We lost Little Richard this week.
If your tastes tend toward the more theatrical side of rock ‘n’ roll, you owe Little Richard basically everything. While Chuck Berry and Fats Domino pioneered the art form, Richard Penniman was the one who gave rock its wild and unpredictable quality. He himself once said that if Elvis Presley was the king of rock ‘n’ roll, he was the queen.
Dressed to the nines, Little Richard burst out of nowhere (actually Macon, Georgia) with “Tutti Frutti” in 1955, playing piano like a wild man. Imagine hearing “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-wop-bam-boom” on the radio for the first time. It must have been like hearing a bomb go off. Richard had hit after hit in the late ‘50s, from “Long Tall Sally” to “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and earned the nickname “the architect of rock ‘n’ roll.” Certainly no one else from those early days embodied the danger and freedom of rock the way he did.
You can draw a straight line from Little Richard to Prince, with a million little points in between. Like Prince (and like James Brown, who counted Richard as an influence), Richard was an electrifying live performer. Like Prince, he was sexual while also being sexually ambiguous. Like Prince, Richard struggled with the ramifications of his Christian beliefs, taking a hiatus from music in the ‘60s to become a traveling preacher. That struggle felt intrinsic to his music, which paired the energy of black gospel with the down-and-dirty feel of the blues. He was a man torn between two worlds.
His influence is undeniable and wide-reaching. Every flamboyant rock ‘n’ roll performer owes him a debt, for starters. His songs landed him in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and Paul McCartney has said that “Long Tall Sally” was the first song he sang in public. (The Beatles’ version of it came out on an EP of the same name in 1964.) He’s in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But more than that, I think, he crossed racial and sexual lines, bringing people together over music that was deeply fun and immensely historically significant.
Little Richard died of bone cancer on Saturday, May 9. He was 87 years old.
* * * * *
I mentioned this last week, but for real, I don’t have anything in particular to talk about this week. It’s one of those rare weeks in which I didn’t buy a single new album. I’ve been listening to old stuff while I work – I made my way through Suzanne Vega’s whole catalog in two days, for instance. My major recent purchase was the Gentle Giant box set Unburied Treasure, but I just received that on Friday and haven’t even begun to explore its riches.
So I guess I can talk about what’s coming up, as a way of rounding off this week’s missive. I’ll contain myself to five or six things, but there’s quite a lot of interesting music coming our way in the middle third of 2020. A balm for the continued insanity that is our world. (Murder hornets? I mean, of course there’s murder hornets now.)
Next week is the new Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit album Reunions. I’ve liked what I have heard, especially “Be Afraid,” though some of it seems like a different style for him. Isbell is one of the most consistently satisfying songwriters we have, and I’m hopeful that streak will continue. Speaking of great songwriters, one week later we’re getting Look Long, the 15th Indigo Girls album. Emily Saliers’ songs from this one have hit me so far, from the pensive “When We Were Writers” to the timely “Country Radio.”
There’s lots of stuff coming in the following weeks, from Lady Gaga to Haken to the Magnetic Fields, but I’m probably most excited about Sarah Jarosz’s new one, World on the Ground, out on my birthday, June 5. Jarosz is a stunningly good songwriter – her last album, Undercurrent, made my top 10 list – and while I liked hearing her in I’m With Her, I’m jazzed to get another ten songs from her.
I suppose I should mention Bob Dylan, who announced his 39th album (and first in eight years that isn’t a collection of Sinatra covers), Rough and Rowdy Ways, out June 19. As many of you know, I struggle with Dylan, both as a writer and a performer. I’ll buy this and try it, but I have to say I made it only a few minutes into his 17-minute ramble about the Kennedy assassination, “Murder Most Foul,” before having to shut it off. Thankfully that song is on its own disc here, so I can safely just ignore it.
I’m very much looking forward to the return of Rufus Wainwright, though, whose tenth album Unfollow the Rules hits on July 10. It’s been a long eight years since Out of the Game, Wainwright’s last pop record, and I’m very much looking forward to another set of ornate, glittering orchestral wonderment from him. We’re also getting a new Jayhawks, a new Margo Price and the second album from Chip Z’Nuff’s incarnation of Enuff Z’Nuff on that day, so it’s a pretty good one.
For archival material, you can’t beat the recent announcement of Mothers ’70, a four-disc collection of unreleased material from Frank Zappa’s 1970s band. This lineup was the first to feature Flo and Eddie, and the only released remnants from them ended up on Chunga’s Revenge. This set is four and a half hours of live and studio tracks, another treasure trove of Zappa vault material. I am also giddily anticipating the 17-disc Book of Iona box set, including every album and hours of unreleased stuff from one of the most overlooked progressive folk bands to ever walk the earth.
But all that’s in the future. For now, listen to what you can find, stay safe and be good to one another. Next week, Isbell. And probably one or two others.
See you in line Tuesday morning.