I’ve been bad about posting lately – much to do at work and surprisingly little time afterwards. Somehow these quarantine months have been flying by. Hopefully it’s a sign there is light at the end of the tunnel. Best advice I can give for these troubled times: keep yourself busy. Read. Exercise. Learn something new. Find some new music. Watch something educational. It’s kept me going thus far.
I wanted to make sure I put in some sort of tribute to Little Richard, the flamboyant singer & songwriter who helped kick-start rock and roll. You might not have heard of him unless you’ve spent some time listening to mid-50’s – early 60’s blues / soul, but you should know this guy’s name regardless. He passed away last week at the age of 87.
Who was he, and why did he matter? He was an icon of his times and a current member of the rock and roll hall of fame. His on-stage energy, antics, charisma and attitude were incredibly new and unique in the time he was living – and he left a lasting impact on the music industry as a result (he was also in several films and documentaries throughout his career). He produced a long string of hits, including “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” (I love the names, such classic 50’s), which he churned out one after another for years during his prime. Not only was he a presence, but he had an absolutely stunning vocal range comparable to something like Ray Charles.
It’s important to say that the prime of his career was notably short, however. But it’s impacts are long-lasting. I’m not going to sit here and pretend his music is my favorite by any means, but I acknowledge the stage it set for the genre. You can tell just by listening to it that you’ve heard it somewhere before… but where? I’ll tell you – you can hear it with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and hundreds if not thousands of other well-known artists during his era and far beyond it. Anywhere from modern rock to hip-hop. Hell, “Greenwood, Mississippi” is literally the basis for Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”! I could spend all day pointing out comparisons, but you can google them just as easily. His contributions to music range from stylistic choices with rhythm and tempo to on-stage presence and everything in between.
One of the defining characteristics of his music was his ability to create a fusion of sounds that transcended a single genre and captured elements of R&B, Soul, Jazz, Rock and more. What was an era of something called “Boogie Woogie” he took and melded into steady, driving tempos and distinctly powerful basslines that have stood the test of time. This combination of style, performance, energy and genre fusion is what earned him the titles: “The Innovator” and “The Architect of Rock and Roll”. Even artists who lived and performed during his day and age were covering his music – and that’s been the way (at least in some capacity) for generations since.
What is the sound he created and why was it different? You have to listen to know what I mean exactly, but I would call it: a special, incredible energy he brought to blues and soul that drove a hard rhythm and carried powerful vocals. He screamed and wailed on the mic with such force that it makes you take a step back when you listen – and that’s coming from someone 25 years of desensitized music-listening and a love for hard rock and metal music! I can’t even imagine what people were thinking when they heard this while he was up on stage in his 20s, but I’m sure the experience was truly unreal. Richard brought an energy to the stage that defined his character in every performance and inspired countless soul and rock singers to do the same.
Not only was he electric as a singer, but he was completely and truly himself at all times. He was never afraid to be exactly what he wanted to be, and even when criticized, he maintained his persona and charismatic attitude. He left home at the ripe age of 13 with some gospel-singing experience under his belt and never looked back – and I think this is something we can all respect: a self-made man, unabashedly unafraid to sing and dance his heart out, even while portraying an image which was scorned during his day and age. Not only this, but he brought black and white fans of his music together, on stage and in the crowd, in ways that were rarely seen during his time. He was a triumph for integration and showed the power of music to move racial barriers, on top of everything.
If you haven’t listened to his music before, I recommend you give it a listen. It might sound a bit dated, but I assure you that after a few minutes, you will hear familiar elements. Then take a step back and think what he was doing – in many cases the way he sung and created music was completely new to his time. I think even more important though was that while he was an architect of rock an roll, he also provided the attitude. I’m talking about the mentality of leaving it all on the stage, of doing what you love, of showing your strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses through your music, and of being unabashedly YOURSELF. Cheers to you, Little Rich.
Great article from the Rolling Stone on Richard – worth a view.