The annals of rock have been filled with colorful characters, but few can compare to Richard Penniman, a.k.a. Little Richard. Over the course of just eighteen months beginning in 1955, the man who has called himself The King and Queen of Rock and Roll recorded the songs that laid the foundation of the genre, notching seventeen R&B Top 10s – four of which also made the Pop Top 10. After that initial burst of fame, however, Richard retreated from the spotlight. The new box set Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty and Vee-Jay Years boasts three discs of a-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom as it chronicles both the exhilarating rock scorchers that established the Little Richard legend as well as key, less well-known sides from both before and after he changed the course of popular music.
Though rearranged and not strictly in chronological sequence, Directly from My Heart presents the entirety of the albums Here’s Little Richard (1957), Little Richard (1958), The Fabulous Little Richard (1959) and Little Richard is Back (1964), sans one track, “Hound Dog.” Richard’s 45s for Specialty and Vee-Jay are also included, making this a near-complete survey of his released masters for both labels. (Past reissues and box sets have featured numerous alternate takes, none of which are included here. Richard’s album of fifties remakes for Vee-Jay is also not represented.)
RCA Victor, Richard’s first recording home, didn’t quite know how to tap into the singer’s power. Neither did the much smaller Peacock label when Richard joined with The Tempo Toppers. But despite some reservations, Art Rupe and A&R man Bumps Blackwell of Specialty Records took a chance on Richard’s outsized personality and voice to match. It may come as a surprise to those listening to this new collection that the Little Richard on Disc One’s first nine tracks doesn’t quite sound like the rambunctious shouter who pounded his piano into rock and roll history. Yes, the No. 2 R&B/No. 17 Pop “Tutti Frutti” – a cleaned-up version of a risqué Richard specialty, no pun intended – doesn’t come until Track 10. Including the early sides with which Little Richard began his career at Specialty goes a long way in more fully delineating his complete story.
On the torrid, brassy rhythm and blues of “Lonesome and Blue,” Richard’s high-pitched voice quavers with vibrato; he was clearly finding his style, as well as his confidence, over the course of these early tracks. He could sing prettily, and even quietly, as on “Wonderin’,” “Maybe I’m Right” and “The Most I Can Offer (Just My Heart).” One of the tracks from his first Specialty session, “Baby” (“borrowed” from jump blues singer Billy Wright) offers the slightest hint of the raucous personality to come, and his roots as a gospel shouter show on “All Night Long” and “I’m Just a Lonely Guy (All Alone).” Once Richard Penniman synthesized all of these disparate qualities, the real Little Richard was born. And once Little Richard had found the formula – to a large degree, invented the formula – he stuck with the good thing!
Richard’s early material was primarily self-written, but he did record a number of outside songs during his first stint at Specialty, including Leiber and Stoller’s chugging “Kansas City,” which you’ll find on the first disc here. There’s a palpable sense of freedom and joy in “Slippin’ and Slidin'” (No. 2 R&B/No. 33 Pop) and the uninhibited “Long Tall Sally” (No. 1 R&B/No. 6 Pop), both of which sum up the artist’s brash, boisterous sound. There are also thinly-veiled rewrites of “Tutti Frutti” like “Heeby-Jeebies Love,” “I Got It” and most successfully, “Ready Teddy,” but through them all, Richard’s performances have the same crucial spark. He swaggers and swings on “Rip It Up,” a title which sums up his general approach to recording at the time.
The second disc of the new set spans the Specialty period of 1957-1964. During this time, Richard had departed the label and turned his back on rock and roll. Art Rupe continued to churn out new records by releasing unheard outtakes. Richard returned to the label in sizzling fashion, though, represented by the 1964 sessions that close out this disc. An insistent chugging rhythm accompanies the famous tale of the departed “Lucille,” a No. 1 R&B hit that barely missed the Pop Top 20 in early 1957. “Jenny, Jenny,” a No. 2 proved even more frenetic than “Heeby-Jeebies Love.” August 1957’s furiously urgent “Keep A-Knockin'” (No. 2 R&B/No. 8 Pop) continued Richard’s hitmaking ways, but by the time of his next hit – the exhilarating “Good Golly, Miss Molly” (No. 4 R&B/No. 10 Pop) – the singer had rejected his sinful ways. On this disc, you’ll hear comparatively rare performances of standards including “Baby Face” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and Bobby Troup’s swinging “The Girl Can’t Help It,” the title track of the 1956 film.
The third disc of Directly from My Heart is worth the price of admission, putting in context on CD the sides recorded by Little Richard for Vee-Jay Records in 1964-1965, following his brief return to Specialty as well as his unsuccessful stints at Mercury, Coral and other labels.
At Vee-Jay, a more deeply soulful Richard emerged. Though his vocals were grittier and even more rough-hewn, he hadn’t lost any of his fire on tracks like the oldies “Money Honey” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” or a torrid take on Fats Domino’s “Goin’ Home Tomorrow.” Richard’s transformative powers were evident on the storming, uptempo reinvention of another Fats favorite, “Blueberry Hill” and on his blistering big-band version of The Platters’ doo-wop classic “Only You.” The laid-back Dean Martin hit “Memories are Made of This” is even less recognizable in Richard’s dynamic R&B revival. His raucous streak hadn’t subsided in songs like “Short Fat Fanny” but his desire to write songs apparently had. There were fewer original songs in the Vee-Jay period – just three out of 21 tracks: the percolating blues of “My Wheels, They Are Slippin’ All the Way,” the groovy, proto-funk dancer “It Ain’t Whatcha Do (It’s the Way You Do It)” and another upbeat confection designed to get you on your feet, “Dancing All Around the World.” (The latter comes complete with references to the dance crazes of the day!)
Richard successfully sings in front of a traditional orchestral backdrop on “Without Love,” popularized by Clyde McPhatter, but the best ballad performance might be on Don Covay’s “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got, But It’s Got Me.” Not only was this impassioned slice of rhythm and blues Little Richard’s only Vee-Jay hit, but it also features the young Jimi Hendrix on guitar during the future guitar hero’s stint with the band The Upsetters. Richard channels his preaching days for a spoken-word rap during the wrenching course of its four minutes.
Directly from My Heart is packaged as a slipcase containing three CDs in individual jewel cases. Billy Vera provides a new, stylish and entertaining essay within the 36-page booklet, but as it’s more of an appreciation, it lacks all the salient historical details about these important recordings. More surprising, however, is the dearth of information as to when these tracks were recorded and released. Single releases are identified, but there’s no mention as the origins of the album tracks, and no release date information at all. Paul Blakemore has done a fine job remastering.
Even without being able to claim completeness thanks to the omission of “Hound Dog” and Little Richard’s Vee-Jay remakes and instrumentals, Directly from My Heart offers a powerful punch. With its 64 well-curated and seminal songs from one of music’s most enduring showmen, you won’t want to miss this one. Good golly!