On bended knees, I beg you not to go

Richard Penniman, known worldwide as Little Richard, “The Architect of Rock and Roll,” died May 9 in his Tennessee home of bone cancer at the age of 87.

Unknown-325He spent his whole life as a deeply conflicted man.

Gospel or rock and roll?  Straight or gay?  Clean living or addicted to drugs?

In each case, he went back and forth over the course of his life between the differing lifestyles, apparently drawn in opposite directions with equal fervor.

As a child, he was strongly influenced by gospel music and the charismatic worship services of the Pentacostal churches his family attended.  Gospel recording artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson inspired him to eagerly belt out the songs in a loud, strong voice in church.  He developed a deep faith in God and even spent time as an evangelist preaching the gospel.

At the same time, he was inexorably drawn to the seductive rhythm and blues music of secular artists of the 1940s and 1950s, people like Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway and a young Fats Domino.  He learned to play piano so he could imitate the intro to Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88,” often regarded as the first rock and roll song.

Penniman was also in conflict about his sexuality.  He found both women and men sexually appealing but kept his feelings secret as best he could to avoid the wrath of his father at home and the bullies at school.  Still, when his father kicked him out at 17, he a2c18bbd7ffd54ab08930dcd9d7b700djoined Doctor Nubillo’s Traveling Show, and took to wearing capes, turbans and makeup.  He was married once for five years, but also came out as gay.  He would denounce homosexuality, then turn around and embrace it, and eventually considered himself “omnisexual.”

Little Richard was also caught in the 1950s conflict between the races.  He and fellow rock pioneer Chuck Berry were black men trying to appeal to white audiences at a time when much of the country was still segregated.  White mothers and fathers felt threatened by “the devil’s music” and forbade their children from listening to it, but the kids responded enthusiastically to it anyway.

Consider his first hit single, “Tutti Frutti.”  In its original form, it was a risqué blues tune with lyrics about gay sex, an absolutely taboo topic at the time.  Here’s how it went:  “Tutti Frutti, good booty, if it’s tight, it’s all right, Tutti Frutti, good booty, and if it’s greasy, it makes it easy, Tutti Frutti, good booty, a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a good goddamn!…” Little Richard sang it this way at a blacks-only lunch spot one day, and while his producer loved the song’s energy, he knew the lyrics had to be cleaned up if they had any hope of getting airplay on radio.

Unknown-322The version everyone knows was recorded and released in late 1955, and sure enough, it became a big hit, reaching #21 on the Top 40 charts (and #2 on the R&B charts).  It was popular with both white and black record buyers, which established its reputation as one of the landmark songs that launched rock and roll as a new musical phenomenon.

As a sign of the times, though, a sanitized rendition of “Tutti Frutti” released simultaneously by squeaky-clean Pat Boone eclipsed Little Richard’s original, peaking at #12 and selling well over a million copies.  It was one of many instances when a white artist would steal the thunder from the black artist who first created the work.

Penniman had this to say about that:  “When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out, I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner.  They needed a white guy’s version to block me out of white images-184homes…but it didn’t really work.  The white kids would have Pat Boone on the dresser and me in the drawer.  They liked my version better but kept it hidden from their parents.”

He persevered, and enjoyed an impressive run of eight more Top 40 hits over the next 18 months:  “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Keep A-Knockin'” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” which firmly cemented Little Richard’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

In England, several future rock stars were going crazy over the tunes of Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and others.  “(Little Richard) was the biggest inspiration of my early teens,” said Mick Jagger last week.  “His music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid ’50s.  When we were on tour with him in 1962-63, I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience.  He was always so generous with advice to me.”

safe_image.phpPaul McCartney, who belted out a superb cover of “Long Tally Sally” in 1964 for The Beatles’ second U.S. album, said, “Little Richard came screaming into my life when I was a teenager.  I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style, and he knew it.  He would say, ‘I taught Paul everything he knows.’  I had to admit he was right.”

I have my own admission to make.  Growing up with The Beatles and Sixties music, I knew next to nothing about Little Richard and his fellow rock and roll pioneers.  It wasn’t until the ’70s that I became interested in rock music’s roots and gained an appreciation for the trailblazing the practitioners had done that made The Beatles even possible.  It’s frankly embarrassing for a rock music aficionado like me to admit such a dereliction, but it’s the truth.

Younger generations of musicians and music lovers seem far more willing to recognize the debt they owe to icons like Little Richard than my generation was.  “Elvis may have popularized rock & roll, and Chuck Berry was its storyteller, but Little Richard was the archetype,” tweeted Steven Van Zandt, who chooses to call himself Little Steven in tribute to Penniman.

Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys wrote, “If you love anything about the flamboyance of rock & roll, you have Little Richard to thank.  Where would rock & roll be without flamboyance?  He was the first.  To be able to be that uninhibited back then, you had to have a lot of not-give-a-fuck.”

After those first several years, the hits stopped because Penniman chose to call a halt to images-189his burgeoning career.  After a harrowing plane ride and a couple of other incidents he took as omens, he claimed spiritual rebirth and went to college to study theology.  He met and married Ernestine Harvin, began preaching, and recorded gospel music which found a small audience but made little impression on the charts.

He returned to secular music by the mid ’60s, both recording and performing, but the music world had moved on to other artists and other styles.  For the next 25 years, neither his albums nor his singles made a dent in the charts, which is one reason why Little Richard was involved with more than a dozen different record companies as either he or the label severed the relationship.  It was in the early ’70s when he became a heavy alcohol drinker and developed a debilitating addiction to cocaine that took him many years from which to break free.

His last moment in the sun came in 1986 when he contributed to the soundtrack of the hit comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” starring Nick Nolte and Bette Midler.  His song “Great Gosh A’Mighty” was Little Richard’s deliberate attempt to at last make peace with his inner conflict by merging a secular song with spiritual lyrics:  “I’ve been tryin’ to find peace of mind, tryin’ to search all the time, I’ve been looking, I’ve been wandering, have you heard the written Word, Great Gosh A’Mighty!…”

Penniman was shown the respect he deserved when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as part of the very first group of inductees.  Despite this honor and inductions into numerous other Halls of Fame over the years, he conceded that he harbored some resentments about how his career turned out.

images-186“I appreciated being picked one of the top fifty performers in rock,” he said, “but who is number one and who is number two?  It doesn’t really matter anymore because it won’t be who I think it should be.  It’s never going to be any of the entertainers from the beginning.  The Rolling Stones learned from me, but they’re always going to be in front of me.  The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made a record — but they’re always going to be in front of me.  James Brown was in my band.  So was Jimi Hendrix.  These people started with me.  I encouraged them, I talked to them, and off they went.  Good for them.  They’re going to always be in front of me.”

And by the way:  Just what does “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom” mean?  Nothing, really.  It’s merely Little Richard’s vocal imitation of the drum part he thought would work there.  But he ended up using the vocal part instead, and it became one of the first detonating blasts of the rock and roll explosion.

R.I.P., Little Richard.  We rock and roll fans owe you so much.




Rackin’ your brain to recall the tune

When I introduced my first Hack’s Back Pages lyrics quiz several weeks ago, I kept it relatively easy, limiting my choices to well-known songs that topped the charts during the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s.

For the second installment of this fun feature, I am digging a little deeper to challenge my readers a bit more.  The lyrics included below are from 20 songs that are relatively well known, but not necessarily as popular as the million-selling hits of the previous quiz.


Test your knowledge by mulling over the lyrics, writing down your answers, and then scrolling down to see how well you did.

Have fun!


1  “I’ve been thinking ’bout our fortune, and I’ve decided that we’re really not to blame, for the love that’s deep inside us now is still the same…”

2  “Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull, and cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my skull…”

3  “She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe, ‘I thought you’d never say hello,’ she said, ‘You look like the silent type’…”

4  “I get the news I need from the weather report, oh, I can gather all the news I need from the weather report…”

5  “Go away then, damn ya, go on and do as you please, you ain’t gonna see me getting down on my knees…”

6  “Well, I hear the whistle but I can’t go, I’m gonna take her down to Mexico, she said, ‘Whoa no, Guadalajara won’t do’…”

7  “Grab your lunch pail, check for mail in your slot, you won’t get your check if you don’t punch the clock…”

8  “I said, ‘Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man,’ he said, ‘That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can?’…”

9  “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you, there’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do…”

10  “I’m gonna be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender…”

11  “I can remember the Fourth of July, running through the back woods bare…”

12  “Sitting by the fire, the radio just played a little classical music for you kids, the march of the wooden soldiers…”

13  “I got my back against the record machine, I ain’t the worst that you’ve seen, oh can’t you see what I mean?…”

14  “Got to have a Jones for this, Jones for that, this runnin’ with the Joneses, boy, just ain’t where it’s at…”

15  “Come down off your throne and leave your body alone, somebody must change…”

16  “I’m not the only soul who’s accused of hit and run, tire tracks all across your back, I can see you had your fun…”

17  “Well, there’s a rose in a fisted glove, and the eagle flies with the dove…”

18  “There’s too many men, too many people making too many problems, and not much love to go ’round…”

19  “I’ve acted out my love in stages with ten thousand people watching…”

20  “Jump up, look around, find yourself some fun, no sense in sitting there hating everyone…”




















1  “The Story in Your Eyes,” The Moody Blues (1971)

Unknown-319These guys have had at least three lives:  their early “Go Now” period; their stunning 1967-1972 era, and a rebirth in 1981 for another run in the Eighties.  There are so many fine songs in their repertoire, most of them written by singer-guitarist Justin Hayward.  My personal favorite is “The Story in Your Eyes,” an infectious track from their “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” album.

2  “I’m on Fire,” Bruce Springsteen (1984)

images-182On the multiplatinum “Born in the U.S.A.” album, Springsteen assembled a dozen songs he’d chosen from nearly four dozen he wrote and recorded with the E Street Band.  This track was unique in its use of spare percussion with synthesizer, and lyrics that describe the narrator’s sexual tension and longing.  The song reached #6 in 1985, one of an unprecedented seven Top Ten singles from the same LP.

3  “Tangled Up in Blue,” Bob Dylan (1975)

images-180Many critics regard Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” as one of his top three or four in a catalog of well over 50 albums in his career.  Part of the reason is this incredible song, which offers some of his best lyrics as he tells the story of a man’s recollections about his old flame, and his travels to try to find and reconnect with her.  Dylan himself has cited this song as one of his best compositions.

4  “The Only Living Boy in New York,” Simon and Garfunkel (1970)

Unknown-318Art Garfunkel had been picked for a role in the film “Catch-22,” which kept him on the Mexico movie set for nearly six months.  Meanwhile, Paul Simon was in New York writing songs and trying to complete the duo’s next album.  He felt lonely and a bit resentful, and this song came out of that feeling.  It’s one of my favorite S&G songs, with a crystal-clean production and outstanding vocals.

5  “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” James Taylor (1972)

Unknown-317For his “One Man Dog” album, released in December 1972, Taylor put together 18 songs, some barely a minute long, with seven of them assembled in an “Abbey Road”-like medley.  He recorded some of the LP in his new home studio on Martha’s Vineyard, with new bride Carly Simon contributing background vocals.  “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” was the single, which peaked at #14 in early 1973.

6  “My Old School,” Steely Dan (1973)

images-179Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met at Bard College in upstate New York, where the formed their lasting musical partnership, but they didn’t much care for the time they spent there.  In this song, they wrote about their unpleasant experiences and made their feelings quite clear with the chorus lyric, “And I’m never going back to my old school!”  It’s one of Steely Dan’s best tunes, from their “Countdown to Ecstasy” LP.

7  “Bus Rider,” The Guess Who (1970)

images-178I always loved this minor hit from the Guess Who repertoire.  Written by Kurt Winter, the guitarist who replaced Randy Bachman in the band’s lineup, it gallops along on the strength of Burton Cummings rollicking piano and strong vocals.  Winter had been a daily bus commuter when he worked a day job and thought the experience would be a good topic for a song.  He was right.

8  “The Weight,” The Band (1968)

Unknown-316Although it was released as a single which never reached higher than #63 on the charts, “The Weight” significantly influenced American popular music.  It was ranked an impressive #41 on Rolling Stone’s Best 500 Songs of All Time.  It’s essentially a Southern folk song, with elements of country and gospel, and Robbie Robertson said he wrote it during his first visit to Memphis, where singer Levon Helm had grown up.

9  “Africa,” Toto (1982)

Unknown-315Chief songwriter David Paich wrote this lyrical tribute to The Dark Continent without ever having visited it.  “I saw a National Geographic special on TV and it affected me profoundly,” said Paich.  The resulting track, fleshed out with some searing guitar work by guitarist Steve Lukather, turned out to be Toto’s only #1 hit, although it was “Rosanna” that won Grammys.

10  “The Pretender,” Jackson Browne (1976)

images-177When asked who “the pretender” was, Browne said, “It’s anybody that’s lost sight of some of their dreams and is going through the motions, trying to make a stab at a certain way of life that he sees other people succeeding at.”  As the title track of his fourth album, the song anchors a strong batch of tunes he wrote in the wake of his wife’s suicide, which share a mid-Seventies resignation to the fact that the Sixties idealism was long gone.

11  “Born on the Bayou,” Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

images-176I’ve always considered this song the definitive CCR track.  The wonderfully swampy groove, John Fogerty’s vocal growl and biting guitar solo, plus lyrics that take the listener deep into Louisiana, bring all the band’s key elements together in one great recording.  The group’s “Bayou Country” and “Green River” LPs should both be minted in gold.  Every song shines.

12  “Sweet Jane,” The Velvet Underground (1970)

Unknown-314This great tune by Lou Reed had plenty of airplay on FM rock stations, both in its multiple recordings by Reed’s band The Velvet Underground and by Reed as a solo artist.  The 10-minute version on Reed’s 1978 live album “Take No Prisoners” is my favorite, but probably the best known version is by Mott the Hoople from their 1972 album, “All the Young Dudes.”

13  “Jump,” Van Halen (1984)

Unknown-313Instead of the guitar-driven sound that dominates the band’s catalog, the melody of “Jump” is carried by a synthesizer, which was much in vogue in the mid-’80s.  David Lee Roth has said the lyrics were inspired by a news story about a man threatening to jump from a tall building and how “there was probably at least one person in the crowd that mumbled, ‘Oh, go ahead and jump.'”  It was a big #1 hit from their “1984” album.

14  “Lowdown,” Boz Scaggs (1976)

Unknown-312Scaggs had been in the original Sixties lineup of the Steve Miller Band before going solo in 1969.  He fashioned an unusual mixture of country, blues and R&B in his music, which attracted a cult audience but didn’t click with the mainstream until 1976 when he released the superb “Silk Degrees” album.  His supporting cast included the top-notch session men who would later form Toto.  “Lowdown” reached #6 on the charts that year.

15  “Can’t Find My Way Home,” Blind Faith (1969)

images-175Steve Winwood, on hiatus from his band Traffic, teamed up briefly with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker for one album and a brief tour before disbanding.  Winwoods’s influence is strong on all six tunes on the record, but none more so than the acoustic gem “Can’t Find My Way Home.”  It would have fit perfectly on the subsequent “John Barleycorn” album, and in fact, many people have always presumed it’s a Traffic song.

16  “Crosstown Traffic,” Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)

images-174By the time of his third album, the sprawling double LP “Electric Ladyland,” Hendrix was experimenting more with different musicians brought in to work on individual tracks.  This song, though, features just the original trio as they power their way through a classic Hendrix blues/rock arrangement.  The lyrics compare a challenging relationship to the chaos of a Manhattan traffic jam.

17  “Love the One You’re With,” Stephen Stills (1970)

Unknown-311If you think this tune is from the Crosby, Stills and Nash catalog, you’re not far wrong.  Technically, it’s from Stephen Stills’s debut solo album, not a CSN album, but it pretty much qualifies as a group production because Crosby and Nash were both at the recording session singing background vocals.  Stills borrowed the title from a line he heard Billy Preston say one night while on tour.

18  “Land of Confusion,” Genesis (1986)

images-173Between Genesis albums and solo records, Phil Collins’s voice seemed to be on the radio every 30 minutes for a while in the mid-’80s.  The Genesis LP “Invisible Touch” sold a zillion copies on the strength of tracks like “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,” the title song and this strong tune.  Although written more than 30 years ago, “Land of Confusion” seems like an apt description of the United States in the age of coronavirus.

19  “A Song For You,” Leon Russell (1970)

Unknown-310Russell not only spent many years as a member of the group of L.A. studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, he also wrote some iconic songs along the way.  The two that stand out for me are “This Masquerade” and “A Song for You,” both of which were eventually recorded by The Carpenters, George Benson and others.  Russell’s distinctive voice makes his own recording of “A Song for You” particularly memorable.

20  “Teacher,” Jethro Tull (1970)

images-172One of the anchors of the US version of Tull’s third album, “Benefit,” this song didn’t appear on the British version but was instead released as a single there.  It stiffed on the charts, but in the US it became very popular on FM rock stations, thanks to the catchy rock arrangement carried by Anderson’s distinctive flute and the first appearance of John Evan’s swirling organ passages.