Exploring the “thin black line” between R&B and rock & roll, I find there are artists clearly on one side or the other, and ones that straddle it. In the case of Little Richard, we have a performer who was fundamental to the transition: He defined many parameters of rock music while still firmly ensconced in the world of classic New Orleans R&B.
Born in Macon, Georgia in 1932 as Richard Penniman, Little Richard took the vocal stylings of gospel and blues, loaded them with pure dynamite, and changed the way music was sung forever. If not the first to scream on a recording, he certainly perfected it, influencing everyone from James Brown to Paul McCartney in the process. But his piano playing also played a major role in shaping the direction of the music. With roots in boogie-woogie, Richard’s strong left hand pounded out Albert Ammons-style barrelhouse bass lines with an even-eighth-note feel instead of the shuffle, all while filling out the rhythm with a hyperactive right hand. His 1955 recording of “Tutti Frutti” for Specialty Records has been called “the sound of the birth of rock & roll” for its energetic piano, howling vocals, and new beat. In the rhythm bed, you can clearly hear the struggle for dominance between swing, shuffle, and straight beats, and the amalgam of the three that ultimately became rock. Legendary session drummer Earl Palmer has said his part was a result of trying to keep up with Little Richard’s right hand. While this recording has been touted as the first time a straight backbeat was played on a record, I hear a very definite swing undercurrent, and the sax solo is pure jump/swing. But by the time Richard recorded his next sides, “Long Tall Sally” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’” in 1956, the straight rock & roll beat was firmly established.
Examining Little Richard’s music from the bottom up, we must first credit the great New Orleans master Frank Fields as the bassist on most of his groundbreaking work for the Specialty label. Fields was a regular session man at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio, and he can be heard grooving with Professor Longhair, Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Huey “Piano” Smith, to name a few. Fields was a jazzer with considerable skills on upright bass, and a reputation for playing the right stuff with a great time feel. On “Tutti Frutti,” his approach was typical walking bass, though not following any specific pattern. The bass is not particularly well recorded on this record, but subsequent sessions captured his sound more clearly, perhaps due to the studio relocating shortly after this date.
For some historical perspective, Ex. 1 is a throwback to Little Richard’s first recording in 1951, a typical mediumtempo 12/8 number called “Every Hour.” The left-hand piano riff is classic R&B and is doubled by bassist Charles Holloway. Listening to the track, I imagine the quick-IV chord in the intro created some confusion for Holloway, as he mistakenly goes for it several times during the verses. The song uses a 12-bar blues form, a mainstay of Little Richard’s repertoire—but true to its pre-rock timeframe, it employs the jazz-influenced IIm7–V7 cadence to bring it back around. The tablature represents ideal placement for the line on upright bass, but you may want to experiment with alternative positions on electric to achieve a thicker tone.
Example 2 is the pattern from another obscure track, “Directly From My Heart,” recorded in April 1956 for the Peacock label with the Johnny Otis Band as backup. This 12-bar blues tune is a step back to the R&B side of the tracks, played with a medium-up 12/8 feel typical of many artists of the time—certainly not the forward-looking stuff he released six months earlier. (In two months’ time, Richard was back at Specialty recording his second #1 hit, “Rip It Up.”) “Directly From My Heart” did not fare well on the market, but it’s significant because it was re-worked into his famous tune “Lucille.” The vocal line is virtually identical, but the higher key, faster tempo, and now locked-in straight-eighth beat made “Lucille” Little Richard’s third (and final) #1 hit. Example 3 is the basic pattern of “Lucille,” and compared to Ex. 2, we see they share the dominant-7th arpeggio as their framework. But Ex. 2 is in G, making it upright-friendly to port the lick into a 12-bar blues form, as there are open strings available, and the range stays comfortably placed for the IV and V chords. Example 3 is in C, a key that gives you the option to go up or down for the final V–IV cadence. Fields chose the high road (Ex. 4), most likely because the notes wouldn’t project even if he could play it. Pumping out steady eighth-notes at 148 bpm on the upright bass is a physical challenge—especially on the type of setup the old cats played on—but braving the shift to the upper register and managing his way up to the high G produced a surprisingly punchy tone, particularly when doubled with a guitar. The bass is well captured on this session, making it easy to envision the stamina it took to cut that track. The song has been released many times, but the version appearing on the 1985 remastered compilation The Essential Little Richard [Specialty] is particularly bass heavy for your listening pleasure.
There are numerous clips of Little Richard performing with his band, the Upsetters, which featured bassist Olsie Robinson. Robinson is seen thumping away on a then-new Gibson EB-1 in music sequences in The Girl Can’t Help It and Don’t Knock the Rock, but he switched over to a Fender Precision for his appearance in Mister Rock and Roll. Robinson is credited as playing on several Little Richard tracks, such as “Keep a Knockin’,” “She’s Got It,” and “Ooh My Soul.” His approach to the highenergy beat was to lay it back into a two-feel with some added activity. In 1956, the electric bass was brand new, and engineers had not quite figured out how to record it well, so ironically, the electric bass on these tracks lacks the clarity and drive of Frank Fields’ upright.
Little Richard started out in the world of R&B, but his full-tilt, driving rhythm, and over-the-top persona were too powerful to be confined to “race music.” In one of the most conservative times in our history, this flamboyant, bisexual black man screamed and gyrated, all while beating the piano into submission. He scared the crap out of old people, but his music brought together teenagers of all ethnicities to dance and groove to a new beat; at its birth, rock & roll was a subversive force for positive social change. Little Richard may have ushered in rock, but he also set the stage for the arrival of funk and soul music—which means more R&B Gold to come!
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee.