Tag Archives: 1957

Still with us: Little Richard

Our premise, revisited: We are not even two months into 2016, and David Bowie is gone. So are Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson. So are Maurice White, Vanity and Otis Clay, as are Glenn Frey, Gary Loizzo and Dan Hicks.

Time, then — well past time, really — to appreciate four music greats who are still with us. These are my four. Yours may be different. We started with the eldest, Chuck Berry. We continue with …

The legend: Little Richard.

Age: 83.

Still performing? Apparently not. My friend Jeff Giles reported in September 2013 that Little Richard had retired. He now lives in Nashville but doesn’t get out much, according to “Prayers For Richard,” a fine piece by David Ramsey in December’s Oxford American.

What we must acknowledge but won’t dwell on: All those folks who got down on Richard Penniman over his style, his sexuality, his sensuality and/or his spirituality. Basically everything that made him great.

Where I came in: Hm. Not really sure. Seems like I’ve known about Little Richard since forever, but I never bought one of his records until I picked up a Specialty Records greatest-hits compilation sometime in the ’80s. It might have been after his career was revived after his memorable film appearance in “Down And Out In Beverly Hills” in 1986. It’s still the only Little Richard record I own.

Don’t take my word for it: As a suburban London kid in the ’50s, David Bowie sent away for two pictures of Little Richard. He eventually received one, “dog-eared and torn and, adding insult to injury, sized at 6-by-8 instead of the expected whopper.” Years later, that old picture of Little Richard sat on Bowie’s piano “in the original Woolworths frame I bought for it over 4o years ago, a small piece of yellowed Sellotape holding its ripped edges together.”

My evening with Little Richard: I’ve had two, actually, and was thrilled to have them both. He twice played our local casino. The first time was at least a decade ago. I got one of the little prayer books his people handed out after that show, but I’m not sure I still have it. The second and last time was in May 2007. What I wrote then:

I’ve seen and heard so much music over the years, yet I can honestly say it’s exciting to see Little Richard, and to see him for a second time.

The man is 74, yet still pounding the piano, belting out rock ‘n’ roll and the blues and doing a little preaching. He was in fine form, feisty as always and in fine voice. He’s backed by a scorching 10-piece show band — three saxes, trumpet, two guitars, bass, two drummers and a second keyboard player.

Little Richard was looking pretty, even if a bout with sciatica forced him to walk onto the stage on crutches. He wore a lemon-colored suit, its jacket covered with rhinestones, and a lime-colored shirt.

Perhaps my favorite moment: His cover of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It).” No, no, no, it was the giddy, thrilled reaction of a Japanese woman, one of several attractive ladies invited up on stage to dance, as she scooted off stage after shaking Little Richard’s hand.

To be honest, words fail to convey the essence of Little Richard’s greatness.

So, we’ll heed Little Richard and do as he says … shut up!

Appreciate the greatness:

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“Tutti Frutti,” 1955. A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom, indeed!

“Lucille,” 1957. My mom was Lucille. This song was not about my mom.

“Good Golly Miss Molly,” 1958. No less than the great Tom Jones calls this his favorite Saturday night record. “It’s tremendous,” he tells Mojo magazine in the March issue. “I thought he was a girl at first, covering Billy Haley and the Comets, but he did it first. The lyrics were more risque!” Sir Tom and Little Richard duetted on this one on his variety show in November 1969.

All by Little Richard, all from “Little Richard’s Grooviest 17 Original Hits,” 1968. My only Little Richard record. It’s out of print, but all these tunes are available digitally.

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“Bama Lama Bama Loo,” Little Richard, 1964, from “Shag On Down By The Union Hall,” a 1996 compilation of his classic Specialty Records sessions from the ’50s and ’60s.

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Filed under February 2016, Sounds

This land was his land

What a time we have lived in.

That realization comes more often as those of us of a certain age get older. When we were kids in the ’60s, there were four TV channels.

On those four channels, there was a thing called the variety show. You could hear some comedic and dramatic monologues, see some skits and production numbers, and hear Broadway songs, pop standards, pop hits and — after a while, grudgingly, it often seemed — rock music.

Folk music was part of that rich cultural stew, too. That’s where I must have heard Pete Seeger and his songs.

In a lifetime of listening to music, his songs are part of the foundation of everything I know. They’re some of the first songs I ever came to know as a grade-school kid in the ’60s. “This Land Is Your Land” was the most memorable. But I also came to know “If I Had A Hammer,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Rock Island Line” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

But as I grew up and my tastes changed, folk music just wasn’t my bag. John Prine and Steve Goodman were as close I got to folk. Pete Seeger was, and is, no less great, but I’ve long known more of his songs done as covers than as his originals. I don’t have any Pete Seeger records.

Peter Paul Mary Moving LP

“This Land Is Your Land,” Peter, Paul and Mary, from “Moving,” 1963. Also available digitally.

My dad had this record, so we played it endlessly as kids. This song and “Puff,” one of the saddest songs I know, over and over.

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“Rock Island Line,” Johnny Cash, from “Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar,” 1957. Also available digitally.

My dad loved trains, so of course we loved this train song. It’s the first cut on Johnny Cash’s debut LP. (I bought this record in the late ’80s, and only recently realized it was his first LP.)

Sharon Jones DK Naturally LP

“This Land Is Your Land,” Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, from “Naturally,” 2005. Also available digitally.

Mavis Staples We'll Never Turn Back CD

“Eyes On The Prize” and “We Shall Not Be Moved,” Mavis Staples, from “We’ll Never Turn Back,” 2007. Also available digitally.

(I used to have “Goodnight Irene” on a Ry Cooder record, but it went out in one of the Great Record Purges.)

All these covers inspired by Pete Seeger, a national treasure whose work is timeless, whose influence endures.

Please visit our companion blog, The Midnight Tracker, for more vintage vinyl, one side at a time.

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Filed under January 2014, Sounds

Nighttime in the switching yard

It has been hot and steamy in our corner of Wisconsin for much longer than usual this summer. It is, in reality, a typical Wisconsin summer. But not one we’ve had for several years.

On nights like these, muggy nights that follow muggy days that feel like you have to swim through the air, it takes me back to Grandma’s house.

Grandma and Grandpa rented an old house that backed onto the railroad tracks in their small town in south-central Wisconsin. An old wood frame house with cheap asphalt siding that mimicked bricks.

To me, it was just Grandma’s house. One of my junior high friends came along once. He took one look at the place and was mortified.

Grandma and Grandpa were poor. Grandpa was disabled, forced from work in his 50s by a heart condition and then emphysema. They lived on a pension and Social Security. They’d been poor for a long time by the time my friend saw them in the early ’70s.

When we came to visit, my brother and I would share the smallest of three small upstairs bedrooms. There was no air conditioning, only a small sliding screen wedged into the window. On sultry nights, we’d plop into the old twin beds and hope for a breeze.

What I remember most vividly about those nights, aside from the heat that enveloped you, were the sounds of the rail yard. It was out our window, across the small back yard, not even 100 yards to the east.

We’d hear the diesel locomotives rev up, reach a sustained pitch and then throttle back down and they shuffled in and out of the rail yard. Later at night, or early in the morning, we’d hear them idling.

The heat made it hard enough to sleep. The sounds of the rail yard only compounded the problem. You eventually faded, though.

Now if you came all this way and thought you were getting a Warren Zevon song, well, sorry. That tune doesn’t have the right vibe.

Rather, it’s this, which drags along like all parties are being forced to play on a hot, steamy night in a ramshackle old place hard by the tracks.

“Night Train,” Louis Prima, from “The Wildest!” 1957.

That’s Sam Butera blowing that lonely sax.

(Still hacked off about no Zevon? Come on. If I’d headlined this post “Hot August Night,” you’d have passed without reading a word.)

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Filed under August 2010, Sounds

They still go in threes

Koko Taylor. Sam Butera. David Carradine. All gone in the last day.

Yep, they still go in threes.

I’ll leave Miss Taylor to the blues enthusiasts and Mr. Carradine to the film enthusiasts.

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Sam Butera, who was 81 when he died Wednesday in Las Vegas, almost certainly is the least known of the three. He was the frenzied yet disciplined sax player who helped forge Louis Prima’s wild, swinging jazz sound in the ’50s and ’60s. It wasn’t rock, but you could see it in the distance.

Butera and his band, the Witnesses, helped make Prima one of the top draws in Vegas. That’s Butera above at right, on stage with Prima and singer Keely Smith at the Sahara in 1957. Prima and Butera, native sons of New Orleans, played together from 1954 to 1975.

Here’s what Prima’s widow, singer Gia Maione, told the Las Vegas Sun:

“Louis Prima’s true ace in the hole for 21 years was Sam Butera.  I don’t care what vocalists were with Louis, his true ace in the hole was Sam Butera. Side by side, Louis and Sam kicked Las Vegas’ butt for 21 years. …

“I really do not believe over all of these years that Sam Butera got the accolades he deserved as a tenor saxophone player. I defy anyone to name someone that played better tenor sax that Sam Butera.”

Even if you can’t place Butera, you know his sound.

David Lee Roth’s cover of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody?” That’s Butera’s arrangement and sax solo. Butera never got paid for it.

That Gap ad featuring “Jump, Jive an’ Wail?” That’s Butera’s arrangement and sax solo. Butera was paid $371 and received three pairs of pants that didn’t quite fit. He had to pay to have them tailored.

Here, then, the real sound of Sam Butera.

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“Night Train” and “Oh Marie,” both featuring Sam Butera on sax, from “The Wildest,” Louis Prima, 1957. As the liner notes say, the former is a “slow, bluesy” instrumental. The latter, an “Italian evergreen,” swings. (The album link is to a remastered 2002 CD release.)

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“St. Louis Blues,” featuring Sam Butera on sax, from “Louis Prima: Collector’s Series,” a 1991 CD compilation. Ain’t nothing bluesy about this rave-up from 1962. Butera’s scorching sax sets up Prima’s wild scatting.

Want to learn more about Sam Butera? That story in the Las Vegas paper is highly recommended, as is a 2000 interview by the Sun and an appreciation done by his hometown paper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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Filed under June 2009, Sounds

Three under the tree, Day 17

Tonight, it’s Christmas with Elvis, but you needn’t flee. There will be no “Blue Christmas.” Oh, no, we have other swell tunes under the tree.

As we’ve written before, we dig Elvis. We didn’t always dig him, but we came around. We don’t dig everything he did, but we appreciate his greatness.

We especially don’t dig everything he did on his Christmas records. However, when he sings the Christmas blues, it’s just fine.

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“Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” Elvis Presley, from “Elvis’ Christmas Album,” 1957.

Recorded Sept. 7, 1957, with backing vocals by the Jordanaires and Millie Kirkland. This is the first cut on the album. It starts with the Jordanaires’ sweet harmonies — “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas …” and some gentle piano. But then Elvis jumps in and gets downright nasty.

Elvis cut this album in three days at the end of a summer tour. This tune — originally titled “Christmas Blues” — was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who also wrote “Jailhouse Rock,” which came out that year. According to Michael Hill’s liner notes on “Elvis Christmas,” a 2006 compilation of Elvis’ Christmas records from 1957 and 1971:

“The arrangement had a ribald, R&B feel, (and) the lyrics were filled with quick-witted double entendres.”

Indeed it did.

elvisworldxmaslp

“Merry Christmas Baby,” Elvis Presley, from “Elvis Sings the Wonderful World Of Christmas,” 1971.

Recorded May 15, 1971. Elvis takes the tune made famous by Charles Brown and does it as a straight, gritty Memphis blues number.

Though both of these records are out of print as such, they’re available on that single CD, “Elvis Christmas,” with all the cuts on both albums intact.

elvisreconsiderbabycd

“Merry Christmas Baby” (alternate edit), Elvis Presley, from “Reconsider Baby,” 1985. It’s out of print, and pricey if you can find it.

Recorded May 15, 1971. It’s the same tune, but this version runs a little over 7 minutes. The original clocked in at 5:37. This version comes off a 1985 record that collected Elvis’ blues tunes. It’s my favorite Elvis record, and that it’s on blue vinyl is just icing on the cake.

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Filed under Christmas music, December 2008, Sounds

Another day at Ray’s Corner

Longtime readers know we occasionally stop by Ray’s Corner to listen to tunes spirited from my dad’s music collection.

So we’re back there on this Father’s Day, which this year follows Dad’s birthday by exactly one day. Dad turned 83 yesterday. He doesn’t get around too well anymore, but he’s still sharp.

Here, then, are a couple of tunes you might hear at Ray’s Corner. It’s the apartment with the loud music, and the place where the martinis are made of gin with the vermouth bottle held about a foot away.

They’re kind of laid back. Perfect for a lazy summer Sunday.

“Night Train,” Louis Prima, from “The Wildest,” 1957.

Dad was 31, and he and Mom had probably just learned I was on the way when this album was released in January 1957. It really is the wildest! It’s mostly swing, jazz and blues, but you can see rock and roll in the distance.

“Blue Light Boogie,” 1950, Louis Jordan and Trio, from “The Best of Louis Jordan,” released on vinyl in 1977 and on CD in 1989.

Dad was 25, still a single guy, when this tune hit the charts in August 1950. He was working as the agent at the Railway Express Agency office in the depot in his hometown of Elroy, Wisconsin. He was living at home, but you can be sure he got out and heard this tune on the jukeboxes of the day.

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Filed under June 2008, Sounds

Midnight Tracker sampler, Vol. 3

Before David Lee Roth gone solo in 1985, there was Louis Prima.

Before Kid Rock at the Grammys, there was Prima at Keely Smith’s side.

Tonight on The Midnight Tracker, we have proof.

Check out Side 1 of “The Wildest!” That’s the classic 1957 album by Prima, Smith and their incendiary backing band, Sam Butera and the Witnesses.

Here’s a medley that helped set the tone for rock ‘n’ roll … even if the tunes that make up the medley were already 30 to 40 years old when Prima put them together.

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“Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” Louis Prima, from “The Wildest!” 1957.

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Filed under February 2008, Sounds