Holy Transcripts, Batman!

Hello and welcome to the next, electrifying installment of Deep Tracks in Rock History where we explore the entire story of rock from its earliest roots to its latest developments. I am your quixotic host, Doug “He’s-More-Than-a-Man: He’s-a-Concept” McCulloch, and I will be your guide through this groovatious ride known as rock and roll.

Last episode we looked at the early life of Little Richard. We explored his complicated relationship with his father, his early musical influences—such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe—and his numerous attempts to launch his music career. We saw him enter the recording studio for the first time, release a couple of singles that did sort of okay on R&B charts, and even find management—first with Clint Brantley and then with Don Robey.

Both Brantley and Robey, if you’ll recall, were shady figures and Richard couldn’t stand either one of them. He stomached his business relationship with them because they were a step towards his goal, but it was always with the short-term goal of moving beyond them as soon as possible.

This was especially true when, you might remember, Don Robey beat up Little Richard during one of their many heated exchanges and knocked him to the floor, kicking Richard in the gut so hard that Richard ended up having to have an operation for a hernia.

Likewise, up until this point, we haven’t seen more than a few of Little Richard’s originals included in his recorded material yet. And thus far, his recorded material fell very, very, very short of the energy he was known for during his live shows. Richard had been making a name for himself as a supremely gifted live artist, which was enough to get him into the studio in the first place, but that verve was yet to appear in his recordings. Without the energy of the live audience, mixed perhaps with some of the hesitations of youth and amateurism (remember, he was only 19 at the time of his first studio recording), as well as, let’s face it, the lack of a good producer overseeing the recordings who could really pull the very best out of Richard, there were certainly numerous factors that dampened the energy of the studio performances so that, when you listen to the very earliest of Little Richard, it doesn’t sound like him at all.

That brings us to where we will pick up his story in today’s informative and, dare I say, fantabulous episode.

Let’s start by creating a timeline that includes some of the other recent artists we’ve talked about:

In New Orleans, Fats Domino had released his first hit, “The Fat Man,” in 1950. However, remember, this song was R&B—Fats Domino wouldn’t release his first rock ‘n’ roll hit for another five years with “Ain’t That a Shame.”

Also in 1950, up in Chicago, the Chess brothers bought out Aristocrat Records and changed its name to Chess Records. Later that same year they would release Muddy Waters’ recording of “Rollin’ Stone.”

Then, in March of 1951, down in Memphis, Ike Turner released “Rocket 88” which, as we’ve discussed, is largely seen as “patient zero” of rock ‘n’ roll—the first rock song. It was recorded by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios, who, that same year, also recorded some tracks by an as-of-yet unknown blues artist named Howlin’ Wolf who, thanks to both Ike Turner and Sam Phillips, was able to get connected with the Chess brothers in Chicago.

Then, back over in Georgia, in October of 1951, Little Richard had his first recording session with RCA Victor, followed by a second recording session—also with RCA Victor—in 1952.

In 1953, Little Richard’s management was taken over by Don Robey and it was also then that Robey got him back into the studio for the third time—only for Richard to be disappointed for the third time.

1954 saw Little Richard back at the Greyhound terminal in Macon washing dishes. As Ribowsky put it, “[Little Richard] was a contradiction to those who knew him. He was, technically, a two-time failure as a recording act but could fill the house at will out on the chitlin’ circuit.”

What I’d like to point out here, however, is that even though I covered Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry before Little Richard, neither of them had recorded their first hits yet by this time. Bo Diddley wouldn’t record his song, “Bo Diddley,” until 1954, and in 1954 Chuck Berry was still one of the “Cubans” backing Joe Alexander and wouldn’t have his first release with Chess Records until the next year, 1955, which, as I mentioned just a moment ago, was the year Fats Domino released “Ain’t That a Shame.”

And this gives me a chance to quote yet another extended excerpt from Ribowsky who does such a great job of setting the scene during this liminal time in popular music where rock is sort of bubbling beneath the surface:

“A pure rock song still had not made it high on the pop chart. The top-selling songs of 1953 included ‘Vaya Con Dios,’ and ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?’ In 1954, though cracks began to open. Sandwiched between ‘Little Things Mean a Lot’ and Doris Day’s ‘Secret Love’ in the top three songs of the year was the Crew-Cuts’ ‘Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream),’ a vanilla cover of the original race record by the Chords—which itself rang in at number 26. Number 19 was ‘Earth Angel.’ Number 20 Bill Haley’s ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll.’ Things were happening, in small, growing doses. What did remain as a hurdle was the emergence of an avatar who could blast it out in its purest form so clearly and honestly to teenagers that it would become close to a religion.”

In that quote, you might notice he references Bill Haley—who we’ll be talking about soon—but also he mentions the songs “Sh-boom (Life Could Be a Dream)” and “Earth Angel.” Those are both doo-wop songs. I haven’t covered doo-wop yet, as a genre, but I did cover the famous doo-wop chord progression in my first “Deep Theory” episode released a few weeks ago, if you haven’t caught that yet and are at all interested in the doo-wop sound.

What Ribowsky is saying in that quote I just read, however, is that bits and pieces of the rock ‘n’ roll sound were beginning to percolate to the top of public awareness, but what people hadn’t had yet was an artist who would serve it up, to quote Ribowsky again, “in its purest form.”

Despite Don Robey taking over as Little Richard’s manager and buying his recording contract from RCA Victor, Richard’s relationship with Clint Brantley continued with his live shows. Brantley continued booking Richard at every venue he could find, and Richard also continued his concerted efforts at networking anytime he was at a show—as a performer or as an audience member.

Little Richard was also still chafing to get out from under Robey’s thumb. As much as Richard despised Brantley, Robey was worse. But both men had a strangle hold over much of the black talent throughout the south, especially with Robey’s Duke-Peacock recording label. If Richard wanted to break free of Brantley and Robey, he had to break free of Georgia.

This opportunity came in the form of R&B artist Lloyd Price (La-loyd?). While attending one of his shows, Little Richard was able to get some face time with Price—who had heard of Richard—and the meeting ended with Lloyd Price promising Richard that if he sent a demo of his material to Art Rupe at Specialty Records, Lloyd would put in a good word for Richard.

Little Richard did this immediately. And then he waited. And waited. And waited.

He languished in limbo for eight long months, while his demo sat at the bottom of some pile of other demos in the offices of Specialty Records. During that time of waiting, Little Richard would often lose patience and call Specialty Records, demanding to speak with Art Rupe and then, once he got Rupe, boldly asking this record label executive, “When are you going to record me?!”

Art Rupe finally got around to listening to Richard’s material (probably because he wanted the phone calls to stop) and he brought in his top A&R guy, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, to also listen to it.

Bumps Blackwell is a name you’ll need to remember. He’s going to be important in our story.

Blackwell and Rupe could tell from Richard’s demo that they had a potential star on their hands. They offered Richard a contract. The possessive Don Robey wasn’t happy about this and charged a steep price for Richard’s contract, hoping to dissuade the men from taking his star away from him. To Robey’s surprise, they paid it. Little Richard finally had a way to escape Robey and Brantley.

Rupe scheduled a recording session for his newest acquisition on September 13th, 1955. Little Richard was going to be recording at the J&M Recording Studio on Rampart Street in New Orleans, which was, as Ribowsky put it, “the cosmic center of gravity for blues/rock.” And, of course, in the tradition of H.C. Speir, the studio was located in the back of a furniture store—because, apparently, that’s where all seminal blues studios are located (that was a reference to episode 1.2, “Nobody Leaves This Place Without Singing the Blues,” by the way).

However, Little Richard would encounter one more little hitch before leaving his hometown for good.

Something Richard had begun to do around this time was cruise around town with a woman named Fanny, who would solicit men for sex, and then Richard would pay to watch it happen. Little Richard’s sex drive and sexuality are a key part of his story, so it will be coming up quite a bit as we talk about him. And last episode I briefly made mention of Richard’s forays out into the woods with older, white men who would pay him for sex. However, this time, Little Richard’s actions would come under the notice of Johnny Law and he was picked up by the police and charged with lewd behavior.

It was a headache for Art Rupe and Bumps Blackwell, and certainly not a very auspicious start to their budding relationship with this new artist, but it didn’t dissuade them from moving forward with Richard and, after spending a few days in jail, he was soon at J&M working on his next recording.

Now, I should quickly insert a bit of his story that I skipped over earlier: at this time, Richard had been playing for a while with a backing band called the Upsetters (a great name for a band, I might add). Nearly all of his live gigs lined up through Brantley had had the Upsetters backing him. Some of you may remember in the story of Muddy Waters that when he first started recording at Chess Records, they insisted on using their own studio musicians to back him, and it wasn’t until 1953—a full three years after Muddy’s first release through Chess—that he was finally able to bring in his own guys with whom he played his live shows and, honestly, with whom he felt the most comfortable.

For anyone who hasn’t rehearsed or performed music with any sort of ensemble, you may not realize what a difference it makes when playing with familiar faces versus strangers. I’ve had both experiences, and I can tell you, it makes a huge difference when playing with a group of people with whom you’ve had past experience. You feel less self-conscious, you’re familiar with what direction each other will take with the music—it’s, like, seriously akin to the difference between a long-term relationship and a first date. I remember, my strangest and most awkward jam session I ever had was with an old hippy in a treehouse. Like, literally, his house was a treehouse. It was in Topanga Canyon, near L.A., and I met him through my girlfriend’s brother, who had gotten to know him through Narcotics Anonymous. Ironically, when we first showed up at his place, he and his plumber were both high as kites. It turned out that that was how he paid his plumber: giving him weed.

The plumber took off shortly after I and my girlfriend and her brother arrived, and we decided to start feeling things out and seeing if this would possibly be any sort of working, musical relationship going forward. My primary instruments are keyboards and drums, and his was guitar, and we tried a few things, trying to get a groove going, but there was at least a thirty year age gap between us, not to mention, I got sort of a weird vibe from the guy the whole time. I knew part of that was probably because he was super stoned, but for my then-18-year-old brain, I was a little weirded out by the whole treehouse thing, plus, I have to admit, I was a little judgmental of him obviously lying to his NA sponsor.

Anyway, my point is, even though I had had numerous experiences up to that point jamming with different people, this one was a huge flop, because I didn’t feel comfortable with the guy, I’m sure he didn’t feel all that great about me, either (let’s be honest: he had, like, a thousand years of music experience under his belt and I was just a young, punk kid), and I remember coming out of that jam session immediately missing the guys from my garage band I’d had in high school because they were the ones I’d spent the most time jamming with.

Why am I sharing all of this? Because despite having the opportunity to record at a premier studio in New Orleans with backing musicians who were considered among the very top in their field (these were the same guys who backed Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, plus countless other big names in rhythm & blues at that time) Little Richard demanded he be backed by the Upsetters. Ironically, Richard had often instructed the Upsetters to mimic the sound and styles of many of these musicians who were now set up to back him there at J&M Studios, but even despite that, Richard wanted his guys with whom he was most familiar and comfortable.

This, however, was something that Bumps Blackwell wouldn’t budge on. Blackwell insisted Richard use their studio guys. It was non-negotiable.

Thus, this latest recording session started off about like how all his others went—namely, it sucked.

The studio guys all though Richard was a total weirdo. As Richard himself put it: “They all thought I was crazy. Didn’t know what to make of me. They thought I was a kook.”

Blackwell himself would later say of his first impressions meeting Little Richard: “His hair was processed a foot high over his head. His shirt was so loud it looked as though he had drunk raspberry juice, malt, and greens and then thrown up all over himself. Man, he was a freak.”

Another point of contention that came up in this session was that Richard wanted to accompany himself on piano and Blackwell wanted someone else to play piano, leaving Richard to only sing and that was it. Richard was eventually able, however, to get his way with this issue, at least. But it was because Blackwell and the others still viewed Richard a small fish—despite his relative fame in the chitlin’ circuit, that was still minor league compared to the waters he was swimming in now...was that mixing metaphors?

But with such a rocky start and with very little trust or respect between the artist and his crew, the session was an absolute slog. And, ironically enough, this session would also feature no Richard originals. Even though he’d been writing songs the whole time scrubbing dishes at that Greyhound bus terminal in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard was still just doing almost exclusively covers. Part of this was becaue of pressure from Art Rupe for Richard to imitate the style of other popular black artists at the time. Little Richard said in an interview with former Boston DJ, Joe Smith:

“[Art Rupe]…wanted me to sing like B.B. King, but I didn’t feel it. I love B.B. King as a person, but it wasn’t me. It was all too slow. Then they wanted me to imitate Ray Charles.”

After an underwhelming and exhausting day in the studio, a bunch of the buys went to the nearby Dew Drop Inn to, as Ribowsky put it, “wash aware their blues.” It was there that Blackwell and some of the studio musicians got to see Little Richard finally shine. In his usual impromptu fashion, Little Richard jumped up on stage and started performing. The song he did: “Tutti Frutti.”

For Blackwell and those studio musicians with him, this was a revelation. Blackwell knew immediately that he had just heard the next big hit.

The only problem was, the lyrics. With lines like “good booty” and “grease it, make it easy,” “Tutti Frutti” was a little too hokum to be marketable to a larger audience.

There was a 27-year-old “little colored girl,” as Blackwell described her, named Dorothy LaBostrie who was a local aspiring songwriter who’d been submitting material to Blackwell for some time. He called her in without telling her why. She thought she was finally being brought in to record one of her songs she’d submitted. She was about to be disappointed.

Blackwell wanted Dorothy to write “clean” lyrics for “Tutti Frutti.” Richard wasn’t happy about his artwork being altered and Dorothy wasn’t happy about being used as a glorified editor. Blackwell had to basically talk them both into it. In the end, though, they both agreed. Dorothy changed “good booty” to “Aw-rooty,” while references such as “grease it, make it easy,” were changed to referencing generic girls like Sue and Daisy, who “know what to do” and can “almost drive me crazy.” The original intent was still there, but in a much subtler form.

Because this song hadn’t been a part of the original lineup intended for this round of sessions at J&M, there was no arrangement made of it beforehand, of course, and there was no time to make one. Blackwell just put them all together, made sure Richard was on piano, and the other musicians just worked off of what Richard was doing with his voice and the piano. And it was the real Little Richard at last. He’d finally shed his studio limitations and was able to cut loose and really perform as he was always meant to. And this is where the studio musicians’ abilities as being some of the “best in the biz” really shone through as they were immediately able to pick up on what Richard was laying down and with just a couple of microphones and two measly tracks, in a cramped little 15 x 10 room, create the most iconic song of a whole generation. (Little Richard once described the studio space as “no bigger than my kitchen”).

One of these studio musicians backing Little Richard at J&M was Earl Palmer on drums.

You remember that “back beat” I’ve referenced a number of times as the quintessential beat of rock ‘n’ roll? The one in which the bass drum plays on beats 1 and 3 and the snare drum plays on beats 2 and 4? Earl Palmer is largely credited as being the one to make that happen. He didn’t know it at the time, but him bringing that backbeat into “Tutti Frutti” was in essence codifying the new genre.

To be clear, though, Earl Palmer didn’t “invent” the backbeat. It has roots going back into old African American marching band music and some musicologists contend it was originally meant as a spoof on the white marching band music, which, as I’ve mentioned before, emphasizes the downbeat, in 2/4, or beats 1 and 3 in 4/4. Tony Scherman, who wrote a biography on Earl Palmer entitled, Backbeat, said,

“The title [for my book] Backbeat, chosen by the publisher, has always irritated me. I lobbied unsuccessfully for Heartbeat, but Backbeat was chosen. … [T]he title Backbeat implies that organization of notes known as the backbeat—simply, the accenting of the second and fourth beats in a 4/4 rhythm—was Earl Palmer’s creation. Few things could be further from the truth. Earl would have strenuously agreed. He had no special relationship to the backbeat. Earl Palmer’s innovation was to rearrange the notes that surround the two and four. The backbeat itself was Lionel Hampton’s proto-R&B, Benny Goodman’s swing, and the pioneering jazz of Jelly roll Morton.”

This is where I am going to briefly shift over to Palmer’s story for a bit and quote from his interview in Tony Scherman’s biography.

Quoting now from Palmer: “I’d bought my first drums from Harold Dejan, I think he’d bought them from Big Foot Bill Phillips. What I paid I’m sure was more than what Harold gave Big Bill. It was a big white set with a nude woman and a twenty-five-watt bulb inside. Horrible set, man. The cymbals sounded like garbage-can covers.”

I’ll insert here: I bought my first drum set for $90 from a pawn shop. It was white, had cracked cymbals and warped drum heads. Minus the nude woman and light bulb, it almost sounds like our sets were basically the same.

What’s funny about Palmer’s story, though, is he never set out to be anything other than a jazz drummer. His passion was bebop:

“We was all trying to play bebop, playing it the best we could. The hell bebop wasn’t a mass movement! Maybe not as popular as rock and roll, because it was too musical for the common lay ear. But young musicians all over the country was getting into bebop.

“I made much more of a name in the other music, but ask yourself: If I was one of the beginners of rhythm and blues, what was I playing before? I’m a jazz drummer. Jazz is all anybody played until we started making those records. The backbeat came about because the public wasn’t buying jazz, so we put something in that was simpler and that’s what made the difference.”

Basically, Earl Palmer is saying he only did rock/rhythm & blues drumming because it paid better. But what he really wanted to play was jazz, and specifically, bebop.

If you’re not sure what bebop was before it became the mutant warthog partner to Rocksteady battling the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was a form of jazz that was faster and more abstract than mainstream jazz. It used a lot more dissonance and often featured more erratic melodic structures. Representative artists in this vein of jazz would be Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, to name a few.

Continuing on from Palmer’s account:

“The first time I felt like a page was being turned was Little Richard. I hadn’t heard anything like this before. ….

“Richard wasn’t a star when he met us but I thought he was. He walked into J&M like he was coming offstage: that thick, thick powder makeup and the eye liner and the lipstick and the hair everywhere in big, big waves. Walked in there like something you’d never seen.

“…. But Richard was so infectious and so unhiding with his flamboyancy, he sucked us right in. We got laughing with him instead of at him.

“…. I’d go anywhere with Richard now, but at that time everybody was a little concerned about being seen with somebody that looked and acted so gay.”

Then Palmer talks about their musical collaboration:

“I never thought Richard was crazy, never thought he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. …. Richard always knew just what he wanted to do, and we knew how to do it.

“…. What I remember about those sessions is how physical they were. You got to remember how Richard played—can you imagine matching that? I’ll tell you, the only reason I started playing what they come to call a rock-and-roll beat came from trying to match Richard’s right hand. Ding-ding-ding-ding! Most everything I had done before was a shuffle or slow triplets. Fats Domino’s early things were shuffles. … But Little Richard moved from a shuffle to that straight eighth-note feeling. I don’t know who played that way first, Richard or Chuck Berry. Even if chuck Berry played straight eights on guitar, his band still played a shuffle behind him. But with Richard pounding the piano with all ten fingers, you couldn’t so very well go against that. I did at first—on ‘Tutti Frutti’ you can hear me playing a shuffle. Listening to it now, it’s easy to hear I should have been playing that rock beat.”

If you’re wondering what Palmer is talking about when he mentioned the shuffle versus “straight eights,” he’s talking about the difference in meter. A shuffle is in compound meter—the type of meter that has three smaller beats per main beat within a measure. Straight-eights would be only two smaller beats per main beat. So, compound meter, or shuffle, is “1+a, 2+a, 3+a, 4+a,” versus a straight rhythm—also known as simple meter—which is “1+ 2+ 3+ 4+.” There’s a little more to it that makes a shuffle a shuffle than just compound meter, but for our purposes here, the difference in how the beats are broken down will suffice.

Also, I’m going to be supremely presumptuous here and insert a little pushback to Palmer’s statement there about his own drum beat. I wouldn’t call his drumming strictly a shuffle in “Tutti Frutti.” It really was a hybrid. Yes, there are elements to it that are…“shuffley?”…but overall, it still has the feel of the backbeat. Palmer may credit a later song as being the one in which he solidified the backbeat as the definitive beat of rock ‘n’ roll, but for me, I contend that it was here in “Tutti Frutti.”

There’s one more excerpt I want to borrow from Palmer’s interview. This one is regarding his overall experience working with Little Richard in the studio:

“It was exciting because he was exciting. Richard is one of the few people I’ve ever recorded with that was just as exciting to watch in the studio as he was in performance. He was just that kind of personality, on edge all the time, and full of energy. But I never remember him angry with anyone. He was a sweet-tempered guy. Still is. Whenever I’m around that way, I stop at the Continental hotel where he lives, go up and see him, sit down and talk a while. Always come away with a pocketful of little Bible booklets.”

Palmer’s mention of the Continental Hotel and a “pocketful of little Bible booklets” will be revisited as we get further in Richard’s story, but for now I want to quote Tony Scherman’s description of Earl Palmer’s development of the backbeat as an element of rock:

“…Earl Palmer didn’t merely transform the rhythm and blues shuffle—a crude version of jazz’s swing beat—into the propulsive thrust of rock and roll; he made his great innovation while maintaining his own, immediately recognizable, sound: that of a steamroller with bounce, just about as muscular as a drummer can sound. ‘[W]hen Earl Palmer laid into Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’,” says Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen’s drummer, ‘it sounded as if he were using baseball bats and kicking a thirty-foot bass drum.”

Despite Little Richard’s initial hesitations about using J&M’s guys instead of the Upsetters, their “Tutti Frutti” session put all of that to rest. Almost all of the tracks they’d recorded the day before were scrapped and re-recorded with this new, uninhibited “studio Richard.” They also added a couple of Little Richard’s other regular live songs that he’d, up until now, withheld from any of his studio sessions: “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Long Tall Sally.”

However, Blackwell was still not satisfied with most of these other tracks. In fact, this recording they did of “Long Tall Sally” isn’t the one you’ll hear if you track down any recordings of that song because it—along with most of the other material from these other J&M sessions—was never released.

They planted their flag on “Tutti Frutti” as the big hit to come out of all of these sessions—some of which even included a few in L.A. where they sought better acoustics—with the song “I’m Just a Lonely Guy” as the B-side.

It was mid-October, 1955 that Little Richard would first hear “Tutti Frutti” on the radio. I’ll quote an excerpt an Little Richard’s interview he did with Joe Smith in his Off The Record:

“I remember the first time I heard a record of mine on the radio. I was lying in bed and I heard ‘Tutti Frutti.’ I didn’t know it was a hit. In fact, I didn’t think it would be a hit. It was too far for me to touch or reach. The call was too distant for me. But that night, lying in bed, I heard the record and it was strange hearing myself on the radio. I had recorded before…and it had killed my desire because I didn’t hit with those records.

“When you’re a young artist, and you want a hit real bad, it’s easy to get discouraged. It makes you mad, but you don’t ever tell anybody that you might want to give it up and do something else. But when I heard ‘Tutti Frutti’ on WLAC in Nashville with Gene Nobles, the disc jockey, I woke up my family. It was eleven o’ clock at night. Then I called my friend Sam from Macon. He was a Jewish guy, so we called him Jew Sam. His family owned a store and we got everything we needed from Jew Sam. Then we called the radio station and Gene Nobles said it was the number-one most requested record. He said, ‘Whoever Little Richard is, he’s taking over.’ I heard ‘Awop-bop-a-loo-mo alop-bam-boom,’ and I felt an electric charge go over my body.”

Some of this this excerpt I’m about to read from Ribowsky’s book might sound familiar—I shared part of it before in episode 1.6, “Dear Mr. DJ (Play It Again)”:

“‘Tutti Frutti’…was shipped to both black and white radio stations in the big markets to create a buzz with subsequent shipping to record stores. The first Little Richard heard it, he was back in Macon, up at night and listening to Nashville’s WLAC. The 50,000-watt radio station had a standard mainstream format but, after dark, when other stations on its frequency went off the air, it sent R&B programs so far across the map that the station billed itself as the ‘nighttime station for half the nation.’

“…Gene Nobles, whose show Richard was tuned to…pronounced, ‘This is the hottest record in the country. This guy Little Richard is taking the record market by storm,’ and rolled out ‘Tutti Frutti.’

“‘I couldn’t believe it,’ [Richard] remembered. ‘My old song a hit!’”

Then Ribowsky goes on to point out:

“Not just any old hit, either. The song hit the ground not so much running, but sprinting…. By late November, it hit the Billboard ‘Best Sellers in Stores’ R&B chart, number twelve in its first week there; the next week, it was at number ten…. Just after the new year, it hit its peak, number two, kept from the top by the Platters’ smash ‘The Great Pretender.’”

What’s more is, the song also became one of the top entries on the “Most Played in Juke Boxes” and “Most Played by Jockeys” charts, which meant it had staked a claim in the booming teen market, which also led to it getting some air time on the Top 40 stations. And remember, those Top 40 stations—the radio stations that played Top 40 hits—were the golden goose for the music industry. It meant national exposure which could lead to higher ranking on the Mainstream Pop Chart (rather than one of the other two, lesser Billboard charts for country & western and rhythm & blues) which would, of course, lead to more record sales, getting the attention of bigger record companies with bigger, sweeter, record deals, not to mention the live performances which would finally get an artist out of their local region and doing national—and even international—tours.

So, by dominating the rhythm & blues charts, as well as the “Most Played in Juke Boxes” and “Most Played by Jockeys” charts, “Tutti Frutti” was on the cusp of not only getting Little Richard from a “C level” performer to a “B level”—which was probably the most any of them were initially hoping for—but it was looking like this would launch him into the stratosphere, rubbing shoulders with all the “A level” icons who were regularly dominating the Mainstream Pop charts during that time.

And this is where Ribowsky makes another crucial point. In talking about “Tutti Frutti” crossing over from rhythm & blues charts to start ranking on the mainstream pop charts:

“That was the cue for white singers to get in on the budding rock craze by requisitioning hot ‘race records’ and making them even more palatable to the teenagers of the white market.”

And then the next portion of Ribowsky’s book talks about Pat Boone’s cover of “Tutti Frutti.”

And of course, this whole thing with white artists covering and/or sometimes outright plagiarizing black artists is something, of course, that I’ve brought up a number of times in several episodes of this podcast. Needless to say, it's a complicated issue. If you’re interested in going back and getting a refresher on it, I covered it in some depth in episode 2.2, “Sex and [Charts] and Rock & Roll.” And, full disclosure, it’ll come up again and again throughout our discussion of this first decade of rock. But because it will be the core theme of my episode when we cover Pat Boone, I am not going to get into it right now, and the full story of his cover of “Tutti Frutti” will be in that upcoming episode. For now, I’ll mention a few things in relation to it that are necessary for moving Little Richard’s story forward.

Little Richard would have mixed feelings about Pat Boone’s cover of “Tutti Frutti.” On the one hand, he was understandably annoyed at seeing someone take his song and water it down and “white wash” it even more. Remember, he had to be convinced to even let Bumps Blackwell hire Dorothy LaBostrie to “clean up” his lyrics a little bit. There was also the racial issue. LaBostrie was black. It was something else entirely for a white man to come in an make some changes. There was just a different social weight to it. And along that same line: it stung all the more to see Pat Boone continue to enjoy more of the spotlight and greater success because of Little Richard’s song.

As Little Richard put it in his Joe Smith interview:

“Then Pat Boone started covering my tunes while they were still hot, and the pop stations would play his version and kill mine from ever having the chance of crossing over. You’d go into the record shops and there would be his version but not mine. [Art Rupe] came to me and he said, ‘We have to do something about Pat Boone covering our records.’ And he was covering them so fast. But remember, Pat was also covering Fats Domino and many others.”

So, at this point, you might be wondering why I said he had mixed feelings about this. So far it just sounds like he was pissed. Well, the mixed part comes in when you consider the fact that Boone’s cover was inevitably bringing more attention to Richard’s original.

Quoting Little Richard again from the Joe Smith interview:

“I’ve always loved Pat, but at the time I didn’t like what was happening because he was cutting off my sales. Now, when I look back on it, it was really a blessing and a lesson because he opened the doors for us by making white kids more aware of me. From then on, it was always my version they wanted.”

And this is the very thing that, in later years, Pat Boone would himself argue as a sort of validation for his covers of not only Little Richard but black artists in general whose material he covered. And, again, we’ll be covering Pat Boone specifically in an upcoming episode so I’m not going to litigate that whole argument here and now. But my point is, it’s hard to be that upset with something that’s helping to enrich you. As Richard himself said in that last quote, many people never would’ve given his music a chance if they hadn’t first been exposed to it through the medium of clean-cut, all-American “Ken Doll” Pat Boone. However, that being said, despite any of the “trickle down” popularity Richard may have experienced because of Boone’s cover, it was still another example of a white guy experiencing nearly unmitigated success built on the labor of a black guy.

So…like I said: mixed feelings.

This wouldn’t even be the worst of it, however. A white artist gaining success on Richard’s material would turn out to be the least of his financial worries. Little Richard soon found out that a lot of the money he could’ve been receiving directly from the song’s use were being funneled into Art Rupe’s pocket instead of his own.

I’ll quote Ribowsky here again because he explains it better than I think I could:

“Art Rupe…had stumbled into a gold mine, mainly for himself. And that created trouble. The half-cent royalty return on sales was bad enough, but worse was that, as a condition for signing, Richard had to sell the publishing rights to his songs, rights that he didn’t even know existed, grabbing the nominal fifty dollar meed for each handover. Rupe would then funnel the publishing royalties of Richard’s hit songs to his own publishing company. Those royalties would have brought Richard a ton of green. In time, he would realize how much of a victim he was.”

And then he quotes Richard:

“I got a half cent for every record sold. Whoever heard of cutting a penny in half?”

This issue with the pathetic bread crumbs the publishing company would toss to the artist on whom that very company was making money had been the reason for most of the strife between Richard and Don Robey. Now he was seeing it again with Art Rupe. It was a very sobering moment.

In his defense Art Rupe would contend that, at the time he signed Little Richard, the dude was still an unknown, and so at that time, Rupe was the one shouldering the majority of the risk by investing in someone he wasn’t sure would provide any sort of ROI. Rupe would also point out that he exercised very little control over his talent, giving them all the room they desired to do appearances and promos and those kinds of things—and he also paid them in a timely manner which, as I mentioned before when covering Howlin’ Wolf, is depressingly rare in the music biz.

You know who was happy with the deal, though? Dorothy LaBostrie. She made out like a bandit. All she had to do was make a few changes to already-existing lyrics and she got to share in the writing credits with Richard. To her dying day in 2007, she received checks of $50,000 two or three times a year from the royalties on “Tutti Frutti.”

But! That’s where we’re going to leave Little Richard for now. We have a lot more to talk about with him, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of where I’m at in the overall rock narrative, so we will need to shelve Richard Wayne Penniman for a bit and revisit him later.

We might be covering Bill Haley next, we’ll see. Normally, I have my narrative planned out several episodes in advance but right now I’ve got a few things up in the air that are impacting all of that. However, at this point in our story, there’s so much happening all at the same time, a lot of these artists are interchangeable in terms of what order we talk about them. Yes, some of them got an earlier start or earlier hits than others, but really a lot of these artists were really functioning in their own little spheres and none of them realized they were all just the fabric of a much larger pattern that would create the mighty quilt of rock ‘n’ roll!

Okay, I need to work on my analogies, I know. But you get what I mean! We are able to group these artists together in our story of rock only because of the hindsight of history. At the time, Little Richard would’ve felt as much connection to Chuck Berry or Bill Haley as he would to Pattie Page or Frank Sinatra. They were just other musicians. Codification of genre always follows behind in the wake of the music.

But anyway, that was all just a really long way to say I’m not completely sure which episode I’ll be releasing next and it really doesn’t matter. So, until next time…keep it deep!