He claims to be “the architect of rock and roll,” and history would seem to bear out his boast. Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, laying the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona. Gathered together here is the cream of Little Richard’s 1950s ‘Specialty’ recordings over seven volumes of four track EPs. The EPs themselves remained in catalogue well into the sixties and came with an unwritten guarantee that wherever the needle dropped onto any of the discs, loud uncompromising Rock ‘n’ Roll would blast forth.
Little Richard was already a seasoned performer before signing to Specialty a label after buying himself out of an existing contract with the help of Rupe. It wasn’t until late 1955 that he was sent to New Orleans for a trial session. A former jukebox operator called Cosimo Matassa ran the only recording studio in the city, an ill-equipped hole-in-the-wall in which he recorded virtually the entire post-war history of New Orleans rhythm & blues. A clique of local musicians played on nearly every session held there for a decade, and developed a distinctive saxophone-based sound, which soon attracted artists and A&R men from other parts of the country, including Specialty’s Art Rupe. Until a move to larger premises in 1957, sessions were a matter of hard graft with Matassa struggling to find a balance on his four microphones while the musicians milled around the tiny room working out a final arrangement and simultaneously trying to establish the best microphone position to place themselves in. “Most of the things were combo dates, two or three horns and four rhythm, and we did things like having the tenor man walk up to the drum mike to play a solo and finding where’s going to be the right place for him balance wise at that moment. It made a lot of demands on the guys but there was a little group of musicians who did practically all the dates which made it easier as far as the sidemen were concerned.” Probably the most important of these musicians in terms of influence and achievement was drummer Earl Palmer whose career as a session musician spanned the 50s and 60s. It was Palmer’s insistent pounding on Little Richard’s hits which subliminally influenced an entire generation of drummers. At Richard’s initial session held over two days, most of the songs he recorded were blues and gospel tunes and Rupe regarded the frantic exception, ‘Tutti Frutti’, as at best, a possible R&B novelty hit. Specialty was about to enter the most fruitful and lucrative phase in its history.‘Tutti Frutti’ broke though radio-programming barriers to make No. 17 on the national chart early in 1956. Rupe was careful to consolidate this surprise success in the white pop market by refining the formula and repeating it. Both Little Richard’s painstakingly crafted follow-ups, ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Rip It Up’, were chart smashes and within the space of a few months, Richard was riding to fame on the crest of a rock ‘n’ roll wave. Little Richard toured almost continually throughout 1956 and most of 1957. He had also been making regular visits to the studio until October 1956 when he went into Cosimo Matassa’s studio for what would be the last time. From that point neither Rupe or Blackwell could persuade him to enter the studio again (save a final compromise session in L.A. one year later) and virtually all his future Specialty releases – including several of his biggest hits – came from sessions already held in the can. It says much for the high standard of these recordings that Specialty was able to meet the demand for Little Richard product without having any freshly-minted cuts on hand. One classic, the frantic ‘Keep-A-Knocking’, a top ten smash in the autumn of 1957, was actually a composite master compiled from a demo–tape recorded in a radio station in Washington D.C. and featured Richard’s road band of the day, The Upsetters, an entirely different unit from the combo which backed him on the New Orleans sessions. Little Richard was soon to denounce pop music in favour of evangelism By 1958, Art Rupe was disillusioned with much of the business and wound up the label towards the end of 1959, though some of his back catalogue was sporadically made available, notably the Little Richard classics, thus providing successive generations with an insight into the sounds which shook the world during the fifties, and whose influence continues to be felt.
These ‘Extended Play’ sides will evoke nostalgic memories, not only from the music of the day but fond memories of the EP’s they came from.