“A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!” Hello all, in this edition of Tim’s Cover Story we review Tutti Frutti, an early pop song by one of the great performers and innovators of rock music. According to Wikipedia,
Rolling Stone magazine declared that the song still contains what has to be considered the most inspired rock lyric ever recorded …. In 2010, the US Library of Congress National Recording Registry added the recording to its registry, stating that the hit, with its original a cappella introduction, heralded a new era in music.
And they’re correct – that unforgettable line, a verbal description of an explosive drum lick, remains one of the great rock lyrics. What’s more, it fits perfectly with Little Richard’s epic vocal style.
Little Richard and Tutti Frutti:
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to Macon, Georgia in 1951 where we encounter a 19-year-old black musician named Richard Penniman, the third of twelve children of a local pastor, who is trying to break into the music business. Although the great Nat King Cole had broken the color barrier in pop music, the road to success was much more challenging for rhythm and blues performers, and particularly so for the early rockers. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, the influential Billboard Magazine ratings were separated into different genres (classical, pop, gospel, …). Until 1949, one of their categories was “Race records” (!). Below is the cover of a “race records” catalog by Victor Records.
At the time, the “race records” term encompassed blues, spirituals and soul music. Now although white people could certainly purchase race records and as time went by they bought them in increasing numbers, segregation of records into race-specific genres greatly limited the distribution and sales for that type of music. I would wager that my white suburban record stores didn’t offer albums from the ‘race records’ category for quite a while.
In 1949 Billboard changed the name of this category to “rhythm and blues” at the suggestion of one of their journalists, the great Jerry Wexler. We have encountered Jerry already as a producer for Aretha Franklin, and he would go on to a fabulous career as a rhythm and blues pioneer. Wikipedia quotes Jerry’s reasoning:
“Race” was a common term then, a self-referral used by blacks…On the other hand, “Race Records” didn’t sit well…I came up with a handle I thought suited the music well – ‘rhythm and blues’… a label more appropriate to more enlightened times.”
If producers and music-biz types were willing to pigeon-hole rhythm and blues icons like Ray Charles, how would they deal with a flamboyantly bisexual black man who wore heavy makeup, sported capes, and cavorted around the stage like a drag queen on speed? Little Richard is reported to have claimed, “I am the King – and Queen – of rock and roll!” Yes, Little Richard was “pushing the envelope” in many directions, not just in rock music. Below is a publicity photo of him from 1960.
Although Penniman was recording songs as early as 1951, his career languished until he made connections with New Orleans rock pioneers like Fats Domino. Little Richard then fronted a band called The Upsetters and started to make a name for himself. Like his white counterpart Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard was a dynamic, high-energy performer. He would lift up his leg while pounding the keyboard, or jump up and play while standing atop the piano. Once his records began to click and he started to headline musical shows, Little Richard and The Upsetters could work crowds into a fever pitch.
This caused problems particularly in the South, where audiences at the time were strictly segregated by race with whites on the main floor and blacks confined to the balcony. However, at his performances members of the audience frequently jumped into the aisles to dance. Local white supremacist groups could see the writing on the wall – the North Alabama White Citizens Council warned that rock and roll had the potential to “bring the races together.” Yes, the White Citizens Council realized that if you start youth dancing, who knows where that could lead?
In September 1955 Little Richard began a recording session with Bumps Blackwell as producer and using Fats Domino’s backing band. The session was not going well, as they were unable to duplicate Little Richard’s high-energy live performances on tape. However, while Little Richard and his band were on break Blackwell heard them singing Tutti Frutti. The song would have to be “cleaned up” for a record, as the original lyrics supposedly included the following lines:
Tutti Frutti, good booty
If it don’t fit, don’t force it
You can grease it, make it easy
Are those lyrics sufficiently graphic, and sufficiently unsuitable for the mass market? Blackwell brought in songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up the song for the pop market, and she came up with the lyrics on the record. The song was quickly recorded and released in fall 1955 whereupon it immediately shot up the Billboard charts, reaching #2 on the rhythm and blues chart and even #17 on the Billboard pop chart. Little Richard’s musical career had been jump-started and he is still performing today.
Here is Little Richard lip-synching Tutti Frutti, from the 1956 film Don’t Knock The Rock, produced by Alan Freed, who introduces Little Richard in the video clip.
The song is simply the 45 LP record with truly terrible lip-synching by Richard. Although the musicians in his band are jiving and bopping, Little Richard is almost rigidly stationary – a situation radically different from his live performances where he was dynamic and bursting with energy. You can almost hear the director shouting, “Whatever you do, Richard, don’t gyrate!” Perhaps the movie producers mistakenly thought that this song, a sanitized version of a thoroughly obscene tune, would suddenly become chaste if Little Richard was not moving while he lip-synched it?
OK, you deserve a genuine live performance of Tutti Frutti by Little Richard, and here is one. I don’t know the exact date for the video, but you can clearly get an idea of the excitement he must have brought to the stage. Can you imagine encountering him on the chitlin’ circuit in the South in the early 50s? Little Richard’s vocals and piano playing are featured front and center here, and there is a great saxophone solo in the middle of the song.
You can easily see why this song is so important in the early history of rock music. Little Richard’s boogie-woogie piano sets the beat, and the backup band is really rocking. However, it is Richard Penniman’s unforgettable vocals that propel Tutti Frutti into a class by itself. When they heard Little Richard’s voice, millions of youngsters realized “Hey, this is the authentic sound of rock ‘n roll!” If you listen to the vocal stylings of rockers like Bob Seger, John Fogerty, Rod Stewart, or AC/DC’s Bon Scott, it is clear that they are simply channeling Little Richard. Paul McCartney idolized Little Richard — the first song Paul ever sang was Long Tall Sally — and Paul’s “hard rock” vocals are a direct copy of Little Richard’s epic style. Paul acknowledges this by calling it his “Little Richard” voice. Other artists such as John Lennon, Mick Jagger and David Bowie who did not copy Little Richard’s vocal style nevertheless looked to him as an inspirational figure and tried to model their own careers after his.
Pat Boone and Tutti Frutti:
Once Tutti Frutti hit the record charts, the song was quickly picked up by the young Nashville artist Pat Boone. If you were a teenager in the 50s, your parents might well prohibit you from buying records produced by a gender-bending, dangerously sexual black artist such as Little Richard (although you might secretly buy Little Richard’s record, hide it in a closet and play it when no adult was listening). However, surely your folks would not object to Pat Boone. Here was a throwback to your parents’ generation – a handsome, soothing, comfortable, wholesome crooner, an outspoken icon of middle-class morality.
Here is a 1960 publicity photo of Pat Boone — looking incredibly wholesome and handsome. And here he is singing Tutti Frutti on Canadian television. Note the introduction: “and here to sing it in person is the man who made it a hit … Pat Boone.”
Pat is sitting on a stool in a soda shoppe, surrounded by dancers in poodle skirts. It appears that this is a live performance. Note that Boone notably alters and softens the lyrics, presumably to mute the rather obvious sensuality of the original (“she’s a real gone cookie” — WTF?). As the headline in the video clip states, “[Boone] made a smoothie out of Tutti Frutti”. Since we will be rather critical of Pat Boone’s world-view, in all fairness we should point out that he had a terrific voice and apparently he genuinely admired rock music. He was the ideal performer to “clean up” rhythm and blues. By converting the rough and sexually charged music into a form that a white middle-class audience could accept, he greatly increased the reach of rock and roll in its early days.
Here is Pat Boone’s studio version of Tutti Frutti:
Pat Boone enjoyed great commercial success in the late 50s. In addition to covers of several Little Richard songs, he also covered songs by Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter and The Flamingos. He was a fixture on the Billboard pop charts beginning in the mid-1950s. Like so many other artists of his day, Boone’s pop music career did not survive the British Invasion, at which time he turned to gospel and country music. He also hosted the highly successful TV show The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom and appeared in a number of movies.
Pat Boone took seriously his image as a righteous dude (perhaps “prude” would be more appropriate). He made headlines by refusing to kiss his co-star Shirley Jones in an early film April Love. In recent years he has stated that liberalism reminds him of cancer, with its “filthy black cells.” He has also assumed the mantle of strident anti-gay advocate that was previously identified with Anita Bryant. From his Wikipedia bio:
On December 6, 2008 Boone wrote an article for WorldNetDaily wherein he drew analogies between recent gay rights protests and recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. … In it, he asserted that marriage is a biblically ordained institution, which the government has no part in defining … He concluded by warning that unless they’re checked, the “hedonistic, irresponsible, blindly selfish goals and tactics of homegrown sexual jihadists will escalate into acts vile, violent and destructive.”
A good example of Boone’s uptight morality is his 1958 book of advice for teens and particularly young women Twixt Twelve and Twenty. Let’s get one thing straight right away – any book with “Twixt” in the title is bound to suck, and this book does not disappoint. Boone establishes his folksy cred by liberally sprinkling the book with phrases like “chillun” and “taint true.” The book is in large part a jeremiad on the terrible dangers of pre-marital sex. He provides teen readers with homilies such as “Kissing for fun is like playing with a beautiful candle in a room full of dynamite!” Boone should have seriously considered suing his ghostwriter – but he was more likely laughing all the way to the bank, as Twixt Twelve and Twenty was one of the best-selling nonfiction books of 1958.
Additional Remarks on Little Richard:
Now back to Little Richard. A few early black rockers took a tolerant view of being ‘covered’ by white artists (they might say ‘The covers reached a larger audience than my records ever could, and thus more people enjoyed the music I created’), But others were infuriated that their artistic product was being ripped off. This was particularly irritating as the cover was often decidedly inferior to the original, or the cover version was simply a note-for-note copy of the original. To compound the insult, it was not unusual for race records publishers to sell the rights to the song for a pittance.
Little Richard is definitely in the “pissed off” category on this issue. He feels that he invented rock and roll — and it’s hard to argue with a guy who gave lessons in showmanship to both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when they opened for his British tours. It was irritating to Little Richard that Pat Boone covered several of his songs (in addition to Tutti Frutti, Pat covered Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly and Rip it Up), but it was particularly galling that Boone’s cover of Tutti Frutti outsold his original! This still rankles the proud Richard Penniman; in an interview with Washington Post writer Richard Harrington, he stated:
They didn’t want me to be in the white guys’ way … I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of rockers’ way, because that’s where the money is. When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out … They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone upon the dresser and me in the drawer ’cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.
Despite his phenomenal career, Richard Penniman has encountered numerous setbacks and bumps in the road. Following his breakthrough hit Tutti Frutti, he had 18 hit records over the following three years. However, at the height of his popularity he shocked the world by retiring temporarily to become a minister. Penniman also struggled with decades-long dependence on alcohol, cocaine, heroin and PCP. However he has survived all this and is still performing today, more than 60 years into his career. He has received virtually every honor available to pop performers, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their inaugural class of 1986. His induction bio for that ceremony cited his “spine-tingling rock and roll” – Amen to that!