Sunday, 6 December 2009
A benefit of being married to someone who works for the publisher Continuum is occasionally getting my hands on books from the firm's excellent music list. While stuck at home a few weeks ago with an irritatingly persistent bout of tonsillitis I quickly got through David Kirby's new book Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll.
It's an enjoyable, discursive book that not only takes in its subject's life and work but inevitably touches on issues of race, sexuality and the American South.
In the book's introduction Kirby bemoans the total lack of Little Richard CDs in the Honolulu and Tallahassee branches of Borders and that there are only five in the Virgin Megastaore in Times Square (where he's appalled to find 29 discs by alphabetical neighbours Little Feat). I decided to repeat the experiment in Central London and am happy to report that Little Richard is well represented in the Oxford Street HMV, though Little Feat still easily outnumber him.
I think rock'n'rollers of a certain vintage do have more fans in the UK than at home (last Saturday Chuck Berry was scheduled to play the same venue that I saw Wilco in May). Still, while it's surprising that Kirby couldn't find any Little Richard in Borders his book inadvertently explains why.
As the book points out, Little Richard's star as a recording artist shone brightest when he was on the Speciality label in the mid-50s. In 1957 he quit show business for bible college and flip-flopped between the two since then. I suspect the reason Kirby's book offers no appendix of records you might purchase (should you find a shop that stocks them) is not an oversight but once you've got the Speciality Sessions box set and Greatest Hits Recorded Live, both of which Kirby mentions more than once, then there's little reason to buy much else. Saying that, Little Richard novices may want to follow my example and get themselves the single-disc Speciality compilation The Georgia Peach.
The book riffs around its main theme that the culture at large and writers such as Peter Guralnick, Nick Cohn and his hero Greil Marcus have unfairly ignored Richard's importance. More specifically that Richard's 1955 hit Tutti Frutti "changed the world" and is a "seminal text in American culture, as much as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Song of Myself and the great documents of the Civil Rights era".
MP3: Little Richard - Tutti Frutti
Buy Little Richard - The Georgia Peach: 7digital | Amazon
Kirby puts forward a convincing, if hyperbolic, case for Tutti Frutti's Rosetta Stone of rock'n'roll status. The book's also great at explaining the song's origins. How's this for lyrics: "Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don’t fit, don’t force it/You can grease it, make it easy."
I don't know whether Richard's sobriquet as the "architect of rock'n'roll" was self-appointed or conferred on him but it sounds about right. Chuck Berry had more hits, wrote his own songs and developed an influential guitar style; Jerry Lee Lewis laid down the template for rock'n'roll behaviour; Elvis brought it all to the masses. But all three of those individuals cite the gentlemen born Ricard Penniman as a formative influence. Perhaps Little Richard did design the foundations.
Buy Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll at Amazon
David Kirby - author's own website
Little Richard - detailed fan site