The Immortal Jukebox A7: Little Richard – Tutti Frutti

‘My heart nearly burst with excitement – I had heard God’. (David Bowie on first hearing Tutti Frutti)

‘Ambition: To Join Little Richard!’ (Entry in Bob Dylan’s High School Yearbook’)

‘It was as if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to technicolour’ (Keith Richards)

Before any truly catyclismic event in world history there are usually foreshadowings and auguries: precursor events that indicate something immense is on its way. I have identified one such sequence in history and set it out below:

In the summer of 1883 in the Sunday Strait between Java and Sumatra the Island of Krakatoa was the location for a volcanic eruption of staggering power. The explosion which destroyed the island was heard in Perth, Australia some 2000 miles away.

It was probably the loudest sound ever heard by humankind as the sky grew dark with rock, ash and pumice.

Tsunamis were generated as the shock wave reverberated seven times around the planet. Weather patterns and temperatures were disrupted for years on a global scale. The explosion was the equivalent of 200 megatonnes of TNT. In comparison the Atom Bomb explosion over Hiroshima was a mere firecracker.

If you were looking for the epicentre of the world’s scientific ferment in 1904 it is unlikely anyone would have settled on the Patent Office in sleepy Bern, Switzerland. Yet it was there that the 25 year old Albert Einstein had an intellectual epiphany.

He realised that mass and energy were not two separate realms but expressions of each other. He expressed this relationship in a beautiful world changing equation (you know, E = MC squared).

This was an epochal, paradigm shifting breakthrough that has resounded through science and culture ever since.

Asteroids are rare visitors to this earth but when they do pay us a home visit the effects can be profound. As June ended in 1908 in Tunguska in remote Siberia it seemed that the sky was split in two and covered with fire as an asteroid travelling at more than 33,000 miles per hour exploded trigerring a shock wave that devestated 800 square miles of forest.

Eighty million trees lay on their sides levelled like so much matchwood. For days afterward the skies above Asia and Europe were eerily aglow.

In the 1940s as the Second World War proceeded the significance of Einstein’s work for military purposes was sharply appreciated in Washington, Berlin, London and Moscow as teams of dragooned scientists raced to produce a war winning weapon.

The race was won in the deserts of the American South West by an international team ironically including many refugees from Hitler’s Reich. Mankind now had the capacity to destroy itself and the Atomic Age was born.

Energy, energy, energy. Energy contained and the power of energy released is the linking factor in all these events. There is something awesome in the contemplation of the overwhelming impact such displays of energy can have upon us.

Immense outpourings of energy expressed in music, film and literature can lead to revolutions in human consciousness that can profoundly alter the landscape of our thoughts and our very dreams.

Following such events the cultural climate is forever changed and aftershocks continue to ripple on through the succeeding ages.

One such moment took place at Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio at Rampart Street New Orleans on September 14th 1955 when Little Richard exploded into a version of an outrageously sexy, raucous and filthy song that had long been a staple of his live performances.

The savvy producer of the session, Bumps Blackwell, had heard the song during a time out break the musicians had taken in a local bar, the Dew Drop Inn, and instantly realised that, furnished with cleaned up lyrics suitable for listening to on the radio, this was an unstoppable hit with a drive, attack and energy that was something new under the sun and moon in the Crescent City and for all he knew the whole world.

Richard played the frenzied piano himself with the masterful drummer Earl Palmer for once taken aback and struggling to keep up. Lee Allen plays a scintillating sax solo after being given his cue by the vocalist’s trademark screams and hollers.

Little Richard, the Little Richard who occupies a permanent treasured chair at the top table of Rock n Roll pioneers and innovators was born as an artist at the very moment he began to play Tutti Frutti.

His vocals are a delirious fusion of the gospel pulpit, the back alley dive and the tent show after hours party.

They lift the song beyond jump blues, beyond rhythm and blues into a new territory that incredulous contemporary listeners and musicians and the generations who followed them would light out for in their millions whooping all the way!

But very few of them would be able to combine, like Little Richard could, the rapturous, glossolalial soar and swoop with the low down and dirty guttural rasp. For that you maybe needed to be the twelfth child of a family that included both preachers and bootleggers and grow up listening to testifying choirs in the morning and gut bucket blues men late at night.

It would also help if you had lived by the train tracks and woken up repeatedly to the sound of the whistle screaming through your town.

Primary among those attempting to reproduce the Little Richard scream was the teenage Paul McCartney who used it extensively when covering Richard’s songs (his vocal party piece was Long Tall Sally, which was one of the two songs he played atop a desk on his last day at school in Liverpool) and he also incorporated it into his own rockers to give them a wildness that would drive the girls crazy.

I’m sure you know that I’m no physicist or mathematician but according to my calculations the energy released in the first thirty seconds of Tutti Frutti as Little Richard leaves Earth’s orbit for the celestial beyond is exactly equal to and more lasting in impact and influence than the Krakatoa explosion!

Perhaps the incantation, ‘Awop Bop Aloo Bop Alop Bam Boom!’ was the unlocking alchemical phrase the Universe had been waiting to hear for many millennia. Who would have thought that such mystic power would have emerged from an omnisexual, mascara wearing son of Macon Georgia!

You can christen Little Richard the Meteor, the Comet, the Quasar or the Architect of Rock n Roll – he deserves all those accolades and all the honours heaped upon him in his mature years.

But it is the dionysiac outpouring of energy in Tutti Frutti that will prove his lasting legacy. The universe shook the day he recorded it and it’s still shaking now.

A Doo-Wop Anthem : Kenny Vance – Looking For An Echo (A Sound We Almost Found)

‘Humans are distinguished by being a remembering, storytelling and singing race’.
(Barclay Butler)

‘ A word thrown into the silence always finds its echo somewhere where silence opens hidden lexicons’. (Dejan Stojanovic)

‘ We were looking for an echo – an answer to our sound – a place to be in harmony; a place we almost found’

All of us search for, cherish and store in our hearts’ chambers the echoes of the sounds of the golden sunny uplands of our lives.

Those times when we achieved what we set out to do; when we were first in love, when someone said,’you’re really good at that aren’t you?’, when you knew that this was a really fine time, THE fine time to be alive.

What holds for individuals holds for friendships, communities and nations which strive to hold on to the fine times and to work towards regaining them when they seem misplaced, lost or abandoned.

We remember with joy the times we made it to the summit and wincingly the times our faltering grip couldn’t hold on to the elusive prize and we had to start again bruised and chastened from base camp or the muddy ground

We are all looking for answers to our longings and dilemmas, for a place to be in harmony with ourselves, our families and those with whom, willingly and unwillingly, we share our lives.

‘Looking For An Echo’ a single released on Atlantic in 1975 by Kenny Vance has continued to echo in my life for nearly forty years because it’s an anthemic folk/doowop ballad that gloriously captures the sweet heartache of remembering the thrill of reaching for that harmony and the melancholic realisation of how rare it is to hold on to that harmony, once achieved.

Kenny Vance (who grew up as Kenny Rosenberg) is a son of Brooklyn and a canny time served music industry veteran. He came up through 1950s vocal and doowop groups before achieving chart success and a measure of fame with Jay and The Americans who had a string of hits throughout the 60s including the eerily beautiful, ‘She Cried’ (memorably covered by The Shangri – Las).

They were a supporting act on both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones first US tours. Late additions to the group, talent spotted by Vance, were two hyper smart East Coast musicians and writers, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who would form the coolest band of the 1970s, Steely Dan.

Post Jay and The Americans, Kenny went on to carve a productive and profitable niche as a musical director for TV (Saturday Night Live) and in the Film Industry. He was involved in the highly successful soundtracks for Eddie and the Cruisers, American Hot Wax and Animal House.

By the mid 70s he was ready to record again and he produced a fine album called Vance 32 the highlight of which was Looking For An Echo, written by a friend, Richie Reicheg. The recording was layered beginning with simple acoustic guitar and Kenny’s searching, ruminative vocal.

This gives the song the yearning quality which is so attractive. The electric instrumentation added builds the swelling atmosphere and the sense of time passing in tension and release.

The song is now something of a standard within the world of vocal group and doowop aficionados: regularly played on oldies radio stations and frequently used a a show stopping, tear inducing, finale to live shows.

It reincarnates the doowop days of practicing in parks, subways and halls with vocals soaring upwards from stoops, fire escapes and tenement block roofs as bunches of teenagers quivering with energy and ambition reached for that sound that would warm their hearts and might, just might, make them stars if they could only be heard by someone who could get them into a recording studio and onto the radio.

The song is a quest song and we all know that most quests end in mature (or wearied) acceptance that we will never reach El Dorado to find the mother lode but that there were many fine times along the journey. And, that perhaps the place we now inhabit has its own virtues and consolations if not the fabled ones we imagined in our youth.

Still, we listen for the echoes.

Kenny has revisited the song with his group the Planotones upping the dramatic ante and stressing the nostalgic heft of the song. I much prefer the original but would still queue to see him perform the song live.

Notes:

There is a superb version of the song by the titans of acapella singing The Persusasions – available to view on the internet and on their album, ‘Chirpin’.

I’m a lover of reference books on all subjects (as you may have guessed!) but none has given me such pleasure as Jay Warner’s, ‘American Singing Groups: A History 1940 – 1990’.

I guarantee that if you read it you’ll be soon making long lists of records to buy and marvelling at the hope and energy which produced so many great sounds that still echo in our hearts and memories. You could start by looking up the entries for groups referenced in Echo – The Moonglows, The Harptones and The Dells.

My favourite Paul Simon album is his criminally under appreciated Hearts and Bones. For the exquisitely described heartbreak of the title track, the devastating sadness and accuracy of, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ but most of all for the sweet threnody that is ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’ which manages, entirely successfully, to yoke a portrait of the surrealist couple to the spectral sounds of the Orioles and the Five Satins.

There is no end to the making of doowop compilations. I recommend those on the Rhino, Ace and Proper labels. Part of the charm of the doowop era is that there are so many one off triumphs that might turn up almost anywhere now – happy hunting!