Tags

No tags :(

Share it

RCA 20-4392; DECEMBER 1951

 
 

 

The first time any new artist comes across the horizon around here there’s always a sense of anticipation, wondering what they have to offer and how they’ll manage to fit into… or even change… the rock landscape as their career evolves.

Through the end of 1951 with more than two hundred artists who’ve released a rock record to date, arguably only one – Fats Domino – will have a more monumental impact on rock history than the one we’re meeting today.

Yet unlike Domino whose first effort was as good as anything we’ve heard to date, a smash hit which codified the entire New Orleans rock sound in the process, this side of the initial release of Little Richard fell upon deaf ears, showed no distinct artistic identity and gave absolutely no indication that he’d go on to change rock ‘n’ roll forever.
 

 

Can’t Even Pay My Fare
In the Twenty-First Century the name itself grabs your attention but that’s not as a result of anything he did at this early stage of his career, so for the moment we need to put that out of our collective memories and focus on something which would’ve caught your attention in 1951 if you were reasonably savvy as to the rock marketplace.

The label.

RCA-Victor was hardly known for their rock output and while they initially had a few good artists with strong releases those largely consisted their older established acts who instinctively gravitated towards rock once it came into being and even then it barely made much impact commercially and the artists were soon jettisoned as the major label re-focused on their more traditional output and left rock ‘n’ roll to the upstart independent companies.

But by late 1951 the upstart independent companies had began to erode the major label’s commercial dominance by cornering the market on rock ‘n’ roll which had grown bigger than anyone anticipated and so, like it or not, RCA and those like them were at least willing to dabble in this music to curtail what they surely viewed as an industry-wide insurrection.

Even so it’s hard to see how they’d land on signing someone as unique as Little Richard Penniman, an effeminate refugee from minstrel shows where he often performed in drag as a female impersonator. Hardly the kind of image that a conservative company like RCA would see as the solution to their problems in reaching this long neglected music constituency.

In truth he was signed to the company strictly on a tip from Atlanta disc jockey Zenas Sears who earlier in the year had gotten another major label, Columbia, to sign Chuck Willis who was now in the process of establishing their subsidiary OKeh as the first major-affiliated label to watch in rock ‘n’ roll.

Maybe RCA was thinking along those lines, but chances are they just didn’t know enough about the style to be able to make sound judgment on an artist’s potential… and to be honest, Little Richard’s potential at this juncture was hardly worth banking on as evidenced by the fairly generic Taxi Blues which gives absolutely no insight into his artistic persona.

About the only surprising thing about the record is the fact that RCA released it without attempting to neuter Richard, but then again it was hardly necessary when Richard for the most part neutered himself.
 

Take Me Anywhere
The “credit” we might otherwise give to RCA for the sound of this record – modestly subdued maybe but stylistically pure and reasonably effective – really doesn’t belong to the head honchos at the label because they had nothing to do with the session which was held at the radio station where Sears worked and featured Billy Wright’s band behind Richard.

Without production interference from a company always seeking to maintain their respectable image you got a more authentic reading of the material… but considering it’s a brisk song about a guy in the throes of romantic torment – and possibly on the run after beating up his girl – the fact that it’s so restrained, both instrumentally and vocally, pretty much tells you all you need to know about its potential to impress.

The band though does at least know what they’re doing in terms of giving us a decent arrangement as the piano (probably Tom Patton as opposed to Richard himself), rolls along at a healthy clip while the horns riff innocuously in the shadows. It’s energetic without being exciting, giving Richard enough momentum to shape the song to his liking if he takes them up on their offer.

Instead he plays it exceedingly safe. We get a restrained vocal, one that at times hints at the more ebullient quirky singer we later became accustomed to, but he’s careful never to let that voice go too far. Even at the time when nobody knew what he was capable of, it’s fairly easy to tell that he’s got power he’s not using here, but rather than unleash it he reins it in. Not only does that deprive us of something potentially exhilarating, and certainly something memorable, but it also does the song itself no favors, leaving Taxi Blues idling at the curb.

The story, which he did not write, is decidedly limited even if the basic premise is good. Richard and his girl had a fight – literally, as he belted her – and Richard is on the run, not because of being worried about arrest or retribution (this is 1951 America where whipping your wife probably wouldn’t be a misdemeanor in most counties, especially down south) but rather because he’s frustrated with her not changing her ways in spite of the altercation.

In other words he’s incapable of dealing with a relationship in a responsible fashion and runs away from home more or less.

As such the song does represent a legitimate problem that a lot of people have in failed relationships, immaturity which often leads to rash behavior which makes things worse, but while it is an accurate portrayal of the situation, it doesn’t offer any insight beyond that, nor any resolution to the plot. He’s just driving around in a cab until he calms down, his wife goes to sleep or he runs out of money and the driver runs out of patience with him whining about it incessantly from the back seat and dumps him on the corner, leaving him to walk home.
 


 

Can’t Tell Now By The Look In Her Eye
Despite the criticism for what this record is NOT, what’s here is hardly terrible and I don’t want to make it out to seem like a person who came across this in 1951 would be utterly shocked four years later when Richard exploded onto the national scene with a string of hits that defined the entire 50’s rock era better than anyone. Well maybe THAT extreme would be hard to believe, but certainly you can see he’s got talent here even if that talent had yet to be harnessed and focused in a way where it could be properly spotlighted.

In other words it’s not a bad record by any means, it’s got a nice rolling groove, a decent enough sax solo by Freddie Jackson and Richard’s voice is intriguing even if it stays largely straitjacketed.

But Taxi Blues never tries to be anything special. It’s perfectly content to aim fairly low, hoping that the basic sound it achieves, which fits well enough into the dominant rock characteristics of the day, will suffice.

Okay, so they achieved that… congratulations. RCA proved they could indeed find artists who’d give them a rock record that was fortunate enough to be deemed fairly ordinary for the then-current landscape after all. Wonderful.

If that’s what you’re after, go ahead and enjoy it.

But had the name on the label been Rich Penny instead of Richard Penniman, there’d be few people who’d bring this record up today because its entire goal was to be run-of-mill which in the end is far more unforgivable than merely falling well short of his future greatness.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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