Chuck brought the wit, Buddy brought the craftsmanship, and Bo brought the rhythm, but Rock & Roll would reside in Nowheresville without cuckoo energy. Little Richard was the architect responsible for that crucial construction. Whenever you hear a song veer out of control, whenever a singer can’t hold back a whoop or a shriek or starts speaking in tongues (“A-WHOMP-BOMP-A-LOO-BOP, A WOMP-BAM-BOOM!” “BAMA LAMA BAMA LOO!”), there’s probably more than a little Richard Penniman in his or her bloodstream.
Little Richard did his most electrifying work for Specialty Records in a tight two-year period. This was the reign of “Tutti Frutti”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Lucille”, “Jenny, Jenny”, “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Ohh! My Soul”, “Keep A-Knockin’”, and every other record that made Little Richard matter. Before then he was a more conventional soul singer who bore a startling resemblance to Nina Simone. After it he found Jesus and made forgettable devotional music for a few different labels for a few years before returning to the demonic abandon that was his true calling. There was one more disc for Specialty that recaptured his former energy—“Bama Lama Bama Loo” b/w “Annie Is Back”—before Little Richard moved to Vee-Jay. While he didn’t cut any supreme classics for the label, he’d at least shed any compunction about rocking, rolling, hollering, and shimmying, and came toting a fresh affinity for pure blues. Allegedly, his band was toting Jimi Hendrix too.
The triple-disc Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years largely skips the conventional early years and walks around the religious ones as if they’re a pile of dog excrement to present the true finest of Little Richard’s recordings. Everything you want to hear from the man is here, and it makes for a timelessly torrid listen, particularly once we hit “Tutti Frutti” eight tracks into disc one. This is when Little Richard finds the ignition switch for the rockets in his windpipe.
Really, though, this box set is not the best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years; it is the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years. There is only one track he put out on either of those labels—Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”—that is not included on Directly from My Heart. It’s hardly Richard’s most essential recording, but its absence is puzzling considering the set’s otherwise all-inclusiveness and the fact that there’s lots of spare space on each of its discs. But, as I said, the version is no classic, and a huge chunk of the tracks that are present are classics. And aside from a half-dozen Vee-Jay cuts that sound like they were pulled from scratchy acetates, everything sounds great here: warm and clear and bristling with the distortion that shuddered forth every time Little Richard stepped in front of some poor microphone that just wasn’t built to handle what he had.
Get Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years on Amazon.com here: