Little Richard Belts Out ‘Long Tall Sally’

hereslittlerichardListen to this track, a primordial slice of rock ‘n’roll from one of the founding fathers of the genre; Richard Penniman, otherwise known to the world as the flamboyant Little Richard.

This song has been well-covered by fellow rock ‘n’ roll architects like Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran. British Invasion groups from the Beatles (who recorded it, and titled an EP after it in 1963) to the Kinks (who had a debut single with a version of it), and beyond also recorded versions of the song.  And what a tune it is, a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll anthem about ‘havin’ me some fun tonight’.

But, one thing that seems to have passed under the radar of many is the narrative that runs through this tune.  Behind the celebratory tone of the joyous sax/piano/rhythm section, and Richard’s ebullient vocal, lies a dark tale of deception, of hidden desires, of a love that dare not speak its name.

Uncle John has needs, and Long Tall Sally has everything he is looking for, unbeknownst to Aunt Mary.  This is a bit of a seedy tale, perhaps which is complicated and made more tragic somehow  because Sally is also ‘bald-headed Sally’.  Uncle John is in the closet, as Penniman himself was when he recorded this song in March of 1956, being as he was a threat to the status quo even without being gay.

Little Richard’s onstage style, his flamboyant manner, and his wild, androgynous appearance seemed to confirm everything conservative critics believed about rock ‘n’ roll – that it was a corrupting force, that it threatened the fabric of society.  And in a certain respect, they were quite correct. It certainly showed teenagers that there was more out there imagined in the philosophies of post-war America and Britain.  And if this song isn’t exactly an anthem to gay pride, Little Richard’s delivery of it certainly has a lot going for it in this respect.

Fear of change, fear of ‘mixing the races’, homosexuality, and other related societal issues seemed to be reaching a boiling point by the mid-to-late Fifties with rock ‘n’ roll musicians and the Beat poets presenting alternative visions of how life really is, or can be.  And they took a lot of the flak as being dangerous voices.  But, what became evident as the years progressed was that Uncle John’s married life to Aunt Mary wasn’t the whole picture, societally speaking.  And by the 1960s and 70s, this was more than evident.

This is what great art does – it challenges expectations and assumptions.  Rock music would come into its own in the 60s in this respect.  But, challenging the status quo certainly didn’t start there.  In this respect, Little Richard is something of a visionary, even if he was , in the end, a pure entertainer on the surface.


Solomon Burke Sings “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”

Here’s a clip featuring King of Rock ‘n’ Soul Solomon Burke with his 1964 smash hit “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, a soul favourite straight out of the gospel tradition. It was released as a single that year and has since become a soul, and rock, standard.

The song has been covered by a number of artists, from fellow soul belter Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, the 13th Floor Elevators, and of course the Blues Brothers.  The song was featured in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie, which gained it a new audience.  But, even though that’s where I first heard this song, when I heard Solomon Burke’s original, it was like being shown a real, panoramic landscape when before I had only known the oil painting – as good as the oil painting is, of course.

The thing I love about it is that it is so raw, so unafraid to show something of where it comes from.  This one is straight out of the church, with Solomon Burke in full preacher mode, and his back-up singing testifying along side him.  When he says “let me hear you say YEAH!” and his singers start clapping, it’s hard not to join in.  And that can be embarrassing when you’re listening to it on the bus with your head phones!

Not many casual music fans know about Solomon Burke.  Well, not as many as those who know Otis Redding, for instance.  But, Burke was a force of nature who made a huge impression on the British Invasion groups of the 60s, even if his records never strayed too far from the R&B charts back home.  The Zombies covered his “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Love You”.   Van Morrison took his vocal style, built it up, and made a career out of it.  And more recently when Burke made something of a comeback in his 2002 record Don’t Give Up on Me, Morrison wrote him a tune, as did Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, and Bob Dylan, among other luminaries.

Even though he’s known primarily as an R&B singer, Burke had interests in country music too, which informed many of his early sides.  To explore this, more recently he cut Nashville, which is an album of country covers put out in 2006 .  Once again, Burke is joined with some heavyweights of the country world including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch, proving that there is a distinct kinship between country and soul that many people forget is there.

And this has been Burke’s strength – to take any song and make it work as a Solomon Burke number.  And long may the King of rock ‘n’ soul reign.

His newest album, Like a Fire is out now.

To hear more music, check out the Solomon Burke MySpace page.


R&B Songwriter Tommy Tucker Performs His Smash “Hi Heel Sneakers”

Here’s a clip of one-hit wonder R&B stylist Tommy Tucker with a song which would grow in stature from the 60s to today; “Hi Heel Sneakers” recorded on Chess sub-label Checker in 1964.  The song would be recorded by a wide range of acts from Elvis Presley, to Janis Joplin, to British jazzer Cleo Lane.  This is an example of a song outshining its writer in terms of fame, and taking on a life of its own.

[Listen to ‘HI-Heeled Sneakers’]

Tommy Tucker (born Robert Higginbotham in Springfield, Ohio) took the traditional R&B approach, in that he placed his tunes on the back of a piano-and-sax driven sound, having learned the piano at the age of seven.  By the early 60s, he had scored a few minor hits.  But 1964’s “Hi Heel Sneakers” knocked it out of the park for him.  Tucker’s version scored on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts too.  It garnered enough attention for a number of acts to snap it up for cover versions, including the Rolling Stones who recorded it for a 1964 BBC radio appearance.   Later, it was recorded by Jose Felciano, who also had a hit with it.

Riding high, Tucker toured the UK.  And for a follow-up he wrote “Long Tall Shorty” with soul singer Don Covay, although it made less impact on the charts.  He would write songs with Atlantic records found Ahmet Ertegun, and record with Chess bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon.  But, despite his impressive company,  it seemed that “Hi Heel Sneakers” would be Tucker’s shot.  Tucker would troll the edges of the musical universe up until his death in 1982 at the relatively young age of 49.

“Hi Heel Sneakers” is one of the best examples of first wave R&B that I can think of, full of low-rent fun, going out at night for some action, all with the possible threat of violence (‘better wear some boxin’ gloves/In case some fool might wanna fight…”).  Tucker’s lazy, Jimmy Reed-like delivery makes this tune something of a treat as well, and Tucker’s is the voice of someone from the neighbourhood seizing the day, or the night in this case, in spite of the dangers involved.  There’s nothing more rock ‘n’ roll than that.

My first encounter with this tune was on Paul McCartney’s early 90s Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) record, which included this song among other R&B and country covers mixed in with his Beatles material.  There was something basic about it which I loved, and it is made clear that it is this brand of R&B which helped the Beatles work out their sound when they were starting out.  Tucker could have done worse then recording this one knock-out tune to be celebrated by so many.


Little Milton Performs ‘We’re Gonna Make It’ from 1965

Here’s a clip of blues-soul-soul-blues singer Little Milton with his ultimate song of optimism, the title track taken from his 1965 album We’re Gonna Make It.

Like many R&B artists, Little Milton struggled at the end of the 70s and early 80s to keep his audience which hed gained in the 60s and early 70s.  Yet, by the end of the 1980s, hed been recognized again, gaining a W.C Handy award in 1988.
Like many classic R&B artists, Little Milton struggled at the end of the 70s and early 80s to keep his audience which he'd gained before the advent of disco, a time when soul and blues was looked upon as being passe. Yet, by the end of the 1980s, he'd been recognized again, gaining a W.C Handy award in 1988.

Little Milton was a huge talent, working equally well within the blues and soul idioms by often mixing the two, and having recorded on Sun Records, Chess Records, and on Stax – the big three! – at various points in his career.  In addition to a recording career, he also served as an A&R man on a small label called Bobbin, introducing Albert King, who also recorded on the Stax by the 60s, known for his signature hit  Born Under A Bad Sign.  He also developed the early career of Fontella Bass who was eventually immortalized through her hit ‘Rescue Me’.  The label found a distribution channel with legendary blues and R&B label Chess Records, switching over to Chess subsidiary label Checker in the early 60s.  While on the Checker label, he scored an R&B hit with this song, his breakthrough as a solo artist in 1965.

Milton had the best of all worlds, particularly here, with a voice that is both a smooth as Sam Cooke’s, and as gutsy as B.B King’s.  The song itself could be about a single relationship going through a hard time.  But it was recognized as something of a civil rights anthem, staring adversity in the face, acknowledging the reality  that a community was facing systemic oppression, but with a firm belief that things would change for the better anyway.  The song has such an emotional impact, the first time I heard it I choked up.  Optimism in song is often an exercise in self-delusion, or of trying to delude an audience.  But, listen to Milton’s delivery here.  This is defiant optimism, pure belief in love and in all that is moral and right, even when the odds are stacked against it.  It’s cliche to use the word ‘inspiring’, only because it’s a term that’s used too much.  But it applies here; it really does.

By the end of the decade, Little Milton would sign with Stax records, a little late for its heyday, and at the beginning of its financial troubles.   Yet, Milton continued to expand on his brand of blues-soul, with sumptuous arrangements to bolster his powerhouse voice, although with less chart action than in the 60s.  By ’75, Stax was history.  Milton continued on the Malaco label by the 80s where he stayed, issuing 13 albums, and winning the coveted  W.C Handy Award for  Blues Entertainer of the year in 1988.   Little Milton died in 2005 at the age of 70.

I consider Little Milton to be something of an unsung hero. The guy had it all – great instincts for arrangments, impressive chops as a guitarist, a fantastic feel for delivering a song in a multitude of styles .  And this is my favourite of his, a tune just brimming with strength and the power of belief in oneself, and in one’s fellow human being too.

For more, check out the Little Milton MySpace page.

And be sure to investigate the Little Milton official website to play Little Milton’s guitar!


R&B legend and Beatles-favourite Larry Williams performs “Slow Down”

Here’s a clip featuring R&B foot soldier and Beatles-favourite Larry Williams with his 1958 hit, “Slow Down”.

Williams was solidly of the R&B school, eschewing guitar-centric rock ‘n’ roll in favour of traditional R&B instrumentation – piano & sax as leads, with the guitar used mostly as a rhythm instrument. But, like Chuck Berry, he was an original songwriter, showing himself to be a gifted conveyor of bluesy grit and sexually-explosive 12-bar fury.

Larry Williams, R&B legend beloved of the Beatles who helped to inspire the British Invasion in the 1960s
Larry Williams, R&B legend beloved of the Beatles who helped to inspire the British Invasion in the 1960s

Larry Williams, like Fats Domino, was based in New Orleans, yet missed the fame train that made Domino a star. Part of this had to do with his involvement in drugs, and his alleged inclination towards violence. Yet, his records were very popular in the Britain, celebrated by those who wanted the genuine article when it came to the kind of gritty rhythm & blues they were hearing on Radio Luxembourg. Williams delivered the goods, with this song and those in that shared its intensity being heavily covered by first-tier British beat groups: “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” (the Beatles), “She Said Yeah” (the Rolling Stones), and “Bony Maronie” (The Who), just to name three. Williams was a key artist that drove the eventual R&B boom in England at the beginning of the 60s, which of course led to what is now known as “The British Invasion” by 1964.

“Slow Down” would be covered by a great many artists across the rock spectrum and across the decades including The Young Rascals, Blodwyn Pig, The Jam, and Brian May. It would also be featured in the Beatles bio-pic Backbeat, being as it was a key song in their repertoire while the band played the Hamburg club circuit. The Fabs would record it as a cut on their UK Long Tall Sally EP in 1964. Their version of the song also appears on Capitol Records release, Something New, and the UK compilation Past Masters, Vol.1.