Monday, August 10, 2009

The Girl Can't Help It, She was Born to Please

The Life & Times of Little Richard (Harmony Books, 1984) much like the more artfully written Hellfire, the Jerry Lee Lewis Story, drives home a good point about the 60s, namely, what an unkind bitch that decade was to a handful of 50s rockers. Blame personal scandal, bad career moves, Jesus, and Beatlemania, but Little Richard, like Jerry Lee Lewis, suffered through a long stretch of relative exile after the initial splash created by his early, immortal singles. What got Richard through to the safer side, i.e. the end, of the 60s, and a much-welcomed, cushy gig at the Aladdin in Las Vegas, was his relentless refusal, played out on the road, night after night, year after year, to be upstaged by anyone with whom he shared a bill, whether Sam Cooke or the Rolling Stones. However, unlike Jerry Lee Lewis, who found fortune once more on the Country charts, Richard would never regain the momentum and wealth he knew in the early years.

The book's a real page-turner, despite making at least one glaring foray into plagiarism⎯for his description of the post-war R&B scene on Atlanta's Auburn Ave, author Charles White lifts material straight from Jonas Bernholm's liner notes to the Billy Wright reissue LP Stacked Deck. Still, it makes for good reading essentially because it's an oral history, merely glued together by White, told mostly by the Originator himself, with additional input by a slew of associates including, among others, his Mama, Bumps Blackwell, Art Rupe, members of the original Upsetters, Billy Preston, Mick & Keith, and my favorite, Richard’s one-time girlfriend Lee Angel, pictured below, va-va-voom!

For all his identification here as a gay person, the Pretty One also waxes informative about some of the real bombshells he dated back in the day. Besides Lee Angel, he hints at a pretty close friendship with Jayne Mansfield⎯at least he’s able to offer fairly exact anatomatomical specifications. To learn these specs you'll just have to read for yourself, lest Gemini Spacecraft be reduced to some kinda spec spoiler. As consolation, however, I offer a clip of the world's most notorious JM impersonator:

No amount of camp, cartoonish self-parody, or freakish hair and make-up⎯all by-products of Little Richard’s spectacular live show⎯seems to diminish the raw power and utter brilliance of the Specialty singles. Here are a few tracks from the amazing Specialty Sessions LP box, released in 1989 , "Directly from My Heart" (basically a slowed-down version of “Lucille”), "Slippin' & Slidin'" (with a little extra Earl Palmer on this alternate take), "The Girl Can't Help It", & "Gene Noble's Royal Crown Hair Dressing Commercial". The Specialty Sessions is still available on CD, I believe.

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