Long Tall Sally: Little Richard; Elvis Presley; The Beatles

Hello there! Our song this week is Long Tall Sally. This is a great ‘roots’ R&B song. We will review the original version by Little Richard. We will then discuss a cover version by Elvis, and a second cover by The Beatles.

Little Richard, Long Tall Sally:

Richard Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932. He was the third of twelve children of a local pastor. At an early age, Richard showed considerable musical ability both in playing saxophone and singing in his family’s gospel choir at the Pentecostal church.

Penniman’s early opportunities were limited because his family refused to allow him to perform secular music. However, at the age of 16 he left home and began performing on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” and he also was featured as a drag performer in some vaudeville shows.

Although Penniman was recording songs as early as 1951, he found it difficult to break into the recording scene. He took the stage name “Little Richard,” learned how to play boogie-woogie piano, and fronted a band called The Upsetters. Below is a photo of Little Richard in the mid-1950s.

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At this point, Little Richard’s fortunes began to improve dramatically. The management at Specialty Records hooked Richard up with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Blackwell had previously worked with R&B legend Ray Charles, and Blackwell believed that Little Richard had the potential to be as successful as Charles.

During a break in a recording session, Blackwell heard Little Richard and his band playing a smutty song that Richard had performed on the vaudeville circuit. Blackwell was taken by the infectious beat of the song, and brought in songwriter Dorothy La Bostrie to “clean up” the lyrics. The result was Little Richard’s first big record, Tutti Frutti, released as a single at the end of 1955.

Tutti Frutti was a significant hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard R&B charts. It also was a major “cross-over” success, making it up to #17 on the Billboard Top 100 charts. Crooner Pat Boone also released a cover of Tutti Frutti.

Many black artists would have been thrilled that their record had been covered by a teen idol such as Pat Boone; however, Little Richard was not amused. He was offended that Boone’s cover out-sold his own record. Richard was upset because although Pat Boone was a talented artist, Boone was in no way an R&B singer. Below is a 1956 publicity photo of Little Richard’s nemesis, Pat Boone.

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Little Richard then collaborated with Bumps Blackwell on the song Long Tall Sally. Richard also gave co-writing credit to his friend Enotris Johnson.
Richard’s producer, Bumps Blackwell, had him record the vocal exceptionally fast in an effort to thwart Pat Boone … Blackwell tried to make it very difficult for Boone to copy. He had Richard work on the line “Duck back down the alley” over and over until he could sing it very fast. He figured Boone could never match Richard’s vocal dexterity … Richard’s delivery did help get his song past some censors, however. A standards and practices guy at NBC once said: “How can I reject it when I can’t even understand it?”

The lyrics to Long Tall Sally are quite simple. They describe the singer’s “Uncle John,” who although married to “Aunt Mary,” is apparently having a fling with the tall and beautiful Sally, who is possessed with “everything that Uncle John need.”

Well long, tall Sally
She’s built for speed, she got
Everything that Uncle John need,
Oh baby, yeah baby, wooooh baby,
Havin’ me some fun tonight yeah

Well, I saw Uncle John with long tall Sally
He saw Aunt Mary comin’ and he ducked back in the alley
Oh baby, yeah baby, wooooh baby,
Havin’ me some fun tonight, yeah ow

Long Tall Sally was recorded at the New Orleans studio of legendary producer Cosmo Matassa. The song featured Little Richard on boogie-woogie piano, backed by several of Matassa’s house musicians.

Long Tall Sally was Little Richard’s highest-placing single ever. It made it to #1 on the R&B charts, where it remained for six weeks. The song also made it to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here is Little Richard in a “live” performance of Long Tall Sally.

Of course, this performance is not “live” at all; Little Richard and his band The Upsetters are simply lip-synching to the record of this song. Note that The Upsetters don’t even attempt to simulate playing their instruments. This is a clip from the 1956 rock ‘n roll movie Don’t Knock The Rock.  A poster for that movie is shown below left.

Like most early rock ‘n roll films, the staged “performances” are as cheesy as the movie’s premise. Rock performer Arnie Haines, played by pop singer Alan Dale, returns to his home town to find that they have banned rock music because of its danger to impressionable teen-agers (shades of Footloose!).

Poster for the 1956 Columbia Pictures movie Don't Knock The Rock.

Poster for the 1956 Columbia Pictures movie Don’t Knock The Rock.

To combat the ban, Arnie stages a “pageant of art and culture.” The show features classical music and dance, but ends with a sexually-charged performance of the Charleston, the “edgy” dance performed by their parents.

The town fathers realize that their stance against rock ‘n roll is hypocritical, and the movie ends with a rock concert hosted by legendary DJ Alan Freed. Little Richard had two numbers in this film.

Now, just as Little Richard anticipated, Pat Boone also issued a cover of Long Tall Sally. Here is the audio of Boone’s version of Long Tall Sally.

I am at a loss for words here. Don’t get me wrong; Pat Boone has an absolutely beautiful voice, and apparently he was genuinely fond of rock music. However, as Boone could never compete with Little Richard’s iconic voice and R&B styling, Pat Boone simply re-purposes the song in his own “white bread” style.

Boone sanitizes the lyrics and presents this as an up-tempo pop tune. Perhaps the less I say about Pat Boone’s version, the better?

But now we have an actual live clip of Little Richard performing Long Tall Sally. Here, he is in concert at the Olympia venue in Paris, in 1966.

OK, here is some gen-u-wine live rock music! Mr. Penniman is clearly having a great time. Rivulets of perspiration run down his face as he growls, shouts and howls. Little Richard’s shirt is open to his waist, and he pounds away at the piano. He regularly punctuates the lyrics with his trademark “Wooooo!”

As you can see, this music is dominated by piano and saxophone. There is a great sax solo, so typical of the ‘roots’ R&B songs, at about the 2-minute mark. One can readily believe that “we’re gonna have some fun tonight.”

In the late 1950s, Little Richard was riding the crest of a wave of popularity. However, during a tour of Australia in 1957, he shocked his supporters by announcing that he was retiring from rock ‘n roll in order to enter the ministry.

A number of incidents had convinced Richard that God was sending him a message. In addition, Little Richard became seriously dependent on drugs at one point, particularly heroin, PCP and cocaine. His work in the ministry was an important element in weaning him from drug addiction.

For the next few years, Little Richard spent his time preaching and recording gospel music, produced by his old partner Bumps Blackwell. However, in 1962 he was persuaded to undertake a tour of Europe. His first show was devoted to gospel music. But he opened his second show, accompanied by organist Billy Preston, with Long Tall Sally – and the audience went wild!

After that, Little Richard continued with a triumphant rock ‘n roll tour of Europe. Up-and-coming bands vied to play in his concerts. The Beatles opened a couple of concerts for Little Richard, who gave them tips on performing, and helped Paul develop his “Little Richard” voice (see the last section of this post).

When you hear the vocal stylings of Bob Seger, or John Fogerty, or Rod Stewart, or AC/DC’s Bon Scott, you realize that they are simply channeling Little Richard. Other artists such as John Lennon, Mick Jagger and David Bowie didn’t copy Little Richard’s vocal style, but nevertheless looked to him as an inspirational figure and tried to model their own careers after his.

Little Richard is now in his mid-80s. Even a couple of years ago, he was still performing occasionally. He is one of the original kings of rock ‘n roll. Wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!

Elvis Presley, Long Tall Sally:

Here we will present a vignette from Elvis Presley’s early career. Elvis was born in Tupelo, MS in January 1935. His family moved to Memphis, TN when Elvis was a teen.  Below is a photo of Elvis performing in 1956.

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Elvis was trying to break into the music industry, and in July 1954 was recording some tunes in Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio. Phillips had brought in session musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to accompany Elvis on guitar and bass, respectively.

Eventually the group produced an up-tempo version of Arthur Crudup’s blues song That’s All Right. It was recorded in what we now recognize as “rockabilly style.” Sam Phillips subsequently gave a copy to local DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam), who began playing it. The public reaction was remarkable, and started Elvis on his meteoric rise.

By mid-1955, Elvis’ career began to take off. In November of that year, he was voted most promising young male artist at the Country Disc Jockey Convention. Elvis signed a deal with RCA Victor, and then signed ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker as his manager.

Elvis really broke through with his recordings of Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel. In particular, Elvis’ 1956 performances of Hound Dog on the Milton Berle and Steve Allen TV shows, and subsequently on the Ed Sullivan Show, made Elvis an overnight sensation.  For many people, Elvis was the personification of rock ‘n roll.

These performances also made Elvis the center of controversy, and a teen sex symbol. Apparently Elvis was extremely nervous when he first appeared in public, so his leg would shake while he performed. He noticed that teen-agers in his audience, and particularly young girls, would scream when his legs started shaking.

So Elvis began to swivel his pelvis, using moves copied from burlesque parlors. I have the feeling that Elvis initially introduced this as something of a joke. However, the effect of these moves on crowds was fascinating. While their parents were often taken aback, and even repulsed, young girls were thrilled.  At an early Elvis concert, you could cut the sexual tension with a knife.

Here is Elvis in a live performance of Long Tall Sally (sorry about the poor audio and video quality). This took place on Sept. 26, 1956.

This was a momentous occasion for Elvis. His first album for RCA Victor, Elvis Presley, had rocketed to #1 on the Billboard album charts. His second album, called Elvis, had just been released, and was also climbing to the #1 ranking. At the time, Elvis was the first performer ever to have his first two albums both reach #1 in the charts.

Below we show the cover for the 1956 Elvis album. It contained three Little Richard songs; in addition to Long Tall Sally, these were Rip It Up and Ready Teddy. None of the Little Richard covers was released as a single by Elvis.

Cover of the 1956 RCA Victor album Elvis.

Cover of the 1956 RCA Victor album Elvis.

Nevertheless, as you can see from the video, Long Tall Sally was a great fit for Elvis. Elvis converts Little Richard’s R&B screamer into a very enjoyable rockabilly tune.

Here, Elvis was performing at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair, and this marked Elvis’ return to his hometown of Tupelo, MS as a rock ‘n roll sensation. The show was attended by 10,000 people, and Elvis felt compelled to be at his best when appearing before a home-town crowd.

Backed by his band the Blue Moon Boys featuring Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on upright bass and D.J. Fontana on drums, Elvis puts on a great show for the crowd. He wiggles his pelvis a couple of times, and generally enchants the mixture of adults and teens. This is the “young Elvis” at his best.

Note that after his performance, Elvis receives a commendation from the Mississippi governor that salutes him as “America’s greatest entertainer in the field of popular music.”

As the first great rock superstar, Elvis was subjected to an enormous amount of fame. This would have been difficult for anyone to handle, but it proved particularly tough for this shy, diffident Southern Mama’s boy. Elvis attracted a legion of fans who devotedly bought his records, attended his concerts and watched his movies.

However, Elvis was unfortunate that, after his mother died in 1958, very few of his associates had his best interests in mind. His manager Tom Parker was a shrewd businessman, but the contracts he signed with Elvis were scandalously tilted towards Parker himself.

Elvis starred in 33 movies. Almost all of them made money, but with a couple of exceptions the quality of his films was embarrassingly poor. To make matters worse, the songs in Elvis movies
seemed to be “written on order by men who never really understood Elvis or rock and roll.”
Critic Dave Marsh wrote about Elvis’ movie songs:
“Presley isn’t trying, probably the wisest course in the face of material like ‘No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car’ and ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby.'”

As time progressed, Elvis’ doctors prescribed for him an astonishing array of powerful pharmaceuticals. The dashing young king of rock ‘n roll slowly but surely morphed into the shockingly bloated and over-medicated figure who died at age 42 of a series of ailments, either caused or aggravated by prescription drug abuse.

What a shame. Elvis would have been 80 in January 2015. But his music lives on, and we choose to remember him as the young, vibrant rock ‘n roller who burst upon the scene in 1956.

The Beatles, Long Tall Sally:

The Beatles originally formed as a skiffle band in the late 1950s. John Lennon brought in Paul McCartney, and then George Harrison to produce a guitar trio. The group subsequently added Stu Sutcliffe on bass.

When Stu Sutcliffe left the band, Paul switched from guitar to bass.  After trying out a number of drummers, the group finally settled on Ringo Starr.  Below is a photo of the Beatles performing in 1963. From L: Paul McCartney, bass; Ringo Starr, drums; George Harrison, lead guitar; John Lennon, rhythm guitar.

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Initially, the Beatles were a competent musical group, but they became a really terrific band during a few visits to Hamburg, Germany in the early 60s. There, the lads lived in abject poverty while playing in gritty venues scattered amidst the strip clubs in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district.

In Hamburg, the group essentially had nothing to do but play and practice. They used this time to become a tight and highly skilled ensemble.

In the early days of the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney were just beginning to write songs, so the Beatles played covers of tunes by their favorite artists. They especially chose songs that would show off their harmonizing or their instrumental skills.

The Beatles idolized Little Richard. In fact, the “Wooo” sounds favored by Lennon and McCartney were borrowed directly from Little Richard Penniman. In addition, Paul McCartney fashioned his hard-rocking vocals directly after Little Richard’s iconic delivery. In 1962, the Beatles opened for Little Richard during tours of England, and during that time Richard gave Paul some tips on his vocals.

Long Tall Sally was a long-time favorite of the Beatles. The song was an infectious up-tempo tune that would bring the audience to their feet. George could contribute with some tasty guitar licks, but a major attraction of this song was that Paul got to show off his “Little Richard” vocals.

In addition to Long Tall Sally, Paul McCartney trots out his “Little Richard” voice on several other Beatles classics. These would include Oh Darling, Helter Skelter, She’s a Woman, and the opening of Sgt. Pepper.

Amazingly enough, in addition to his “normal” singing voice, Paul had yet another distinctive “girl voice.” This was reserved for songs that he had written with female artists in mind. For example, Paul wrote Here, There and Everywhere for Marianne Faithfull, and Goodbye for Mary Hopkins. Listening to those songs, it is straightforward to pick out Paul’s unique vocal stylings.

Here are the Beatles performing in April 1964. This was at the New Musical Express (NME) 1963-64 Annual Poll Winners’ All-Star Concert, that was held at the Empire Pool venue in Wembley. The Beatles were the star attraction, and they performed five songs before a crowd of 10,000.

In addition to three Lennon-McCartney tunes, the group performed covers of Twist and Shout and Long Tall Sally. Here is Long Tall Sally featuring Paul on lead vocals.

It’s obvious why the Beatles found this a perfect song for them, and a great “concert-closer” number. Paul most certainly does not describe Sally as “built for speed;” perhaps he sings that she is “pretty sweet;” I can’t quite tell as Paul’s delivery is rather frenetic.

George Harrison also gets in some energetic rockabilly licks, while John and Ringo thump away on rhythm guitar and drums, respectively. There are a few shots of the young crowd, and it is obvious that we are in full “Beatlemania” phase. The crowd screams their approval in between the verses.

Long Tall Sally became such a staple at Beatles concerts that the group included it even after they were playing almost entirely Lennon-McCartney compositions. Eventually, Paul wrote I’m Down so that they could replace Long Tall Sally with one of their own compositions to end a show.

Now here are the Beatles performing Long Tall Sally live at D.C. Stadium in Washington, DC. This was the closing number at this concert on August 15, 1966.

Once again, the Beatles appear to be relatively carefree, while the audience screams with delight. However, this American tour (the last live tour ever for the Beatles) was anything but enjoyable.

By this point, the Beatles were frustrated at their inability to reproduce their newer, more complex songs in a live performance. As a result, none of the songs from their latest album Revolver were included in this tour.

In addition, you can see that the Beatles were still performing with amplifiers that were ridiculously under-powered for stadium shows. And their tour schedule was brutal: here, they gave 19 concerts in 18 days!

The ultimate insult occurred on August 21. After a concert in Cincinnati was rained out on the preceding evening, the Beatles performed in Cincinnati, then traveled 300 miles to St. Louis, where they performed a second concert on the same day!

But that was not the worst aspect of this tour. In March 1966, John Lennon gave an interview to journalist Maureen Cleave for a series in the London Evening Standard. In that interview, Cleave asked Lennon about his interest in religion. In his typical cheeky style, Lennon responded:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink … We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

In Britain, Lennon’s remark went more or less unnoticed. However, the interview was picked up by the American teen magazine Datebook, which featured Lennon’s boast “We’re more popular than Jesus” on the cover of its August 1966 issue. And then – Ka-boom!

American Christian religious leaders vied with one another to criticize Lennon. Radio DJs stopped playing Beatles songs, and a few “record-burning” events were scheduled, particularly in the South. Most seriously, Lennon and the Beatles received numerous death threats.

Although they considered cancelling their American tour, the Beatles nevertheless proceeded with their schedule. At Chicago, their first stop on the tour, Lennon gave an apology and attempted an explanation. However, the same questions were raised in press conferences at nearly every venue, which irritated both Lennon and his band-mates.

By the time of their final event, the August 29 concert at Candlestick Park, the Beatles had determined that this would be their final live concert ever. From then until the disintegration of the group four years later, the Beatles would exclusively work in the recording studio.

Although several of their best albums (Sgt. Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road) were still to come, the Beatles were no longer a live band.

One can sympathize with the Beatles. While in Germany honing their skills, the boys were scraping out a living in a famously tough Hamburg neighborhood. Once they became famous back in Britain, they would give show after show with exactly the same playlist.

Unfortunately, the Beatles were about a decade too early to be able to satisfy their desire to stage live concerts with state-of-the-art sound and fidelity, while employing a range of sophisticated instruments. Perhaps it is too much to wonder what might have transpired if the Beatles had stuck it out a little longer?

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Long Tall Sally
Songfacts.com, Long Tall Sally
Wikipedia, Little Richard
Wikipedia, Robert Blackwell
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, More popular than Jesus

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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4 Responses to Long Tall Sally: Little Richard; Elvis Presley; The Beatles

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