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RCA 20-4392; DECEMBER 1951

 
 

 

It’s the answer to a somewhat devious question that can win you a bet at a bar with a know-it-all music fan…

What was Little Richard’s first chart hit?

Granted the answer will require you to define the term “hit” in clear terms, meaning a release which made a published chart in one of the main music magazines of the day – Cash Box regional charts, as they had no National Chart as of yet – but as long as you don’t act too smug about knowing it you can comfortably enjoy your drink without worrying about watching your back in the parking lot.
 

 

Just A Friendless Boy
The ballads of Little Richard generally don’t get anywhere near the respect – nor have anything close to the popularity – of his manic uptempo sides.

Once stardom arrived with the most unhinged record in rock to date in 1955, the die was cast and he was going to try and replicate that hellbent approach, if not try and top it each time out, with a succession of likeminded records.

To his credit none of them released during his prime came across as pale imitations or uninspired rip-offs, as all were fully realized performances with plenty of distinctive traits to set them apart from his earlier efforts.

In the process though, his ballad output was bound to be put on the back burner even though the ones he released were all just as stellar in their own right as the more famous sides.

But in 1951 the wild frantic Little Richard was a long ways off and it was his ballad output that was probably the better bet for long term sustainability as an artist. After all, he was essentially following the footsteps of Billy Wright, the guy who’d tutored him in stage presence and honed his vocal style as well as introducing him to disc jockey Zenas Sears who got Richard his contract with RCA, and Wright was one of the biggest stars in all of rock over the past two years primarily thanks to his anguished way with a ballad.

So not surprisingly Every Hour is a pretty close approximation of Wright’s sound… so much so that Wright himself would cover it at the request of Savoy, changing the title but little else.

Yet it WAS a Little Richard original and make no mistake about it, Richard does bring his own unique textures to it, earning the minor hit recognition legitimately rather than by having audiences gravitate towards it strictly because of it sounding a lot like someone they already knew and loved.
 

I Cried “Have Mercy”
The lilting high-pitched whine of Richard, like a powerful engine winding out, would become one of his trademarks and this makes it clear it was present from the very start.

The effect it has is to ratchet up the intensity in a way that the lyrics alone could never convey. Yes, he’s despondent over a girl leaving him, but the way in which he delivers the lines makes it seem as if he’s trying desperately to hold in the pain so he doesn’t let the girl see him break down and start sobbing – an alternative route a lot of singers might take with a song like this – yet, still being unable to suppress that pain quite enough to appear to be unaffected by her decision.

That unresolved tension is the biggest selling point of Every Hour, giving you reason to hang on every word as he smartly keeps the lurching pace intact throughout the song, creeping forward rather than surging ahead with a sudden emotional outburst to break the mood.

His control is first rate and though you can definitely see the debt he owes to Wright’s style, this takes on a slightly different hue because of Richard’s untutored delivery. Though he’s got a voice that’s every bit as good as his mentor, he’s not nearly as good of a singer as Billy Wright at this stage of his career, but in this case it helps him because the rawness of the performance matches the emotional anguish he feels in the story.

Of course it’s also Wright’s band backing him here and they certainly knew how to frame a song like this, having had plenty of experience in that department, and they provide Richard with a solid foundation – nothing instantly captivating, but nothing out of place either. The heavy left hand on the stuttering piano intro that gets pushed further back into the mix as the horns pick up on the riff once Richard comes in provides a subtle and addicting rhythm with some cracking drum kicks to set it off.

The mid-section switches things up, the right hand dominating the piano now with a higher and slightly different horn riff that seems on the verge of dropping out of key but never does, before returning to the earlier arrangement down the stretch to pull it back together nicely.

Though neither the band nor Richard himself manage to transfix you completely, they both turn in well-honed performances with unmistakable appeal for a variety of purposes… everything from slow dancing to daydreaming to commiserating with someone over your own fractured relationship in the wee hours of the morning.
 


 

You Know I Love You, Baby
Trying to objectively – and subjectively for that matter – judge the early pre-stardom records of someone so famous who’s got such an indelible style that these offerings barely touch on, isn’t the easiest of tasks.

It’s 2022 after all and there’s never been a moment of listening to music where we (most of us anyway) weren’t fully aware of the legend of Little Richard and so hearing his voice, still distinctive but not in prime form yet, kinda throws off your senses.

On one hand it’s probably easy to underrate some of these sides because they fail to meet loftier expectations based on later classics. Certainly yesterday with Taxi Blues we could’ve been a little more generous and bumped it up a point since it probably does have just enough good qualities to justify an average for its day score.

But on the other hand there’s always the risk of overrating something because of your love of, and familiarity with, the artist in question gotten from years of exposure after the fact, as certainly few people in 1951 would’ve been so knocked out by that song to consider it a perfect record at the time when they didn’t have any awareness of who Richard Penniman was.

So you try and take each record as they come, ignoring the name the best we can – other than for the write-up itself, where it’s obviously pertinent – and focusing instead on the sound of the record in relation to the current crop of records on the market in late fall 1951, keeping in mind that being a tough grader is necessary in order for the average score of any given year actually wind up as being average – (5) – otherwise you’ve invalidated the meaning of the term itself.

In that context something like Every Hour does well, but still doesn’t give much indication that there’s something special about Little Richard waiting to come out.

To put it another way, if Little Richard retired from music in early 1955 before he signed with Specialty, maybe getting a raise at the bus station he worked at washing dishes after deciding that cleaning up after somebody else’s supper was a more promising future than singing for his own supper, and we came across this record now, what would we think of it?

Nicely done if a bit derivative… a slightly infectious rolling groove that wasn’t too original… and at the center of it all a guy with a good voice and strong emotional undercurrents singing a song that fits in the current rock scene without standing out too much in the process.

Anything less than that modestly positive response would be selling it short, yet anything more than that would be hard to defend.

Don’t fear though, the best is still yet to come.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDIC:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Little Richard for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)