Little Richard – The Rill Thing and King of Rock n’ Roll (review)

Little Richard – The Rill Thing

Little Richard – King of Rock n’ Roll (Omnivore Recordings)

Little Richard recorded in Muscle Shoals lives up to the hype!

There is only one Little Richard.  His 1950’s singles for Specialty Records stand as some of the most electrifying music ever put to tape (we gush about them in this article).  

Of course, part of his mystique is that he kept swearing off rock n’ roll as “devil’s music,” only to return with one comeback after another over the years.  In 1970, Richard signed with Reprise Records and began one such resurgence.  Omnivore Recordings has just reissued a pair of albums from that time period, The Rill Thing and King of Rock n’ Roll, both long out of print.

For The Rill Thing, Little Richard ventured down to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Those hallowed walls had given birth to countless soul classics from artists like Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and Clarence Carter.  But, Richard isn’t really a soul singer.  So, in order for this to work, he still needs to be Little Richard.  Thankfully, he does.

The opening of “Freedom Blues” is sung acapella, before being joined by the funky rhythm section.  This simple plea for peace and harmony was recorded 50 years ago, but the message still needs heeded (it also features a great sax solo).  That’s followed by the phenomenal “Greenwood, Mississippi,” penned by guitarist Travis Wommack, a member of these sessions.  The churning track has a Creedence feel to it, but grooves harder than anything Fogerty and Co. ever laid down.

Much of the album is written or co-written by Richard himself, showing that he wasn’t short on ideas.  “Somebody Saw You” finds a funky groove, while his shouts elicit goosebumps on “Spreadin’ Natta, What’s the Matter” – this is the same guy that did “Tutti Frutti” 15 years earlier – yet, no time sounds like it has passed.  The title track, “The Rill Thing,” was the result of a single-take jam, with Richard directing each musician to take a solo; the entire thing lasts over ten minutes, but really shows off the talents of each player.

“Dew Drop Inn” starts with a drum fill from Richard’s classic “Keep a Knockin’” before launching into a stop/start rocker that really wouldn’t sound out of place back in 1955.  Richard was a fan of classic country music – still, Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” is a surprise.  Here, he slows down the pace, really letting the track simmer.  He also covers the Beatles on “I Saw Her Standing There” (Paul McCartney has been a lifelong Richard fan).  The horns here are a nice touch.

There’s an interesting variety of bonus material here too.  “Shake a Hand (If You Can)” was originally recorded by Specialty Records’ labelmate Faye Adams way back in 1953.  Here, Richard teamed with Atlantic Records’ guru Jerry Wexler.  The result is a little less funky than Muscle Shoals, but still a winner.  There’s also a truncated version of “I Saw Her Standing There” in mono.  But, the real treat is a pair of radio ads that Richard records himself, and it’s Little Richard through and through – he says “it’s the best thing I’ve ever done” and he sure sounds convincing!

The bottom line – The Rill Thing shows Little Richard at the top of his game backed by fantastic players from Muscle Shoals.  It is a real diamond in the rough in his catalog.

After the surprise success of The Rill Thing, Richard went right back to work, issuing King of Rock n’ Roll the following year.  Honestly, this is more what you might expect from him.  Produced by H.B. Barnum, everything is over the top, and I do mean over the top – from the front cover, depicting Richard sitting high on a throne, to the tracks, which are full of cheesy horns and backup singers.  Yes, he even talks inbetween the songs, telling the “crowd” to “shut up.”  

The main issue here is that the backing is just meh – it doesn’t cook, and after the previous year’s success of Muscle Shoals, this sounds like Buddha Records fare, like “Yummy Yummy Yummy” – like the opposite of soul.  A perfect example here is Richard’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” – he sings pretty well, but the backup band sounds like a novelty act.  Too bad they didn’t try this at FAME studios.

For “Dancing in the Street” – just compare the drum sound here to what was on The Rill Thing.  These drums sound like milk jugs – flat.  “Midnight Special” has a train-like rhythm, but never really takes off, while “Born on the Bayou” comes of as “Chick a Boom” instead of sincere. 

The one exception is his version of “The Way You Do The Things You Do” – it’s ragged, Richard’s voice is flat at times, but the arrangement is sparse, with the bass upfront.

Richard did write a couple of songs here – “In the Name” is a decent, mid-tempo soul number, while “Green Power,” co-written by Barnum, is a so-so funk track – again, nothing spectacular.

Is the King of Rock n’ Roll still a good time, yes.  But compared to what proceeded it, it’s a little bit of a letdown.

Both reissues have insightful liner notes written by the great Bill Dahl, giving some historical relevance to these mostly-forgotten tracks.

We tend to lean on Little Richard’s early recordings.  Let’s hear it for Omnivore for reissuing these albums, showing us that Little Richard was still making great music in the 1970’s.   —Tony Peters