Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 20: Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti"

Artist: Little Richard
Song: "Tutti Frutti"
Album: Tutti Frutti (single)
Year: 1955

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One of the most frustrating trends that links nearly all of the "greatest" songs ever recorded is the fact that, over time, these songs are often so over-played that the reason they are held in such a category is often lost.  Whether it is due to appearances in movies, television, or simply one of the songs that seems to "always" be on the radio, when the impact of a song becomes compromised in any way, it is important to go back and remember just why the song in question was so significant.  This is perhaps no more true than in the unforgettable recordings of one of the most uniquely original rock and roll pioneers: Little Richard.  Bringing together the sounds of soul, gospel, and r&b, and pushing them into his piano with almost reckless abandon, it was this energy and combination that served as the blueprint for nearly every other early rock artist.  Furthermore, it is amazing to consider just how many of Little Richard's singles and lines have become landmarks of culture, with many of them standing just as tall today as when they were first recorded.  Many of these timeless songs were brought together on his debut full length, 1957's Here's Little Richard, and yet by that point, his legend had already been cemented by the song that leads off that album.  While there are a number of songs from Little Richard that are deserving of the label of "essential," there is simply no other song in history that can compare on any level to his monumental 1955 single, "Tutti Frutti."

If there was ever a song that perfectly presented the fusion of blues and r&b that became rock and roll, it is"Tutti Frutti," as one can easily hear both of these influences coming together in harmony to create the new sound.  However, "Tutti Frutti" represents the ultimate "song that almost never was" situation, and it all began during a recording session in February of 1955, with Little Richard being backed by Fats Domino's band.  As the legend goes, the band was in the studio for another song, and during a break, Little Richard was so frustrated with the session that he began to pound away at the piano and sing a song he had been working on in clubs for the preceding months.  Hearing a truly revolutionary sound, producer Robert Blackwell contacted Dorothy LaBostrie to rewrite parts of the lyric, and a few months later, Little Richard recorded the song in just under fifteen minutes.  The backing musicians for the session remain largely unknown, but there is no question that the best chemistry is between the drummer and Little Richard.  The two seem to play off of one another and yet it is the aggressive, almost chaotic way in which Little Richard approaches his piano that separates "Tutti Frutti" from every other song of the time.  It is the fact that he manages to retain a swing in the song that shows the true "bridge" into rock music, and in both the sonically appealing, as well as historical sense, "Tutti Frutti" knows no equal.

Furthering his case as the most important figure in the founding of rock and roll, Little Richard delivers a vocal performance to match the energy and attitude one finds in his piano.  Working the entire vocal scale, it is the power and absolute passion with which he sings that makes "Tutti Frutti" so unforgettable, and few songs boast as unforgettable a lyric and mood as one finds here.  Furthermore, the opening shout of, "wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bop-bop!" has itself taken on a place in history, and while there are many interpretations as to what it "meant," it was in fact Little Richard making the "sound" of the drums in a vocal sense.  This shout sets the perfect tone for the song, and the song drops into what is largely a blues-based lyrical progression, again providing the link between the old and new styles.  Yet when one considers the time in which the song was recorded, the lyrical content on "Tutti Frutti" is unquestionably risqué, and Little Richard leaves very little to the imagination.  As he rocks the words back and forth, he paints pictures of the two of the women in his life, and the various "benefits" that each has to offer.  Looking across all of music history, there are few other songs of young love and lust that are as perfect as "Tutti Frutti," and even after more than fifty years, the sentiments that Little Richard expresses here are still just as relevant and powerful, solidifying the timeless nature of the song.

On so many levels, Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" stands far apart from its peers, and it is impossible to deny just how pivotal a moment in music history the song represents.  In modern times, one must look past the fact that the song has been used in nearly every media-based reference to the time period, and this has caused the impact of the song to become somewhat diluted.  However, when one steps back and listens with "fresh" ears to the musical mayhem on the song, it is impossible to deny just how much the song shaped the entire history of rock music, and few songs can boast a similar level of impact.  Furthermore, if one looks at the range of covers that have been recorded over the years, with everyone from Elvis Presley to Queen to The MC5 making their own versions, the lasting impact of the song is quite clear.  However, even with these other legendary artists taking a turn at the song, there is no question that none of them even come remotely close to the spirit and sound found on the Little Richard original.  It is the energy and attitude that he brings to the vocals, combined with the absolutely blazing piano work that makes his version superior, and it was these two elements that would define a majority of his other hits.  Though there were a handful of songs that shaped what would become "rock and roll," there was simply no other song more jarring or essential to this development than Little Richard's groundbreaking 1955 single, "Tutti Frutti."

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