Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Past, Present and Future: Little Richard: "Baby Face"

It is a sad but common fact that there are periods of great ferment and excitement if not downright mania in music, and then there are times when things seem to...slow down. The charts seemingly get on a one-way ticket to dullsville and a restless public hies out for new musical territory, or retreats into the comfy old clothes of the past. It is a dismaying and frustrating experience to live through one of these times, as what was inexplicably and irreversibly slides into the past, a past that sometimes others don't share too much affection for, as they never much cared for it when it was the present.

In late January of '59 you might think everything in the world of rock 'n' roll was fine, which to a certain extent it was - Elvis was about to go #1 yet again, a young woman from Tiger Bay was getting more than a little attention, The Big Bopper had a hit with "Chantilly Lace" that was going up the chart and The Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis had new hits as well. But in just three days The Big Bopper would be gone, along with Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly (a day memorialized in a song that I will eventually get to - but for now I will stay in the present). I can only imagine the dismay and despair upon hearing the news - it was one thing to have Elvis in the army, Jerry Lee Lewis was blackballed from radio because of his marriage, and as for Little Richard...well, he had seen Sputnik fly by while in Australia and took it as a sign he should give up sinful rock for gospel. This he did in the fall of '57, which means, yes, this hit (his biggest in the UK chart-placement-wise) was a song dug out of the vaults.

"Baby Face" (a jazz song from the 20s) may not seem like something to make girls throw their undergarments and leap off of balconies, but the raspy, growly vibrato of Richard's (he reminds me a bit of Buffy Ste. Marie, of all people) - the way he just attacks a song and nearly makes it sound as if the fourth wall, as such, doesn't exist - is a huge wave of desire and surrender, a huge open door flung out to the whole world. (No doubt the reason this got to #2 was that his fans were beside themselves for something new, and this was a song everyone, young and old, knew already.) If Chuck Berry (yes I will get to him in time, dear reader) is rock 'n' roll as a foundation stone, Little Richard was the animating spirit who inspired just as many to yell and shriek and wear shiny clothing and just plain BE themselves. (Brian Johnson of AC/DC counts him as a main inspiration, for instance, as did Jimi Hendrix [who was in his band for a while] and Noddy Holder of Slade.) Little Richard broke down barriers in a way that repulsed some and overwhelmingly gratified others in the repressed and repressive 50s. This song appears here not in a time when rock is on the ascendant but when it is troubled and in need of new energy, new faces and new ideas. In almost no time whatsoever in this sluggish year, a new name would appear out of Los Angeles via The Bronx, one who would never throw a ring into an ocean to save his soul. Was rock dead? Nope, just growing in a different direction.

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