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Not Fade Away - Reissue Review from Issue #50 March-April 2004

Little Richard

Get Down With It!: The Okeh Sessions (Epic / Legacy)

In 1966, Little Richard was in the same boat as most of the others who had invented rock ‘n’ roll little more than ten years earlier — washed ashore by the British invasion, by changing tastes, and by the inability to either get with the times or make the times roll to their own beat.

Of all the fitful albums and singles he cut for various labels after his history-making Specialty recordings, these 1966 tracks, originally released as The Explosive Little Richard, were among the best, if less than epochal.

Six of the tracks were recorded the same day, September 2, 1966, at CBS Studio D in Hollywood, giving the project an assembly-line tone. The “D” must stand for “dead,” for the room muffled Richard’s typically exuberant piano playing, the arrangements of Arthur Wright, and the playing of Johnny Guitar Watson and others.

Larry Williams, who’d been a Little Richard acolyte in the 1950s (“Williams’ “Short Fat Fannie” to Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” got their relative artistic proportions exactly right) produced, and wrote some of the material. Among the originals, Williams and Watson’s “Poor Dog” may have been Richard’s best track since the 1950s (I bought the single), though in retrospect, the me-first message seems at odds with the spirit of the time; the theme of the civil rights movement, after all, was not “I Shall Overcome”.

The covers go by the book. “Land Of 1000 Dances” copies Wilson Pickett’s then-current hit with shameless fidelity, while “Money” can’t compare to the Beatles’ version (which, ironically, was influenced by their obsession with Little Richard). And throughout these Hollywood sessions, the ineptness of the unidentified drummer is a distraction.

The CD bonus tracks, however, are a different story. Recorded at Abbey Road in London in December 1966, these final four tracks, produced by Norman Hurricane Smith, sound bright and vibrant, especially Richard’s piano playing. Two lesser-known and atypical Fats Domino songs (the jamming “Rocking Chair” and the Mardi Gras Indian march of “Rosemary”) allow Richard both to connect with his roots and to shed some inhibitions.

“Hound Dog” is terrific, with Richard perhaps imagining himself comfortably wearing Big Mama Thornton’s oversized dress. But the killer discovery here is a Richard original called “Get Down With It”, a failed UK single of the time that’s as unbowed and unchained as the best of his Specialty recordings. It’s not “Tutti Frutti”, but it’s all-rootie.

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Originally Featured in Issue #50 March-April 2004

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