Coca-Cola. Mickey Mouse. Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley is a brand. “Elvis Presley” means something, represents something. And – as a quick aside – this kind of bothers me. “Elvis” the icon sometimes trumps Presley the artist. But more people have heard of Elvis Presley in more parts of the world than perhaps any other artist in history. But is he “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”?
Richard Penniman is a survivor. And something of a victim. As “Little Richard”, he burst onto the music scene around the same time as Presley and with much the same untamed style that marked Presley’s earliest records. Historically, his influence is somewhat more muted than his white counterpart’s but those who know, know. Little Richard, who will turn 87 in December of 2019, was, perhaps, just as significant a musical presence as Presley.
If you’re a regular visitor to The Home of Vintage Leisure, then you don’t need a recap of the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. Suffice it to say that, in the early 1950’s, black rhythm and blues artists began to make music that appealed to black and white youths, particularly in the south. A seismic shift began to take place
I’m not an anthropologist. Or a sociologist. Or a botanist, for that matter. But my years long study of rock ‘n’ roll has taught me a few things about “race” in mid-century America. It is a fact of history, though a sad one, that blacks were subjugated to many indignities throughout the story of America; some severe, some more subtle but no less damaging. One of the many misconceptions of and wrongs perpetrated on black Americans – perhaps mostly in the south – is the fact that many uninformed whites considered there to be something less about “Negroes”; they were certainly not considered “equal” to whites. This archaic and demeaning attitude manifested itself in many ways; again, some severe, some more subtle.
I’m way over my head here but these attitudes lead up to a point I want to make. Most of us are familiar with the founder of Sun Records in Memphis, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sam Phillips. Most are also familiar with the famous quote attributed to him that expressed his desire to find a white singer with a “black style”. He said this partly because he had been recording and releasing rhythm and blues records by black artists, records he knew were good but that he also knew would not reach a mass audience because of the attitudes of white America. When he found Elvis Presley, he found his ideal.
Elvis, you may know, was white. But that wasn’t readily apparent when listening to his early records. When playing them, DJ Dewey Phillips stressed that King went to Humes High School in Memphis; a “white” school. Presley’s “whiteness” was a huge part of what made him “marketable”. Little Richard, you may also know, is black. The plain but unjust fact of the matter is that, at that point in American history, a black performer was going to face obstacles when trying to reach a mass audience. Nat Cole and Sammy Davis were artists who were enjoying success at the time but they also faced many restrictions and much prejudice throughout the country.
I say all that to say all this; both Elvis Presley and Little Richard hailed from the south – the “deep” south – Presley from Tupelo, Mississippi and Penniman from Macon, Georgia. Both grew up in poverty and both turned to music to lighten their loads. Both men as youths experienced the exuberance of church music, gospel music. Both men, when they began making music themselves, favoured joyous songs that expressed freedom and mirrored the exhilaration they had witnessed from the pew. This soon morphed into the somewhat wild, untamed performing style adopted by both men.
Historically, the performers that followed Elvis Presley and Little Richard would hail these two above others because of this freedom they peddled. Bob Dylan famously said that hearing Presley for the first time was like “busting out of jail”. It was the feral, savage nature of both performers that greatly influenced the rock music to come. So, if the wild abandon of their early records was mostly what blazed the trial, then who made the “best” ones? Who is the real “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”?
That title in and of itself doesn’t really mean anything but we will use it here to identify – if we can – the artist that most exemplified all the hallmarks of this new music and who made the best records to showcase these traits. History has bestowed the title on Presley and, I think, with good reason. Perhaps Presley’s appeal can be boiled down to one thing and that one thing is everything. Everything. Elvis Presley truly had it all. And not just in the talent department. It is sad but true that on top of all of his abilities, in addition to his striking good looks, Elvis Presley was white. This made him more palatable to the general public. Barely. It’s true that early in his career there were many who railed against his music, his way of performing. Many considered him, at best, common “white trash” and, at worst, a degenerate. But he was white and in this he had one up on Little Richard. Is that all that divided the two in the end? Race relations in America at the time? Maybe and maybe not.
Comparing art is a fool’s errand. Fortunately, I’m a fool. However, in the case of Presley and Penniman, there is some merit to looking at their most influential records and measuring them against each other. Both artists – and the same can be said of many artists – made their most influential records in a relatively short period of time. Here, we will look at their first iconic releases and take them chronologically as they were released, as opposed to when they were recorded. This way, we will be able to see how history received this music, how these records stack up when compared to each other and how these two giants blazed a trail that many would tread in the decades to come. And perhaps we will see if one performer’s seminal records do indeed rise above the other’s.
July 19, 1954: “That’s All Right” — History has told the tale of Elvis Presley’s first release ad nauseam. The part of the story that most concerns us here is that this legendary recording was the result of raw emotion; frustration and rage. The breaking free from a yoke that was chafing. Rebelling against something that wasn’t working, that didn’t fit, that wasn’t right. That steaming hot Memphis summer, Sam Phillips had Elvis working with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Phillips was trying to find the sound, having the boys run down ballads and the like but they just couldn’t click. The boys took a break and, out of sheer disgruntlement, started playing around with this old Arthur Crudup tune. The constraints had been galling and this was the sound of freedom, escape. Sun 209 features the earthy sound of Elvis’ acoustic guitar and his higher pitched voice. The song rolls along at mid-tempo and while it possesses a distinct “hillbilly” sound, it also swaggers with an undeniable rhythm and blues groove. The combination of these two styles is the hallmark of Presley’s sound. This song was well known in Memphis and in places in the south and certainly those people making records below the Mason-Dixon Line were aware of it but the true import of “That’s All Right” was not fully appreciated until years later. Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time places “That’s All Right” at #113.
September 22, 1954: “Good Rockin’ Tonight” — Presley continued in the same vein with his version of this Roy Brown tune which served as EP’s sophomore release. Elvis throws himself into the song and Scotty makes a distinct statement. There is a savage if plaintive wail in Elvis’ exclamation “have you heard the news there’s good rockin’ tonight” and something playfully sinister when he drops down for “…tonight she’ll know I’m a mighty, mighty man”.
April 25, 1955: “Baby, Let’s Play House” — With this B side of his fourth Sun single, Presley shows a playful side, employing a hiccuping vocal style that Buddy Holly would make his trademark. Bassist Bill Black stands out on this track. This recording displays a casual nature that would become an indelible aspect of the rock music to come; although this song is not without some malice, as evidenced in the line “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man”. This single gave him his first national exposure when it peaked at #5 on Billboard’s Country Singles Chart in July of ’55.
August 20, 1955: “Mystery Train” — Another B side, this recording goes beyond just a passing understanding of Elvis Presley, the blues and that music’s expression of the horrors of life. Legendary rock journalist Greil Marcus found such weight in Presley’s work here that he titled his seminal book on rock ‘n’ roll and American culture Mystery Train. Marcus found “tremendous violence to the record” and it is considered an “enduring classic”. Here, Presley submits a haunting, echoing lament with a ghostly sound that features Elvis’ tweaked lyrics from the original recording by Junior Parker. In King’s version, he emerges on top. He is the victor, his passionate vocal declaring that, while this black locomotive had taken his baby once, “it never will again. Never will again”. There are shadows here but Presley is able to disperse them.
October, 1955: “Tutti Frutti” — “Little Richard burst onto the scene”. Say this about anyone else and it is a cliché. But to hear this record open with Little Richard shouting what has been called the most “inspired lyric in rock”: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bop-bop!”, seems the epitome of rocketing out of the gates even though Little Richard had been recording for some time. More so when you take into account that, to many experts, this record represents the starting point of rock ‘n’ roll. Additionally, I was fascinated to learn that – identical to the situation surrounding Presley’s recording of “That’s All Right” – things at a recording session were not going well for Little Richard, his wild exuberance not being captured on tape. During a break, out of sheer frustration, Penniman began pounding out a racy song he had been playing for years. The lyrics were sanitized – omitting references to male homosexual sex! – and in October of ’55 Little Richard was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. The honking saxes seem to simulate a vehicle blasting it’s horn and a driver shouting “gangway!!” “Tutti Frutti” is nothing less than historic. And consider this: “Tutti Frutti” comes in at #43 on Rolling Stone’s list – some 70 places above Presley’s debut record. It was also voted number one on a Mojo magazine list of “The Top 100 Records That Changed the World“.
January 27, 1956: “Heartbreak Hotel” — Taken after the onslaught of “Tutti Frutti”, “Heartbreak Hotel” seems tame. Certainly it is slick pop. Elvis’ echoey vocal is enabled by fine performances from Floyd Cramer on piano, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on double bass. With this number one song, EP began his assault on the mainstream, on ALL listeners, not just the kids. Only the second song he recorded after reaching the big time of RCA Records, a new era was beginning in Elvis Presley’s recording career.
March 1956: “Long Tall Sally” — And we’re back to the savagery. I suggest you put these songs together, in order, as a playlist; it is fascinating to hear the progression. The patented Little Richard vocal style is on display here and it is close to screaming. After white singer Pat Boone had put his homogenized stamp on “Tutti Frutti”, Little Richard wanted to record a song that was too fast for Boone to essay (Pat did eventually record “Long Tall Sally”). More lasciviousness – a direction rock would inevitably take as the years went by – is apparent in the assertion that Long Tall Sally is “built for speed”. In Boone’s version she is “built sweet”. While Elvis has courted the mainstream with “Heartbreak Hotel”, Little Richard is still hollering, trying to make records too hardcore for Pat Boone. #55 on Rolling Stone‘s list.
March 1956: “Slippin’ and Slidin'” — Nonsense lyrics are aided and abetted by Penniman’s pounding left hand. This track is made stellar in part by the great saxophone sound, a sound that graces most of Little Richard’s best records. Alvin “Red” Tyler and Lee Allen were reed men who played on much of the rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll that was being made in New Orleans in the ’50’s. Both eventually moved out West where they became in-demand session men, Allen even finishing his career playing with Stray Cats and the Blasters. Drummer Earl Palmer, who also played on Little Richard’s hits, has been heard on more records than any drummer not named Hal Blaine. Palmer was a member of the Wrecking Crew, made his own records for Liberty Records and played on countless television soundtracks.
March 23, 1956: “Tryin’ to Get to You” — This song is a flyer in our chronology. It was first released on Elvis’ debut LP for RCA but it had been recorded back at Sun in the summer of ’55. It’s a throwback of sorts and reminds the listener that the echo employed on “Heartbreak Hotel” was a continuation of a device used by Sam Phillips back in Memphis. Elvis Presley is playing piano on “Tryin’ to Get to You” and he lays down a passionate vocal with occasional hiccups. This early recording is perhaps somewhat validated but the searing version performed by King during the “sit-down” session of the “’68 Comeback Special”.
June 1956: “Rip It Up” — With this less frantic, mid-tempo number, Little Richard shows he is able to groove. “Rip It Up” features an absolutely blistering sax solo but perhaps the best thing about this tune doesn’t have much to do with Penniman. The lyrics are absolute, bang on, perfect ’50’s rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. They’re all about working hard all week to earn your pay for the weekend. Now that you’re flush, you’re gonna have a time. You pick up your girl and head to the dance. The words celebrate youthful carelessness and sacrificing fiscal responsibility for the joy of life; “But I don’t care if I spend my dough, ‘Cause tonight I’m gonna be one happy soul”.
June 1956: “Ready Teddy” — “Ready, set, go, man, go…” Once again, Little Richard’s band is cooking with the sax and drums just rolling. And here again he presents a song with iconic rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. Both this tune and the previous one were written by legends John Marascalco and Robert Blackwell. Hearing Little Richard deliver these words in his frenetic style is the pinnacle of the ’50’s experience; “All the flat top cats and the dungaree dolls are headed for the gym to the sock hop ball. The joint is really jumpin’, the cats are going wild. The music really sends me, I dig that crazy style…” The speed with which he delivers that last line is priceless.
July 13, 1956: “Don’t Be Cruel” — Elvis’ calendar year of 1956 is often called the most successful year any performer has ever enjoyed. King rolled on in the summer of that year with a double-barrelled assault on the charts. “Don’t Be Cruel” served as the A side of this single and “Hound Dog” was on the B side. Between them, both songs remained at #1 for eleven weeks and “Don’t Be Cruel” became EP’s biggest hit of this hit-making year; it sold four million copies in the last six months of 1956. A great guitar intro leads to a swaggering vocal from Presley. The crisp production has it sounding not quite like pop but very smooth nonetheless.
July 13, 1956: “Hound Dog” — This may be the most savage record of the 1950’s. There’s almost no lyrics, really, just words for Elvis to growl and shout. As dominant as Presley is, it is guitarist Scotty Moore that almost steals the show. On “Hound Dog”, Scotty virtually invents rock guitar. His two torrid solos and his ominous strumming while King sings provide the template for future generations. The only negative may be that the venerable Jordanaires are a bit out of place. The feral quality of this record matches anything that wild man Penniman released.
January 4, 1957: “Too Much” — More swagger here. Actually, there may not be a better example of swagger to be found anywhere else in the 1950’s. Scotty Moore shines again but mostly “Too Much” is all about Presley’s strutting vocal; “Well, every time I kiss a-your – sweet lips – I can feel m’heart go – flip, flip. I’m such a fool for – your charms. Take me back a-baby, in your arms…” The way his voice cracks on “take”. Another slickly produced record that nevertheless sounds cocky and sneering.
February 1957: “Lucille” — Little Richard’s first release of 1957 begins with a sound that could pass for 1977, really. It is what we white men with a passion for black music call a “stone groove”. Penniman does some strutting of his own on this track but still fits in some hollers; “A-Luceeelle-AH!” His vocal is breathless and it seems he can’t wait to get to the next word. Little Richard made the song a standard and it has been covered countless times by almost every act that has ever mattered.
June 1957: “Jenny, Jenny” — More breathless and frantic vocalizing show that the mad man from Macon hadn’t slowed down yet. His devotion to the exaltation of his “Whoooo!”‘s between the “Jenny, Jenny”‘s make some of the lyrics almost indecipherable and in this we find the savage nature at the root of songs like this and “Hound Dog”; it’s not about the enunciation. It’s about the exhilaration. These two performers would often rather sacrifice the integrity of the English language in favour of belting it out – hollering and hiccupping and grunting their way through a song. Sometimes, that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about. On “Jenny, Jenny”, Little Richard’s reed men are again right in the pocket.
August 1957: “Keep a-Knockin'” — I wrote an article on Little Richard some time ago and the crux of it was just how far and wide his influence spread. But don’t take my word for it – although, you’re always safe to – look it up yourself. No less than the greatest rock drummer who ever lived, Led Zeppelin’s John Henry Bonham, was inspired by Little Richard and the smoking drum intro to “Keep a-Knockin'”. Little Richard’s record goes at a breakneck pace and is an absolute freight train. Everything a headbanger gets from a frantic speed metal song you can get from this recording. It is the very essence of rock ‘n’ roll exuberance; the celebration of life. It is joyous. It makes you look down at the speedometer and realize you’re going well over the speed limit. It is every, single, blessed thing you want from a rock ‘n’ roll record. And the sax solo is off the chain.
January 1958: “Good Golly, Miss Molly” — Along with his excellent “Send Me Some Lovin'”, this may be the most polished Little Richard ever got. This iconic song has gone on to be recorded hundreds of times. I like what I read in an article on this track. It said that “like all of (Little Richard’s) early hits, it quickly became a rock ‘n’ roll standard”. A typically exciting Penniman vocal combined with a catchy title, some pounding piano, suggestive lyrics and a honking sax solo and the man has given us another gem.
Us Elvis People probably all have a healthy loathe on for Col. Tom Parker. But something about the way Parker managed “his boy” always kept Presley in the spotlight, even when King was overseas serving in the Army. Almost every other artist from this era could tell a sad story of getting robbed in some way by managers, producers, agents and/or promoters. These robberies oftentimes can make it difficult for a performer to continue enjoying a lucrative and vibrant career. This happened to Little Richard, who claimed that the label with which he had all of his hits, Specialty Records, withheld royalties. Perhaps more than this, though, was Penniman’s conviction that he was destined to leave rock ‘n’ roll and enter a seminary and to record gospel music.
As we look through this group of recordings, we can see that each performer warrants the lofty places they hold in the history of rock music. If we look at the sheer unbridled energy of a singer’s music, perhaps Little Richard holds an edge over Elvis Presley. Should “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” be possessed of the strongest primal force? If the holder of that title should be a mover of units and a ruler of charts, well, then no one in history can touch Elvis Aaron. Little Richard fans may be quick to point out that Elvis may not have stuck primarily to blues-based rock. King supporters will counter with the argument that Elvis was able to conquer all charts with many different types of recordings.
Elvis was offered movies, portraying delinquent types and tearing through songs like “Jailhouse Rock” (talk about a savage recording). Little Richard sang in movies but was never going to be offered the role of Danny Fisher in King Creole. This, of course, comes down to “race”. In the 1950’s, Little Richard, a black man, was never going to get the same opportunities as Elvis Presley.
So, who really deserves the crown? You have to give it to Presley because he was the whole package. But let me leave you with a few thoughts. Elvis Presley himself was a fan of Little Richard as evidenced by the fact that Presley recorded Penniman’s songs – NOT vice versa. Four of Little Richard’s songs from this list were covered by Presley. Also, Little Richard’s debut album, Here’s Little Richard, is revered by many and considered the earliest of the truly great rock albums. The same – perhaps – cannot be said of Presley’s debut, although that record sold and charted like few others in history. And the last thing that may put Little Richard a notch ahead of Elvis Presley? Little Richard is alive and living today. It didn’t kill him. Little Richard is a survivor.
UPDATE: Richard Penniman died in Tullahoma, Tennessee on May 9, 2020. He was 87.