Friday, August 21, 2020

Little Richard: “The Rill Thing” (1970/2020) CD Review

Little Richard was a singular force in music. No one was like him, and that was true from the moment he first started singing right up to his death a few months ago. In 1970, he was staging a comeback, signed to a new label and releasing his first album on that label. It seems insane to us now that Little Richard would need to make a comeback, but he did more than once during his long career. At this point, he had signed to Reprise, and his first album for them was The Rill Thing, an album that features some original material as well as some good covers, and contains all the energy you’d expect from this stellar performer. Rock and roll was still clearly alive and well in 1970, and having a funky edge and a lot of soul. And if you listen to this album, you can help keep it alive even today. The album is now being reissued with several bonus tracks and new liner notes.

The Rill Thing opens with “Freedom Blues,” an original number with a delicious funky rhythm, some cool work on sax, and a good message about moving past hatred. But of course it is Little Richard’s vocal performance that sells the song. “Let’s get rid of that old man hate/And bring our fellow man up to date/It may seem very hard to do/Just open your mind, let love come through.” Yes, this one features lyrics that are still important and pertinent. This one was released on a single, and made it fairly far up the R&B chart. That’s followed by “Greenwood, Mississippi,” written by Travis Wommack and Albert Lowe, Jr. The guitar work at times makes me think of Creedence Clearwater Revival, this song having that raw. swampy southern thing happening (though of course CCR was actually a California band, but you understand what I mean). Then we get “Two-Time Loser,” which is part blues, part funk, and total fun. The energy is right there, and listening to this song, it’s hard to keep from imagining Little Richard dancing and cutting loose while performing it. The band is totally grooving, and there is even a cool harmonica section in the second half of the track.

“Dew Drop Inn” is a seriously fun rock and roll song, in line with his 1950s output, featuring his delicious scream, some great work on piano, a terrific drum beat, and a great lead on saxophone. Basically, this track gives you everything you could want from a rock and roll song. This is an original composition, and it is followed by another original number, “Somebody Saw You.” Here he does something a bit different vocally at the beginning, giving a smoother, more intimate delivery at moments. But he finds plenty of moments to let loose as well. These variations in his delivery make for an interesting number. Plus, this track has a wonderful bass line and more good work on saxophone, and it becomes a fun jam toward the end. That’s followed by “Spreadin’ Natta, What’s The Matter?” which certainly has the most playful title of the album. It is also a fun number, with a groovy rhythm and some more good work on horns. Man, no one could belt out a line like Little Richard. The guy was an explosive force, seeming always about to totally burst, and yet simultaneously seeming like he had an endless supply of whatever the hell it is he had, something the rest of us can only marvel at. He co-wrote this one with Maybelle Jackson, the song’s lyrics mentioning a few of his earlier songs, including “Lucille,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

Probably the biggest surprise of the album is its title track, “The Rill Thing,” which begins by establishing an insanely cool rhythm. Dig that bass! The guitar and keys also have plenty of groovy things to add to the mix, and the horns come in with energy. But it is that bass, man, that bass, that just moves me and makes the entire world a whole lot cooler. This track is a great jam, with some wonderful stuff on piano. That’s right, a Little Richard track with no vocals. There is some information on this track in the liner notes, and apparently this was an improvised jam done in one take. And it just keeps going, and getting better as it goes. This track is more than ten minutes long, and every second of it is delightful. No question but that this is a highlight of the album.

Okay, while that great jam comes as a surprise, the final two tracks of the album, both covers, are also unexpected choices. The first is “Lovesick Blues,” written by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills, and recorded by Hank Williams. Yeah, Little Richard covers Hank Williams, and he digs right into it and comes up with a great rendition. It’s funky, yes, and it works so well. This is a song that I’ve loved since the first time I heard it in my teens, and this version is giving me an even greater appreciation for it, showing me another side of the song. I love the end when he repeats, “I’m lovesick.” The original album then concludes a cover of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.” The Beatles were heavily influenced by Little Richard, covering his “Long Tall Sally” early on, and here Little Richard takes one of their songs and delivers a great version, grittier than the original.

Bonus Tracks

This special expanded edition contains four bonus tracks. The first is “Shake A Hand (If You Can),” a fun number, featuring another great bass line. “I’m gonna take care of you oo oo,” he sings here. And when the backing vocals come in, the song really starts to take off, becomes a rousing and glorious good time. The next two tracks are radio spots for the album, with Little Richard himself telling us how damn good the album is, and in the first spot alluding to his comeback: “This is the album that brought me back.” In the second spot, he mentions some of his earlier records, and says this new one is “The best thing that I’ve ever done.” This disc concludes with the single edit of “I Saw Her Standing There.”

CD Track List
  1. Freedom Blues
  2. Greenwood, Mississippi
  3. Two-Time Loser
  4. Dew Drop Inn
  5. Somebody Saw You
  6. Spreadin’ Natta, What’s The Matter?
  7. The Rill Thing
  8. Lovesick Blues
  9. I Saw Her Standing There
  10. Shake A Hand (If You Can)
  11. Radio Spot A
  12. Radio Spot B
  13. I Saw Her Standing There (Single Edit)
This expanded edition of The Rill Thing is scheduled to be released on September 18, 2020 through Omnivore Recordings.

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