Saturday, August 22, 2020

Little Richard: “King Of Rock And Roll” (1971/2020) CD Review

Little Richard made a comeback with his 1970 album The Rill Thing, his first release for Reprise Records. In 1971 he followed that with King Of Rock And Roll. Unlike The Rill Thing, which included a lot of original material, King Of Rock And Roll features mostly covers. But the album is a lot of fun, with plenty of great funky, soulful vibes. It is now being reissued in an expanded edition with several bonus tracks and new liner notes.

The first track, “King Of Rock And Roll,” the album’s title track, oddly begins with the sound of a crowd and a pronouncement that the king has returned from the exile to claim his throne. “King Richard is back!” Ah, no crookback king, this Richard. Little Richard bursts in with a wild and renewed energy, his ego fully intact. Wasn’t there someone else that was referred to as the king of rock and roll? Well, Little Richard mentions him here too: “Elvis Presley, have you heard the news?/I’m going to walk over your blue suede shoes.” He also mentions Ike and Tina Turner, Three Dog Night and Aretha Franklin. I particularly like those lines about Aretha: “Aretha Franklin is the queen of soul/But who wants to be the queen when you’re the king of rock and roll.” It is a goofy and totally delicious number, written by H.B. Barnum and Bradford Craig. Little Richard has a crowd around him at the beginning of the second track as well, acting like he is like a tent revival preacher, but preaching love. “Because, honey, I’m the man that started it all/The emancipator of soul/ And the king of rock and roll.” He mentions Three Dog Night in “King Of Rock And Roll,” and here covers one of that group’s most famous songs, “Joy To The World.” And once he finally gets into the song, two minutes into the track, he does a fantastic job with it, delivering a beautiful and energetic rendition. And when people start getting involved again toward the end, Little Richard actually tells them, “Shut up!” and reminds them that he is the star. And yet, somehow he can get away with it. Because, shit, he is a star, and he says it with a certain playfulness. Interestingly, he follows that with “a message of love and hope and peace.” I love that. Shut the fuck up so I can spread my message of love. Man, how can you not love Little Richard?

On The Rill Thing, Little Richard covered The Beatles, and on this album he covers The Stones, giving us a wild version of “Brown Sugar,” which was a pretty new song at that point, appearing on the 1971 album Sticky Fingers (one of the Rolling Stones’ best albums). This version is whole lot of fun, and I dig those backing vocals. That’s followed by an original song, “In The Name,” the only track on the original album written by Little Richard himself. It is a fantastic soul number, featuring some great gospel backing vocals that take this track to some wonderful heights. There is a lot of joy to this one, and it includes a nice lead on saxophone. “In the name, she called me on the telephone/She said, sweet baby, I’m coming home/I’ve been gone for such a mighty long time/And I just can’t get you out of my mind.” I love Little Richard’s delivery. He is clearly having some fun with this one. Just listen to his playful delivery of these lines: “In the name, she brought me a little joy/Now she told me I was the baby boy/Yes, she did, y’ all/Now she said that she would never leave me/Yes, she did, honey/Oh lord, have mercy on poor me.”

There are some crowd sounds at the beginning of his version of “Dancing In The Street,” like a party, as that cool beat is established. And yes, Little Richard refers to himself as the king again here during the song’s introduction. He also says, “We got the Killer, he’s here,” a reference to Jerry Lee Lewis, rock and roll’s other early wild man. And then Little Richard gets into the song, giving us a funky and fun rendition that indeed sounds like a party, the way this song should always sound when done right. This rendition includes another section with vocals and percussion, which is cool. And when that funky bass comes back in, the party is in full force, and Little Richard is riffing and enjoying himself, “You know I’m the king, honey/I’ve been doing this thing for a long time.” He follows that with an excellent rendition of “Midnight Special.”  The version I grew up on is the CCR version, so I am waiting for that drum beat to kick the song into gear after that little pause. But what Little Richard does here instead is call out “Whoo-ooo” a few times like a train whistle, and then the backing vocalists join him and soon we are solidly into the tune. What a great way to approach the song. Little Richard keeps those great vibes pumping with his rendition of “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” giving us a fun version we can dance to. There is more nice work from the backing vocalists. And again, there is a ton of joy to Little Richard’s performance. We need this right now, no question. And then the sax comes in, and things seem even better. Things get much funkier with “Green Power,” a song written by H.B. Barnum and John Anderson, and released as a single (the album’s only song to receive that honor). It didn’t do too well on the charts, but is a totally enjoyable song, one that is certain to get you moving. “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me.” You know, we just don’t hear the line “Sock it to me” enough these days.

On The Rill Thing, Little Richard covered “Lovesick Blues,” a song that Hank Williams made popular. On this album, he covers a song that Hank Williams wrote, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and delivers a sweet rendition, holding back until certain key moments. Even that “Oooo” at the end is restrained. It’s an interesting rendition. That’s followed by another song that Hank Williams recorded, “Settin’ The Woods On Fire,” which was written by Fred Rose and Edward Nelson. Hank Williams sang, “I’ll look swell, but you’ll look sweller.” Little Richard, being Little Richard, changes that to “You’ll look swell, but I’ll look sweller.” This is an energetic, lively number, a cheerful, fun song, one to just cut loose to and enjoy yourself. I love that section with saxophone and backing vocals. The original album concludes with an unusual rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born On The Bayou,” complete with spoken word section at the beginning in which he talks about making his comeback. And, if you are wondering, yes, he does refer to himself as the king in that section. Anyway, once the song gets going, it’s a pretty cool rendition.

Bonus Tracks

This special expanded edition contains six bonus tracks, all of which were included in the three-disc boxed set King Of Rock And Roll: The Complete Reprise Recordings, which was released in 2005. The first bonus track is a different version of “In The Name,” and it is truly different, this one more in the country vein, sans the backing vocalists. It does feature some great work on bass. That is followed by another Hank Williams song, “Why Don’t You Love Me,” a song I love. Clearly, Little Richard was seriously into Hank Williams in the early 1970s, and it’s kind of wild hearing him dip into country.

“Still Miss Liza Jane” is an original song, written by Little Richard. This one is unusual in the way it begins, easing in. It is nearly a minute before the band kicks in, and then the song takes on a funky rhythm. It becomes a rather simple jam, with just a few repeated lines, but it is still fun. I mean, hell, Little Richard can sell us on anything. That is followed by “Open Up The Red Sea,” a great rock and roll jam, featuring some wonderful work on piano. Again, there is so much joy in the playing. It’s kind of loose, particularly toward the end. “Mississippi” is another instrumental track, this one written by Little Richard. It is an enjoyable and funky jam. The disc then concludes with an instrumental rendition of “Settin’ The Woods On Fire.”

CD Track List
  1. King Of Rock And Roll
  2. Joy To The World
  3. Brown Sugar
  4. In The Name
  5. Dancing In The Street
  6. Midnight Special
  7. The Way You Do The Things You Do
  8. Green Power
  9. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
  10. Settin’ The Woods On Fire
  11. Born On The Bayou
  12. In The Name (Version 2)
  13. Why Don’t You Love Me
  14. Still Miss Liza Jane
  15. Open Up The Red Sea
  16. Mississippi (Instrumental)
  17. Settin’ The Woods On Fire (Instrumental)
This expanded edition of King Of Rock And Roll is scheduled to be released on September 18, 2020 through Omnivore Recordings.

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