In memory of the great Little Richard, we present this chapter from my forthcoming book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1). The chapter was previously shared with my paid patrons on August 1st of 2019. This is its first public appearance.
LITTLE RICHARD: The Girl Can’t Help It
Written by Bobby Troup
Produced by Bumps Blackwell
Single, Specialty Records, 1956
Rock ‘n’ roll and the movies have been joined in hot connubial bliss ever since the 1955 release of The Blackboard Jungle catapulted Bill Haley & his Comets to sudden, unexpected stardom by using the group’s then-obscure B-side track “Rock Around The Clock” as a musical shorthand for teen rebellion. “Rock Around The Clock” went one-two-three o’clock-four o’clock-ROCK! to # 1, seemingly out of nowhere, establishing the starting point for what Billboard would eventually refer to as The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era. As Buck Owens would later note, the movies could make you a big star.
In 1956, The Girl Can’t Help It became the first great rock ‘n’ roll movie, and it’s still one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll movies of all time. It has comedy and chops far beyond the reach of any quickie jukebox flick, sex appeal courtesy of the gorgeous bombshell Jayne Mansfield, and a steady barrage of rock ‘n’ roll luminaries (Eddie Cochran! Fats Domino! Gene freakin’ Vincent! The Platters! Julie London…?!). It’s highlighted by simply incandescent turns by the right Reverend Richard Penniman, the one and only Little Richard. The sight of Little Richard belting out the title tune during the film’s opening sequence is nothing short of rock ‘n’ roll history boppin’ on before your very eyes (and tappin’ feet).
ElStranded in this conservative, straight-laced world of the 1950s, Little Richard was The Georgia Peach, a wild and effeminate black man, flamboyant, a strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. His performances were electrifying, pounding, an irresistible symphony of WOOOOO! A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom. In the late ’50s, only Jerry Lee Lewis could match the sheer fervor of Little Richard. Little Richard was as bright a star as this dull world had ever seen.
And he was certain that he was going to Hell.
Richard was raised by the Gospel, a believer in The Good Book and its spiritual music. The God that made him made him different. He liked flash. He liked attention. He was drawn to sing what would be called The Devil’s Music. And he was drawn to other men. Salvation. Sin. This was the tug of war that would play out in his consciousness, his conscience: a gay rock ‘n’ roll star who believed in the promise of a Heaven for the righteous, but who knew (or thought he knew) that who he was and what he did would condemn him to the pits for all eternity.
He did it anyway. The boy couldn’t help it. Damned. Torpedoed. Full speed ahead.
The dichotomy of Little Richard’s raucous hedonism and his belief in a wrathful God simmered tensely in a string of records that helped define the best of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. With showmanship patterned after equally-flamboyant predecessor Esquerita and talent bestowed upon him by a deity perhaps more understanding than Richard would have hoped, Little Richard’s records burned with passion and verve. “Tutti Frutti.” “Long Tall Sally.” “Slippin’ And Slidin’.” “Rip It Up.” “Ready Teddy.” “Lucille.” “Jenny, Jenny.” “Keep A-Knockin’.” “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Boogie-woogie as rock ‘n’ roll, all released within a magic, manic burst of sweat from 1955 to 1959. As a new decade dawned, Little Richard had already repented. He cast aside the sound of Lucifer, renounced who he was and whom he loved, though both would continue to tug at him. He could never be just a God-fearing man. He was legend. He still is, and forever will he remain. Can’t help it.
In the opening of the film The Girl Can’t Help It, Little Richard embodies both the threat and the liberation of rock ‘n’ roll with greater potency than any other performer could have, including Jerry Lee Lewis, including even Elvis, including any subsequent Johnny Rotten-come-lately. Won’t you kindly be aware: The Georgia Peach had a lot of what they call The Most. It wasn’t a curse, and it wasn’t sacrilege. It was a blessing from a benevolent God who wants us to sing, and wants us to love. The Devil has no music to call his own; music comes from Heaven, no matter how earthly or earthy its expression. Can I get an amen?
Same thing, really. Rest in peace, our Georgia Peach.
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Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 134 essays about 134 tracks, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).