Little Richard's 'Sessions' Offer a Stirring Piece of Rock History

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

"Ladies and gentlemen, good evening . . .," the voice says at the start of a new CD box set from Specialty Records. "At this time I'm going to do my recording of 'Baby' . . . and I hope you like it, too." Apparently turning to his band, he adds, "All right boys . . . ."

It was Little Richard (Penniman) speaking, and "Baby" was one of two songs that the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member taped at a Macon, Ga., radio station in February, 1955. The goal: landing a recording deal with Specialty Records, a Los Angeles-based R&B; and gospel label.

Both "Baby" and the second song, "All Night Long," were done in a slow bluesy style and Specialty almost rejected the tape, according to the liner notes accompanying "Little Richard: The Specialty Sessions."

In the liner notes, Art Rupe, founder of Specialty, says he listened to the tape with producer Bumps Blackwell and decided Little Richard sang with enough of B. B. King's "feeling" to have commercial potential, especially if some energy were added to the arrangements.

So Rupe sent Blackwell to New Orleans that September to record some songs with Little Richard, and one of them, a faster version of "All Night Long," flashes some of the potential that Rupe had heard in the tape. But it was "Tutti Frutti," a high-energy novelty, that would help make this young singer one of the half-dozen most influential stars of early rock.

The magnificent new three-disc Specialty set, which sells for about $50, covers the highlights of Little Richard's brief tenure at Specialty, a period when the raw abandon of his vocals was also heard on such hits as "Long Tall Sally," "The Girl Can't Help It," "Jenny Jenny," "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and "Ooh! My Soul."

Richard, who left rock at the height of his mid-'50s fame to attend Bible college, would later re-record many of these hits for other labels and cut new songs, but nothing equaled the dramatic power of the Speciality sessions.

Besides the hits, the new box includes the original demo tapes, alternate versions, various false starts, studio dialogue and a radio commercial that Little Richard did for a hair product. As such it is an essential piece of rock history--a marvelously revealing portrait that not only showcases Richard's talent, but documents the contributions the session musicians and producers made to shaping his records.

If the nearly three-hour set isn't enough, Ace Records in Britain, with Specialty's cooperation, has put together a six-disc retrospective that includes additional material, mostly alternate versions of the hits.

Rupe's daughter, Beverly, who is now president of Specialty Records, said the two projects were assembled in association with singer and historian Billy Vera. The biggest question was how much material to include.

They received so many suggestions from Little Richard fans about how to package the historic material that Beverly Rupe includes a note in the box set that explains the company's game plan.

"At one extreme was the approach pioneered many years ago by Savoy Records when they issued on LP every note, down to song fragments, played by Charlie Parker," the note explains. "We felt that this presentation works best in the jazz idiom . . . .

"The opposite approach would have been to make it a pure entertainment, 'Greatest Hits,' package. But that ground has already been amply covered by more compact Little Richard sets . . . suited to the nostalgia-for-your-car crowd.

"Our aim here was to find a middle ground which would enable us to take a respectful, dignified, historical, even scholarly look at Richard's years at Specialty Records, and still put out a record that was fun and would be listened to over and over."

BUDGET BIN: New budget or midline CD titles include Joe Jackson's "Night and Day," the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come," Johnny Mathis' "More Greatest Hits," Muddy Waters' "I'm Ready," Marvin Gaye's "Romantically Yours," Barbra Streisand's "Streisand & Other Instruments," the Isley Brothers' "Shout!/The Complete Victor Sessions" and Yes' "Drama."

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