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RCA 20-5025; OCTOBER 1952



The pre-fame career of Richard Penniman has been both fascinating to examine and frustrating to try and put into proper perspective around here.

His vocal talent, both the voice itself and how expressive he is, can’t be questioned, even though his style so far is pretty far removed from how he’d make his name once he arrived at Specialty Records.

Here he doesn’t even have the benefit of singing one of his own compositions, meaning he’s got to try and inject his still developing personality using someone else’s words and surrounded by somebody else’s musical ideas.

He more or less manages to do so, but the question then becomes, especially for those of us teleporting back in time from the present, is THIS version of Little Richard a viable contender for stardom, or are we merely waiting for Richard 2.0 before we sit up and take notice of his talent?


A Poor Boy Who Needs A Home
Nothing exists in a bubble. Our exposure to certain things will invariably shade how we view other things tangentially related to it… such as Little Richard’s golden years of 1955-1957 affecting how we assess his pre and post career peak.

After all, it’s the same artist with the same voice, albeit used differently at times, but the more we’ve been impacted by the hits that changed the world, it stands to reason that when looking back we may underrate the road he took to get there.

That runs counter to the entire premise of this project however, which is to chart the course rock ‘n’ roll as a whole took along the way, reviewing each record in its own context, not judging it by what followed. In that regard maybe we’ve shortchanged Little Richard just a bit so far.

Hold on though, don’t jump to conclusions and think any of the songs he’s released were masterpieces in their own right. You may be among the few who personally love them in an outsized way, much like I love future performances of his that are far more obscure, but in terms of leading the direction which rock itself had to go, they were not ahead of the curve stylistically, nor were they brimming with lyrical creativity or musical innovation. But that said a few we slighted MAY have been performed well enough to at least get them up to par… average that is… for the time in question.

So here with Please Have Mercy On Me we’ll make a more concerted effort to take that into consideration, something all the more crucial because the song is coming from outside sources… and not just ANY outside sources at that. Howard Biggs and Joe Thomas have a long list of songwriting credits to their name in rock, including earlier efforts for Richard, but for the most part it’s been a slightly more mannered, pop-slanted rock style as befitting RCA Records and the writer’s own goals of crossover potential.

Surely if Richard can breathe life into songs with those built-in backwards aims maybe he’s already showing that the transformative gene which will define him historically was alive and well within him from the start.


You’ll Hear Me Knockin’
Of course when this starts with the guitar out front you’re caught so off guard that you might not make it to Richard singing, as it sounds almost like a country record the way that guitar is tuned.

Though that dissipates for the most part, the guitar fills are still a little odd sounding for a record of this sort regardless of who the vocalist is. Even the treble heavy piano coloring and the languid tenor sax solo are just a bit “off” stylistically for an anguished soulful rock confession.

They’re not by any means disqualifying it from fitting in the genre, but they’re also not highlighting the composition as well as it might’ve been with a grittier arrangement. RCA probably thought this was stepping far outside their comfort zone and were proud they went as far astray as they did, but we’re not comparing it to other would-be rock releases that came out under their colors, but rather we’re measuring it against sides that Maxwell Davis on the West Coast, Henry Glover in the Mid-West or Dave Bartholomew down in New Orleans would’ve come up with and against that competition this track falls well short.

But that’s where having Little Richard – even a nascent Little Richard – comes in handy, because unlike a lot of vocalists who are more concerned with adhering to the expectations of the producers, Richard seems more intent on delivering meaning to the words he’s been handed on Please Have Mercy On Me and extracting every last feeling he can from those sentiments.

As you can tell by the title he’s in despair, broken hearted over the one he loves not showing any interest in him. Obviously we know, even if he doesn’t, that this begging tactic try to and win her over with sympathy rather than attraction isn’t going to work. She might feel sorry for him, but that leads only to pity, not love.

Yet when you’re a kid without much experience who’s being overwhelmed with the most powerful, uncontrollable emotions you’ve ever felt for one person, you don’t have that wizened perspective to tap into. Instead you double down on your desperation because that feeds into those feelings, validates them in a way, and you figure that when she sees just how distraught you are over her, then if she IS the perfect girl you envision her to be, she’ll relent and give you her heart.

We hate to be the one to tell him he’s wrong. That’s she not even being cruel to him for rejecting him, that love simply doesn’t work that way, but this is the kind of thing everybody has to find out for themselves, as painful as it is. You can’t convince someone to like you using manipulation of any kind, you have to merely exist in a manner that attracts others naturally, show confidence and comfort in your own skin, and let nature take its course.

But if Richard knew that then we wouldn’t get such a tender reading of this and we wouldn’t have a song that’s lyrically pretty well constructed, at least the couplets rather than message (with a melody line subtly influenced by Percy Mayfield’s immortal Please Send Me Someone To Love), be given the chance to really hit you with the full force of his emotions.

No, this too doesn’t qualify as a great record in of itself, but it’s a definite sign that the artist may just have been destined for greatness after all.


I’ll Hang Around You, Want No One Else
Maybe the best way to wrap up this look at Little Richard’s prospects at this stage of his career is to ask if the balladeer version of him shown here had a viable path to stardom over the next few years, or if he had no choice but to let himself go vocally, exploding with energy just to make a connection.

The answer I think is the softer, less flamboyant Richard Penniman was certainly good enough to be a hitmaker, but probably not a long term star… definitely not the kind who could make planet Earth shift on its axis the way the Quasar Of Rock persona would in a few years time.

Ballads, for all their importance in bringing stylistic balance to rock, are sometimes harder to form a connection with people. They rely on more tenuous appeal… the poignancy of the vocals, a more subtle melodic hook, the lighter touch of the musicians who can’t afford a misstep, and the message being conveyed finding the right way to reflect the audiences own experiences.

It’s no surprise that while the biggest stars of each decade have scored with ballads, few have their catalog dominated by them. When it comes to breaking through, which Little Richard was still hoping for when Please Have Mercy On Me came out, it definitely seems easier to do so when you forcibly grab someone’s attention rather than try and pull at their heartstrings.

Even those who HAVE scored big their first time out with ballads – The Five Keys, The Swallows, The Four Buddies, Edna McGriff, the list goes on – had trouble following them up with anything approaching the same results commercially.

So while we’re saying that this record puts Richard’s vocal talent on display nicely, it might’ve been for the best that it too fell short, because while the next few years must’ve been frustrating for him to weather, when he came out the other side it was with an approach that was sure to never be forgotten.


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