Little Richard – Directly From My Heart (box set review)

Little Richard – Directly From My Heart (Specialty / Concord Music Group) review

Little Richard came on like a category 5 hurricane…and here’s the proof

Directly From My Heart is a new, 3-CD, Little Richard compilation that should be subtitled “The Good Stuff,” because it covers a period of time when he was still at the peak of his powers. So, there’s a healthy dose of the seminal sides that he cut for Art Rupe’s Specialty label, but you also get an entire disc of lesser-known tracks from his stint with Vee Jay, after his sabbatical in religious music. The end result is the greatest Little Richard collection ever assembled, and one heck of a fun ride.

Little Richard arrived at Specialty Records lacking an unique voice, and the first seven tracks on disc one reveal a rather run-of-the-mill R&B singer. In retrospect, these cuts aren’t bad, and it certainly makes you appreciate when he does find his voice. The monster lurking underneath is finally let loose on “Tutti Frutti” – and the world was never the same. Beginning with Richard’s growling, now-classic “wop-bop-a-loom-bop-alop-bam-boom,” this is 2 minutes and 25 seconds of sheer insanity, and it still sounds wild, 60 years later! Richard not only signaled the end of the “Crooner era,” he also set the bar very high for future rock n’ rollers.

He had perfected perfection – furious playing, featuring shuffling drums, loud and up front; a honking sax, and pounding piano, with Richard screaming over the top of everything like he had been doused with gasoline, and then set on fire. “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Ready Teddy,” and “Rip it Up” weren’t just great songs – they redefined how wild this new, rock n’ roll music, could actually be.

Discs one and two take us on this rollercoaster ride of peak after glorious peak – “Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “The Girl Can’t Help It.” Sandwiched in with the crazy rockers are heartfelt ballads, like “Wonderin’,” “Shake a Hand,” and “The Most I Can Offer,” yet even these still contain that deep, visceral quality, innate in all his great work.

Richard famously walked away from rock n’ roll and joined the church in 1957 (after being spooked by seeing the Russian Sputnik satellite in the sky, and thinking it was a sign from God). He would eventually return to secular music in 1964, signing to Vee Jay records. While these recordings never reach the dizzying heights of his earlier work, they still manage to raise the hairs on the back of your neck quite often. Of major significance is that most contain a very young Jimi Hendrix on guitar.

Richard’s take on the Drifters’ “Money Honey” is quite impressive – it grooves in a way that the original never did, and has a smokin’ Hendrix solo. A lot of this material is cover versions of earlier hits, but they still have merit, and Richard is still in fine form. He actually takes Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and injects it with funk, while “Short Fat Fannie” cleverly inserts characters from Richard’s previous hits. “Without Love” shows off a soulful side, “You Better Stop” faithfully captures the Motown feel, while “Why Don’t You Love Me” sounds like a groove that Little Feat would perfect a few years later. “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got, But It’s Got Me” features Hendrix and Billy Preston and was a sizable R&B hit.

The packaging is also top notch – the booklet features a plethora of rare photos and a fine essay by Specialty expert Billy Vera. To top it off, everything is doused in a hot pink color (yes!), and this is the absolute best that these recordings have ever sounded.

By eschewing his tentative early work and his erratic later recordings, and just focusing on his most consistent output, Directly From My Heart is the best Little Richard compilation ever released, and should be required listening for anyone wanting to learn about the roots of rock n’ roll. —Tony Peters