slower numbers. He could do a real sensual style, as with on ‘I’m in the Mood’ with that rich voice burning with sexuality. A number of his songs were little vignette’s of stories that he put together. ‘Boogie Chillun’ is about a young kid who was burning to get out into the clubs and dance. ‘Tupelo’ was about the terrible flooding that occurred in the 1930s when the Mississippi burst its banks and many lives were lost. ‘I’m Mad’ was about infidelity and murder.

He was always successful but it wasn’t really until he made the album ‘Healer’ late in his life that he really became a megastar. Doing duets with Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana and George Thoroughgood found him a wider appreciation. He followed that up with albums like ‘Mr Lucky’.

It was a great end to an illustrious career and much deserved.