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Fats Domino, New Orleans’ Founder of Rock, dies at 89 October 28, 2017

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fats domino1Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino, one of the last surviving “Founding Fathers” of Rock n’ Roll, has died at the age of 89.  According to the Jefferson Parish Medical Examiner’s office, Domino died of natural causes.  A life-long resident of the New Orleans area, he gave the city a rock music vibe to complement its status as the birthplace of jazz.  Young and old alike easily recognize his signature vocalization of the famous lyrics “I’ve found my thrill…on Blueberry Hill…”, a recording 61 years young.

Domino helped usher in rock n’ roll with his boogie-woogie piano played in his signature style, and did so thoroughly.  Not only did he have hits at the dawn of rock’s explosion (1955) and for the rest of that decade, but he had R&B hits that helped firmly plant rock’s roots prior to then.

From the start of the 1950s through the early ‘60s, we sold 65 million singles and had 23 gold records, making him second only to Elvis as the strongest commercial force at the dawn of the genre.

To add depth to the legend, his image and persona were unforgettable.  He stood at 5 feet, 5 inches tall (joking that he was as rotund as he was tall), and sported a big, infectious grin.  During performances, he exhibited a fondness for the bling in the form of jewel-encrusted rings that he wore on most of his fingers – again, he wore these while playing the piano.  His easy-going demeanor surely helped his public persona as well.

As each of Rock’s founding fathers contributed their own style to the genre, Domino was no exception, he having brought New Orleans parade rhythms to the proverbial party.

Domino was born on Feb. 26, 1928, the youngest of nine children.  He grew up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, and spent most of his life there.  His life changed forever when his family inherited a piano when he was ten.  His brother-in-law was a jazz musician who wrote down the notes for young Antoine, and taught the boy some basic chords.

He threw himself fully into learning to play the piano, becoming almost entirely self-taught.  Part of the self-teaching included playing records from noted boogie-woogie artists, including Amos Milburn, who would later have a slew of R&B hits in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

At this same time, he dropped out of the fourth grade so he could take a job as an iceman’s helper.  He supplemented his piano practicing by playing pianos for customers in their homes while making deliveries.  Later in his teens, he started working at a club called The Hideaway with a band led by a bassist named Billy Diamond, who first dubbed him “Fats”.  It did not take long for Domino to become the face of the band and a huge local draw.

A songwriter, arranger, and producer named David Bartholomew took notice of this strong, local draw, and realized he found a special artist in Domino.  By 1949, Bartholomew brought over the owner of Imperial Records, Lew Chudd, to The Hideaway in New Orleans to see Fats Domino in person and the amazing effects he had on the club’s patrons.  As he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a 2010 interview, “Everyone was having a good time. When you saw Fats Domino, it was ‘Let’s have a party!’ ”

Together with Mr. Bartholomew, Fats Domino established his boogie-woogie style of piano playing early on with his first record, “The Fat Man,” an instant R&B hit when it charted in 1950 on the Imperial label.  The song title would give him a stage persona for the rest of his career, and he would stay with that label for over a decade, churning out hits that helped define the 1950s.  Another trait he established with his first record was his mastery of the non-word lyrics, namely the “wah-wah” sound that soon evolved into “woo-woo”.

Indeed, those very sounds added much to the character of another early 1950s R&B hit from 1953, “Please Don’t Leave Me”.  A close listen indicates that, from the opening bars of that record, he already had honed his signature style of rapid piano triplets.

His most solid contribution to someone else’s record came in 1952, when he just so happned to visit a New Orleans studio.  He was asked to help a nervous teenaged singer named Lloyd Price.  Domino not only obliged, but came up with another memorable piano riff at the beginning of the track that set the tone for the entire song, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”.  The R&B record proceeded to become one of the first to cross over to the pop audience.

His style continued to gradually evolve to the right point at the right time when he had a hit that helped trigger the Rock n’ Roll explosion of 1955 with “Ain’t That A Shame”.  But that was only a warm-up for what he was to record for the following year.  People of all ages to this day can easily recognize his version of “Blueberry Hill” from its semi-staccato piano opening.

As a preschooler, it was within a handful of the first of popular tunes I recall hearing.  At that time, the recording was not even 30 years old.  The almost plaintive-sounding response/reactions of the horn section to Domino’s vocals are unlike anything recorded before or since, and undoubtedly contributed to the legendary status of the record.  Those strains have certainly remained with me all these years.

The irony of “Blueberry Hill” is that, unlike, say, “The Fat Man”, it was not a Domino original, but a long-standing cover.  The song originated in Big Band Era, with Gene Autry actually cutting the first know version in 1940.  Glenn Miller followed suit on May 13 the same year (with Ray Eberle on vocals).  Other bands and notable singers contributed their own “take” on it in the early half of the 1940s, including Kay Kyser, Russ Morgan, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Connie Boswell.  Glenn Miller’s version actually made it to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1940.  Louis Armstrong would later cut a version with Gordon Jenkins’ band in 1949.  But 16 years after the song’s introduction, Fats Domino truly made it into his own, so much so that it now comes as a surprise to many that earlier versions of it by other artists even exist.

Although Domino already had such a legendary record to his credit by 1956, he did not cease to cut great, memorable tunes.  That same year, he produced some other notable tunes such as his version of “My Blue Heaven” and “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” (also holdovers from the Big Band Era).  With both, Domino offered refreshing takes, particularly the latter.  Also in Domino’s 1956 vintage is “I’m In Love Again”.

At the end of 1956, he churned yet another of his most memorable tunes, “Blue Monday”.  Who can forget the quasi-chorus “Saturday mornin’…..Oh, Saturday morning…..all my tiredness have gone away….”?  Clearly grammar was not the Fat Man’s strong point – no doubt a product of his aforementioned truncated education — but the tune was great anyhow, bluesy yet upbeat at the same time.  As kid in junior high, I learned how to play the brief sax solo in the middle of the record in question.

His most notable track from 1957 was “I’m Walkin’”, another uptempo tune that has found its way into movie soundtracks and commercials over the years.  Who can forget the sequence in “Blues Brothers” (1980) when the protagonist duo trapse all over Chicagoland announcing the Blues Brothers Showband and Revue?

Whole Lotta Loving” is the stand-out tune in Domino’s discography from 1958, and he closed out the Fifties strongly with “I’m Ready”, “I Want to Walk You Home” and “Be My Guest” in 1959, all having different tempos.  The first of the aforementioned three is particularly catchy.  Its energy would make one think as though it was recorded closer to the rock explosion period of 1955-’57.

Even the early 1960s were a rather fecund period for Domino, having a hit in 1960 with “Walking to New Orleans”, a track played ad nauseam on the SiriusXM 50s on 5 channel.  Other tracks from this period included Hank Williams covers (“Jambalaya”, “You Win Again”), originals such as “Let the Four Winds Blow”, and other covers such as “I Hear You Knocking” (Smiley Lewis’ hit from 1954) and “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (A Mills Brothers hit from 1944).

By 1963, his record sales were lagging considerably, and a switch to ABC-Paramount did little to revive them.  But he remained a popular live act throughout the 1960s, touring Europe for the first time in 1962, and met the Beatles in Liverpool during that tour – before they became huge stars.  By the mid-1960s, he appeared in Las Vegas for 10 months a year making live performances.

He quit touring for good in the 1980s, and settled back down in his hometown of New Orleans.  Part of the reason for staying in his native city was that, according to him, it was the only place where he liked the food.  Lucky for those in attendance, he was a regular performer at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Still alive and well when Hurricane Katrina hit his native city on Aug. 29, 2005, he refused to leave his home in the Lower Ninth Ward even as it was flooding.  Eventually he was rescued by helicopter on Sept. 1, and evacuated to Baton Rouge, La., where for a couple of days he stayed in then-LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s apartment until taking up shelter elsewhere pending the receding of the floodwaters.  The flood in the hurricane’s wake caused major damage to his home, having risen up 20 feet on the house, but it was fully rebuilt by 2007.

The timelessness of Domino’s music was discerned by some even when it was new.  Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer at Atlantic Records, made a prediction as early as 1953, stating “Can’t you envision a collector in 1993 discovering a Fats Domino record in a Salvation Army depot and rushing home to put it on the turntable?” he wrote. “We can. It’s good blues, it’s good jazz, and it’s the kind of good that never wears out.”  The fact that “Blueberry Hill” and other riffs from his other records remain recognizable today prove just how thoroughly that prognostication has come to pass.

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Mischief: Exploring the Soundtrack of Eternal Youth August 21, 2014

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Mischief1985Very few movies can appeal to both our nostalgia for Americana’s bygone eras and also to our, well, mischievous side at the same time. Yet the 1985 film “Mischief” accomplishes just that, putting it in a rare company of films. A critic for the New York Times once said it best: “If Norman Rockwell had wanted to make Porky’s, he might have come up with something like Mischief.” I could not have said it any better myself. “Porky’s,” the 1982 period comedy/raunchfest, also hits the mark of aforementioned simultaneous appeals. Writer/director Bob Clark put together the story of that movie out of his own personal experiences from his high school and college days, as a way of showing the youth of the 1980s that life was not all that different for teens almost 30 years ago (Clark graduated from high school in 1957, and that movie takes place in Florida in 1954).

As for “Mischief,” one can easily surmise a very similar intent.  Screenwriter Noel Black described the film as “somewhat autobiographical,” and did a marvelous job in showing the timelessness of many teenage experiences, from romance to, er, certain obsessions.

The 1980s were a great time for period pieces from the time of Americana, particularly the 1950s (think: “Porky’s,” “Back to the Future,” “Clue,” “Mischief,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and so forth). This was mainly a function of basic logistics at the time.  If you took the established professionals in their mid-forties of that decade, you would need to go back 30 years to examine their experiences as teenagers.  That particular chronological spot just so happened to be the mid-1950s, a special time when Eisenhower was in the White House (let’s face it: Obama does not even deserve to carry Ike’s golf clubs!), Rock n’ Roll had just exploded onto the scene, America was reaching a new level of prosperity, and styling set the pace for new car design, with tailfins, wrap-around windshields, and lots of chrome!

One thing that the viewer is reminded of, as this film itself is almost 30 years old, is the respective rate of change in the patterns of life in America over the two three-decade intervals. Yes, they have changed considerably in America since the mid-‘80s, what with Internet and smart phones, but what remains clear is that the change in patterns of life was even more drastic in the first 30-year stretch.  In the mid-1950s, the center of commercial activity was still Main Street downtown, not at a sprawling shopping mall on the city’s edge, just to point out one example.

That point is hit home all the more at the very beginning of the film.  Right after the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare, the famous opening line “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” comes on to the screen, in the exact same font as that line appears at the beginning of all Star Wars films, no less! Of course, the filmmakers quickly drop the other proverbial shoe when they conclude the opening line with “…Ohio, 1956.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

The filmmakers start things off with a bang immediately, for they begin the opening scene with Fats Domino’s famous rendition of “Blueberry Hill” playing during the opening credits – that song was one of the most recognizable ones from that year, even though it never topped the charts (full confession: I was introduced to that record before I got to kindergarten…which was in 1985).

The female love interests are certainly appealing, and recognizable.  A young Kelly Preston, in her youthful prime, in 1950s dresses?  Yes, please!  Film buffs might also recognize Catherine Mary Stewart as having played the girlfriend of the protagonist in “The Last Starfighter” from the previous year (also one of the late, great, Robert Preston’s last films – no relation to the female lead in this film, though).  Other great bit-parts abound in the movie, too. Terry O’Quinn co-stars, this time sans-moustache (film buffs would recognize him as Howard Hughes from the hit Disney flick “The Rocketeer” from 1991, another great period piece, this time taking place in 1938).

Anyhow, we barely miss the three-and-a-half-minute mark of the movie when we’re treated to our next Oldie offering in the soundtrack, “Young Love,” and the Tab Hunter version, at that (the version that actually did top the charts for a couple of weeks in ’56), not the Sonny James version from the same year that most listeners might ironically more readily recognize today.

The film is not without its fair share of period gaffes, however.  The song selection is, on balance, great, but some of them are a tad anachronistic: a great example can be discerned in the eighth minute of the film, when you can hear Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” playing on a transistor radio.  All well and good, except that “Sweet Little Sixteen” was from 1958, and the story is supposed to take place in 1956. Oops.

Also, one hazard one is likely to encounter in period films from the 1980s and earlier are contemporary re-makes of hit-songs from the past. Remember, this was still a relatively new artistic technique in cinema, largely pioneered by George Lucas in “American Graffiti” from 1973.  But this was 13 years later, and seemingly a disproportionately longer span of time between the contemporary and the bygone era the film attempts to portray.  Nevertheless, after more than a decade, they still apparently had yet to secure the necessary permissions to use certain authentic songs in movies, hence the contemporary knock-offs one hears of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” among others.  It would not be until the 1990s when, apparently, that process would become more streamlined, and we would not have to settle for the knock-offs, occasional though they may be.

Even with the knock-offs, some are still out of place. Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop” was re-made for the film, but the original hit did not top the charts until the start of 1958, for example.  The ever-popular “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, also a re-make in this film, did not debut in its original form until the following year, 1957 – same thing on both counts with “Maybe Baby.” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” fits the year, but they had to play a late remake of it, too, for some reason.

Thankfully, one of the most appropriate tunes of the entire film, “School Days” by Chuck Berry, is untainted in its originality of rendition.  Too bad it too was from 1957, not 1956.  Oh well!  The song is played at the perfect time, just as teenage students are walking in to their high school.  With such impeccable timing, who cares if the period authenticity is off by one year?

The film’s soundtrack is not without its pleasant surprises, either.  For example, I have been listening to ‘50s tunes my entire life, and was still not aware that the Fontaine Sisters did a cover version “I’m In Love Again.”  As if the filmmakers read my mind, they waste little time in switching to the more popular rendition of that hit by Fats Domino! Later in the film, we are treated to a third recording by Fats, this time “Ain’t That a Shame” from 1955, one of the songs that contributed to rock n’ roll exploding onto the scene that year.

They also do get it correctly, however, in the 25th minute of the film by playing part of Elvis’ 1956 hit ballad “Love Me Tender.”  Ditto with Mickey and Silvia’s hit “Love is Strange” in the 41st minute. Another example of an out-of-year tune, though is in the 47th minute.  The protagonist gets his first kiss with the girl of his dreams, and they play “One Summer Night” by The Danleers (1958).  Again, oh well!  Another interesting example is when the protagonist is in the process of cultivating a relationship with an attractive girl, they play Clyde McPhatter’s “A Lover’s Question (1959).

The best way I can explain these slight incongruities in the years of some of the selected tunes is that the filmmakers were less focused on being period-correct and more focused on trying to recreate the overall era with songs that were, in some cases, recorded three years after the story’s timeline.  A similar technique was used in the movie “American Hot Wax” (1978), where early rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest hits are all mashed in together ca. 1959-1960.

Other times, the filmmakers got it right in terms of correct-to-the-year tunes, but goof elsewhere. During the main love scene of the picture, they put on a 45 RPM record, supposedly “My Prayer” by the Platters (yes, from 1956, and in fact, the group’s first No. 1 hit).  But the Platters recorded on the Mercury label, and what is seen spinning on the turntable is a Roulette record – from the mid-1960s, no less!  Another curious choice of song is later in the main love scene, when they switch to “It Only Hurts a Little While” by the Ames Brothers.  Period-correct, yes, but I can think of dozens of more romantic records between 1954-’56 than that one!  They couldn’t play “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, for example? To be sure, Kelly Preston’s nude scene lives up the hype, but I digress.  At least the version of “My Prayer” is the real deal.

ThreeRecordLabels_Mischief

When one of the characters in the movie puts on a 45 RPM record, the song one hears is “My Prayer” by the Platters (right). Yet the record one clearly sees is a record with the Roulette label, from the mid-1960s at that (see left). In the mid-1950s, Roulette’s label had the design seen in the center. Translation: this was a double period goof.

Semi-curious is the choice later in the same love scene, where they are playing Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” (the flip-side to “Peggy Sue,” but from 1957, not 1956).  But shortly thereafter, they made a fine 1956-correct choice in Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator.”  The timing is also great when they break out the venerable Platters hit “The Great Pretender” from 1955, though it peaked in the charts in early 1956.  Also finely-selected for setting the mood was the exquisite doo-wop ballad “Since I Don’t Have You,” by The Skyliners.  The song was not recorded until December of ’58, and did not chart until ’59.

By the time the 75th minute rolls around, you cease to care that Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” (the first song I consciously remember ever hearing, and that is NOT a joke!).  After all, what Fifties-themed soundtrack is complete without it?  Same thing goes for the use of “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwardsone of the greatest records of all time – even though it was a No. 1 hit in 1958, not ’56.

As an aside, is it not odd that they played a modern knock-off of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,”  but played the correct, original version of its flip-side, “Everyday” (Coral 61885)?  Just asking.

The usage of the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Heart and Soul” by the Cleftones, while a great tune, is even more curious, in that it was not recorded until 1959, and was not even released to the buying public until 1961.  That group had three solid doo-wop hits in 1956 (“Little Girl of Mine,” “You Baby You,” and “Can’t We Be Sweethearts?”).  Could they, the filmmakers, not have chosen one of those three instead, say, the third?  That said, and much to their credit, they nail it in terms of year and mood with the usage of the timeless Elvis hit “Don’t Be Cruel” from that year.  It takes an hour and half, but after holding out on us for the whole movie, we finally get to hear from Little Richard, singing “Rip It Up,” also correct to 1956, no less (to be sure, LR had a huge bumper crop of hard-rockers from that year)!

One aspect of the movie where the filmmakers did it consistently period-correct was the cars.  Not a single automobile that I observed – and as a long-time classic car nut, I observed very closely! – was more recent than 1956, and even they were relatively few compared to the other model years I noticed.  Plenty of 1953 Chevies, 1950 Nashes and Studebakers, and 1954 Buicks abound, among others. Only in the second half did I finally find one Cadillac – a 1956 model, one of the few cars actually from that year in the film.  Plus, there’s the occasional ’53 Studebaker, ’50 Hudson, ’47 and ’55 Plymouth, etc. So, there is a nice mix of cars and model years, overall.

It is my love of cars that made me cringe in some of the scenes.  “My goodness, I sincerely hope they did not actually warp the bumper on that ’50 Studebaker, or bend the front quarter-panel of that ’53 Chevy Bel-Air, or totally smash up that nice ’55 Chevy Bel-Air convertible.”  Hey, I care about my true classic cars!

All in all, though, the movie is well-written, very entertaining, and the soundtrack is, even with some of the unnecessary knock-offs, one of the best I have heard in a movie in a long time.  If you want to make for a cozy night in with your significant other with a great film on DVD, by all means choose this (provided you can stomach the occasionally awkward moment or two)! Who knows?  You might even gain some nostalgia for that time gone by yourself, even if the events taking place in the story predate your birth by a quarter-century or more.

America’s Greatest Music – It’s De-Lovely October 25, 2013

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“It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely…” Those are some of the most famous lyrics within the body of work of Cole Porter, the last two of which being the title of the in question.  Given that it is one of Porter’s most recognizable songs (save for “Night and Day,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “Anything Goes,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, and several others), it merits a very prominent place in the Great American Songbook.

Here’s the catch, though; despite it being a great song, few of us can think of lots of notable recorded renditions of it.  Sure, a number of second-tier bands had moderate hits with it in the mid-1930s, but that will not turn lots of heads of music listeners who are not passionate and/or academic about the Swing Era.

The song originated when Cole Porter wrote it in 1936 for the show “Red Hot and Blue.”  On the big screen, it was introduced to the masses by Ethel Merman and Bob Hope.  Indeed, Merman would record a studio version of the song, which can be heard below.  Note that the approach she takes to the song is one that would highlight the potential silliness/gayety of the situation described.

As mentioned earlier, several second-tier bands promptly recorded their respective renditions of the song, including Eddy Duchin, Shep Fields, and Vincent Lopez, whose 1936 version can be heard below:

But one version easily stands out over all, and that is Ella Fitzgerald’s take on the tune from 1956 (which would be the same time of decade when she would tackle the “Cole Porter Songbook” and leave many wonderful records for posterity in so doing).  Frankly, nothing compares to this rendition.

Notice, in contrast to Ethel Merman’s approach from 20 years earlier, Ella puts all kidding aside and focuses on the shear passion that this tune can excite, what with being with the right gal (or guy) at the right time, along with the ensuing opportunity to create a magical evening.

The Real King of Rock turns 80 December 5, 2012

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Today marks the 80th birthday of Richard Wayne Penniman, a.k.a., Little Richard, one of the most important of Rock n’ Roll’s “Founding Fathers,” and arguably the real king of the genre.  “The cat with the ten-inch crew cut” was rocking and rolling at the very beginning of the music, and kept on rocking long after others hung it up or had softened into balladeers.  But he was also a great innovator, coming up with rhythms that spoke to the essence of the genre, using the funkiest of saxophone backings than others, played the piano more frantically than others, and combined it all with over-the-top, gospel-style singing, along with wails and moans.  It all added up to the hardest rocking and rolling of the era when the music was born.

Born in Macon, Ga., on Dec. 5, 1932, Richard had been performing on stage since his early teens in 1945, but started recording in earnest as early as 1951, the same year that Ike Turner’s band recorded what most historians consider to be the first Rock and Roll song in “Rocket 88.”  LR started making an impact in the Rhythm and Blues charts with “Get Rich Quick” that same year.  The tune clearly has the influential finger prints of R&B pioneers such as Roy Brown, and Richard seems to be channeling him to an extent on this and other tracks he cut around the same time.  The following year, 1952, he showed that he could cut strong, moderate tempo songs with his R&B hit “Rice, Red Beans and Turnip Greens.”  He took things to a higher level in 1953 with “Little Richard’s Boogie,” using a percussion instrument that nobody would associate with a Little Richard song, as none other than Johnny Otis (of “Hand Jive” fame, 1958) himself played the vibraphone on that track.  Fans who already know Richard’s more familiar tunes can easily sense the direction he was taking in developing his music in terms of the rhythmic pattern.

And what a pattern!  Little Richard took inspiration from the sound of trains that he heard thundering by him as a child and molded that idea into a unique 2-2 time, boogie-woogie tempo that helped him drill down to the very essence of Rock ‘n’ Roll itself as the music and its era exploded onto the scene by the middle of the 1950s.  Indeed, by September of 1955, he joined Arthur Rupe’s Specialty label, and really began to fully hit his stride.  Not even 23 years old yet, he cut a hit in “Tutti Fruitti” that year, and thus helped demonstrate that the new era in youthful music was not just a flash in the pan, and it set the template for many other hard-charging hits to follow.  Even today, “Tutti Fruitti” ranks as a great pre-game hit at football stadiums to enliven the crowd, as well as to psyche players up before taking the field of battle.

While it reached #2 on the R&B charts in 1955 (and was also covered by Elvis and Pat Boone[!]), what “Tutti Fruitti” also did was help open the floodgates for many other awesome Little Richard records to soon follow – 17 hits in three years, to be more exact.  A good bulk of those hits came the following year in 1956, including “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Rip it Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “She’s Got It,” “Ready Teddy,” “Heeby-Jeebies,” “All Around the World” and even “Lucille.”

But one tune that stands out above all others that year was his inimitable “Long Tall Sally.”  That recording exemplified the freight-train effect rhythm that Richard gradually crafted to perfection, and in so doing, achieved the holy grail of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Giving the sax solo an extra eight bars certainly did not hurt, either!

One can hear that defining tune prominently played during the helicopter scene in the Arnold Schwartzenegger movie “Predator” from 1987.

To be sure, Little Richard did not save his recording energies for only “Tutti Fruitti” in 1955.   That same year yielded some other gems, including one of the hardest-rocking tunes he ever cut in “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” though that record was not released until 1958.  Same thing goes for “True Fine Mama,” a true, hard-core gem, where Little Richard augmented the funkiness level with a call-and-response vocal backing; recorded in ’55, but not released until ’58.

The year 1957 was also a strong one for Richard, in that “Send Me Some Lovin’” (the flip side to Lucille, and a good example of his ballad capabilities) charted, but he also had hits with “Jenny Jenny,” – one his most vocally energetic hits of them all, which is saying something! – “Miss Ann,” and one of the hardest rockers he ever did in “Keep A-Knockin.” Those who doubt the early influence of the swing era on rock ‘n’ roll from later decades clearly overlook that Louis Jordan had a hit with the same song – albeit a more comparatively sedate version! – in 1939.  If that were not enough, 1958 also yield two more marvelous, rocking holy grails, such as “Ooh My Soul,” and the ever-timeless “Good Golly Miss Molly

Richard’s hits on the charts started to wane not because he lost his recording energy, as so many of his contemporaries eventually did, but rather he was making major transitions in his life of the spiritual nature.  In 1958, he enrolled in a theological seminary and soon started recording gospel music instead of rock ‘n’ roll, though by 1962 he made the return back to secular music, and even started touring in England that year, where his records were still selling well.  A fine example of how he still maintained his energy that decade can be seen in this 1964 live performance of “Lucille” in that county (it is arguably a better version than the original 1956 recording):

Little Richard’s influence and legacy spread far and wide throughout the popular music world.  Otis Redding claimed that he entered the music business because of him.  The Beatles cited him as an influence in general; Paul McCartney idolized him while still in high school, and wanted to learn to sing like him.  Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones also referred to LR as his “first idol.”  Jimi Hendrix actually recorded with Little Richard in 1964 and ’65.  George Harrison, Keith Richards, Bob Seger, David Bowie, Elton John, Freddy Mercury, Rod Stewart, band AC/DC, and even Michael Jackson have claimed LR as a primary influence to some varying extent.  One can hear his influence in popular recordings of later years on one’s own.  Surely one can recognize, for example the direct influence that the opening drum riff on “Keep A-Knockin” has on the ever-famous opening drum riff on Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”

Over the past 30 years, Little Richard has appeared on TV and in films as an actor as well as in dozens of soundtracks.  Even within the past few years, Richard has still managed to remain in the spotlight, having appeared in a Geico commercial, as well as one for Zaxby’s.

But as good as it is to casually remain in the spotlight, these recent examples must not obscure his real cultural contribution as being one the greatest standard-bearers Rock ‘n’ Roll has even known.   His unmatchable energy in his recordings and on the stage, along with his everlasting legacy of some of Rock ‘n’ Rolls greatest, most timeless, most energetic records demonstrate time and again that Little Richard is, and ever shall be, in a class by himself.  Happy 80th birthday, your majesty!