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.

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https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4i9rfWKTdbDTXc9dgB0wLU?si=kFONKtyBS8q8IVZ54QbMqw

 

Ain’t the afterlife grand?

I figure the best way to know if a songwriter is any good is by reading what others, particularly other songwriters, have to say about him.

If that’s true, then damn.  John Prine must be one of the best there ever was.

Unknown-259Asked in 2009 to list his favorite songwriters, Bob Dylan put Prine front and center. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism.  Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.  And he writes beautiful songs.”

Kris Kristofferson, upon discovering Prine in a small club in Chicago in 1971:  “No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy.  John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”

Close friend and frequent collaborator Bonnie Raitt:  “He was a true folk singer in the best folk tradition, cutting right to the heart of things, as pure and simple as rain.  For all of us whose hearts are breaking, we will keep singing his songs and holding him near.”

Jack Antonoff, songwriter/guitarist/singer in the indie rock ban “fun.”, said:  “John Prine is as good as it gets.  An honor to be alive in his time.”

Bruce Springsteen tweeted, “John was a true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.  He wrote music of towering compassion with an almost unheard-of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives. He was a writer of great humor, funny, with wry sensitivity. It has marked him as a complete original.”

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Music critics can be a fickle bunch, but they have been nearly unanimous in their admiration for Prine over the years.  A few quotes:

Alanna Nash of Entertainment Weekly:  “John Prine’s best work has always been slightly cinematic and hallucinogenic, full of images that transport as well as provoke.”

Margaret Renkl, a New York Times contributing opinion writer, wrote in 2016:  “The new John Prine — older now, scarred by cancer surgeries, his voice deeper and full of gravel — is most clearly still the old John Prine: mischievous, delighting in tomfoolery, but also worried about the world.”

Michael Branch of CNN:  “John Prine was a gifted writer and vintage American troubadour who reminded us that life is as comical as it is heartbreaking, and that we should never fail to empathize with others.”

Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post:  “Many journalists loved John Prine because he did what we try to do:  document America.”

The late Roger Ebert, writing about a Prine concert in 1971:  “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off.  He starts slow.  But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics.  And then he has you.”

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Unknown-257By all accounts, Prine was a kind, sweet guy, but he was also one tough cookie.  Despite a lack of much commercial success during his five decades in the music business, he nevertheless persevered, started his own record company (Oh Boy Records) and recorded 18 studio LPs and two live albums.  He was on the road a lot in the early days, and he continued performing well into his ’60s and ’70s as health permitted.  He also survived two major cancer-related surgeries in 1998 and 2013.  But on April 7, he fell victim to the coronavirus.  He was 73.

You’ll all pardon me if I’m kicking myself these days.  I somehow failed to pick up on Prine and his work when he was first starting out in the early ’70s when he wrote and recorded many of his best songs.  I’m pretty sure a couple of my friends in college tried to turn me on to some of his tunes, but I too quickly dismissed him because his gruff voice wasn’t much to my liking.

Ah, but here’s the thing:  Prine’s voice was perfect for the kind of songs he wrote.  Like his inspirations, Dylan and Johnny Cash, he sang in a sometimes-wry, sometimes-bitter conversational style that was perfectly suited to his simple melodies and common-man lyrics.

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Prine’s 1973 LP

I’ve always put Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen at the forefront of my list of the greatest lyricists of my lifetime, but I have discovered (after the fact, I’m embarrassed to admit) that John Prine belongs in that exalted group.  He offered such wonderfully keen observations on the human condition, often very concise:

“Just give me one extra season so I can figure out the other four.”

“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine, but it better, or people will wonder.” 

“Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see.”

“We were trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish, whatever came first.”

“If it weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.” 

In these and other examples, Prine often wrote in the first person, sharing his own experiences and fantasies, in turn poignant, angry and whimsical.  But he just as often served as narrator for his fictional and true-to-life tales, putting potent words into the character’s mouths.

A mother speaking to her son about his absent father:  “Your daddy never meant to hurt you ever, he just don’t live here, but you got his eyes.”

An elderly woman referring to her husband:  “My old man is another child that’s grown old.”

An adolescent boy singing about his troubled father:  “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

Most provocatively, speaking for Jesus:   “I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood. They’re gonna kill me, Mama.  They don’t like me, bud.”

Unknown-263

His 1991 comeback

Prine echoed the belief many songwriters share when he said, “I felt sometimes I was a conduit, a channel through which songs arrive from an unknown source, maybe God.”

He had periods when songwriting came almost effortlessly.  “Sometimes, a song takes about as long to write it as it does to sing it.  They come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, because if you mess around too long, the song is liable to pass you by.”

When major or minor life events occurred, both good and bad, they became fodder for new material. “  After my second divorce,” he said with a chuckle in 1990, “about a month later, the song truck pulled up and dumped a bunch of great songs on my lawn.”

Prine had a singular approach to songwriting.  “I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better.  Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist.  Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was.  So when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks.  You just draw the foundation.”

In his 1973 song “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” Prine painted a picture in such a way that listeners could easily insert memories of their own grandfathers:  “”Well, he used to sing me ‘Blood on the Saddle’ and rock me on his knee, and let me listen to radio before we got TV, well, he’d drive to church on Sunday and take me with him too, stained glass in every window, hearing aids in every pew.”

Unknown-260

Prine’s 1971 debut

Last year, Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, where he summed up why he chose a life as a songwriter: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket, and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.”

There were two Prine tunes I discovered long ago as cover versions by other artists.  One was “Angel From Montgomery,” recorded by Raitt on her 1974 LP “Streetlights.”  She and Prine sang it together often, most recently at the 2020 Grammy Awards, where he won a long-overdue, well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.

The other one was the heartbreaking “Hello In There,” which Bette Midler recorded for her first album.  In it, Prine described the pain and loneliness that aging brings, and he urged us all to pay attention:  “Old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers just grow wilder every day, old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.'”

I’m sure as hell paying attention now, Mr. Prine.

He left behind an impressive legacy of nearly 200 songs, and you’d be hard pressed to find one you could label a clunker.  His favored genres were country, folk, a little bluegrass and what is now popularly called Americana, and he did them all well. His songs are generally pretty basic, three- or four-chord construction, which makes them easy to learn on guitar, something I’ll be doing for the next few weeks.  And they’re easy to sing too, so you can bet they’ll start showing up at occasional singalongs by the fire pit, especially the funny ones.

Unknown-264Take “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title track from his 1999 album which features duets with some of country music’s best female vocalists.  The song’s blunt lyrics offer a fairly hilarious yet poignant dialog between Prine and Iris DeMent as husband and wife who adore each other but view their marriage quite differently.  Husband:  “She thinks all my jokes are corny/ convict movies make her horny/ she likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs and swears like a sailor when shavin’ her legs/ she takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,/ I’m never gonna let her go…”   Wife:  “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/ I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies/ he ain’t too sharp but he gets things done/ drinks his beer like it’s oxygen/ he’s my baby and I’m his honey/ never gonna let him go…”

Or consider 1973’s “Please Don’t Bury Me,” a whimsical look at death that now takes on an entirely deeper meaning:  “Please don’t bury me down in that cold cold ground, no, I’d druther have ’em cut me up and pass me all around, throw my brain in a hurricane, and the blind can have my eyes, and the deaf can have both of my ears if they don’t mind the size.”

I see that the new generation of country singers adores Prine with as much enthusiasm as their predecessors do.  Check out this YouTube video of Prine sitting on stage with Kacey Musgraves as she plays a song she wrote called “Burn One With John Prine.”  It’ll bring tears and chuckles in equal amounts.

Rest in Peace, John.  Much obliged for your fine body of work.

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A Spotify playlist of some of Prine’s finest tunes.  Dial ’em up!