Little Richard and the scream that fired The Beatles

If I had to draw up (a very long) list of things I love about The Beatles’ music, the sound of John and/or Paul hollering their heads off while rampaging their way through a rock song would probably feature pretty high. There’s a sense of slightly unhinged abandon about it which is just irresistible. It captures the frenetic energy of that side of their output, and I’m not sure it would’ve happened in quite the same way without Little Richard.

Little Richard in his ’50s pomp

Richard – who died in May at the age of 87 – was of course one of the key ‘50s pioneers who inspired The Beatles, and countless others, to abandon scruffy skiffle and dive headlong into the glamorous glories of rock ‘n’ roll. All of these rockers were ahead of their time, that’s why they had such a seismic impact on that generation. The smouldering, sensual swagger of Elvis; the chugging rhythms and wry urban poetry of  Chuck Berry; the perky, quirky pop of Buddy Holly; the shrill sex sermonising of Jerry Lee Lewis; the heavenly harmonies of the Everly Brothers, and so on. Nobody had heard stuff like this before. Even listening to it 60 years or so years later, you can still smell the whiff of sulphur it all must have generated. And I don’t think anyone could have been more arresting, or downright shocking, than Little Richard.

 In the early 1990s, keen to hear some of the sounds that influenced the Fabs, I picked up one of those rock ‘n’ roll compilation albums. They were all on it (apart from Elvis), but it was notable that the whole collection was top and tailed with songs by Richard. His outrageous stage persona – complete with bouffant hair-do, heavy make-up, shiny suits and coyly ambiguous sexuality – must’ve been hard enough for many people in the austere, post-war ‘50s to get their head around (never mind that he was also black). But the music itself was the real stick of dynamite. The pounding piano, earthy saxes, banging drums and wry, outré lyrics delivered by that shrieking, full-blooded, visceral voice….wow. It’s like punk, 20 years early. Just listen to ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’. I’ve heard it many times, but the ferocity of that scream which heralds the sax solo still give me a jolt every time. Heaven knows what those four boys in 1956 Liverpool, used to cosy chart fare by the likes of Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and Doris Day, must’ve made of it.

Yowza! Stand well back….

Actually, we do have an idea what they made of it. John later recalled: “The first time I heard ‘Long Tall Sally’ it blew our heads. We’d never heard anybody sing like that in our lives…..It used to make your hair stand on end when he did that long scream into the solo.” Paul was equally besotted, and rapidly became skilled at impersonating his new hero. “I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing, it’s like an out-of-body experience.” he said. “You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it.” Paul loved Little Richard so much that this became his party piece — he chose to sing ‘Long Tall Sally’ for his first ever stage appearance, at Butlins holiday camp in 1956, and also his serenaded fellow pupils at the Liverpool Institute with that and ‘Tutti Frutti’ on the last day of one school term, climbing onto a desk with his guitar and no little self-confidence.

And while everyone knows the story of Paul impressing John with a word-perfect guitar run-through of Eddie Cochrane’s ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ when they first met at the Woolton Church Fete in July 1957, it’s not so widely discussed that Paul then switched to piano and launched into his well-practiced Little Richard routine. As Mark Lewisohn so memorably puts it in his peerless Fabs biography Tune In, “Paul couldn’t have known it, but by slipping into ‘Long Tall Sally’ he was sliding into John’s main artery….No matter how much John affected an air of coolness, his insides had to be leaping.”

George was also a big fan and, as the Quarrymen slowly evolved into The Beatles, their setlists invariably featured at least one Richard number. And, in the same way as Chuck Berry songs were mostly sung by John, Little Richard ones were always sung by Paul. Macca had mastered not only his growling timbre and frenzied screams but also his high pitched, gospel-inflected whoops. Richard’s material would remain a fixture in their live shows, right until the very end; they closed their last-ever concert, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, with ‘Long Tall Sally’. You can only imagine the thrill they felt when they got the meet the man himself, and perform on the same bill in both Hamburg and Liverpool, in 1962. The picture of them taken backstage at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton in October of that year says it all.

Meeting their their hero, late 1962

The Beatles recorded two Richard songs for EMI during the 1960s, ‘Long Tall Sally’ (for the 1964 British EP of the same name) and ‘Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey!’ for that same year’s Beatles For Sale LP. Curiously, I don’t feel either of these tracks really capture the heat generated when the band tackled his material; they’re a little too polished for my taste. If you want the real fireworks, you need to go to the Live at the Star Club album (1962) and the BBC radio sessions in 1963. The version of ‘Kansas City’ on the former is more muscular and uninhibited, while the same record’s breathless race through ‘Long Tall Sally’ is astonishing, building to an incendiary climax every bit as compelling as ‘A Day in the Life’ would be five long years later. The pile driving rendition of ‘Lucille’ on Live at the BBC Vol. 2 features one of the all-time great McCartney vocals, while the band just goes berserk on ‘Ooh! My Soul’ (from Live at the BBC Vol. 1), a mini musical blitzkrieg.

‘Oh! My Soul’ at the BBC, 1963

But it wasn’t just on their covers of Richard’s own songs where his influence was keenly felt. They adapted and incorporated his whoops into several of their early trademark hits – ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘Twist and Shout’ and, most famously, ‘She Loves You’ – and kept returning to the well throughout their collective career. Listen to John’s lusty screams which punctuate their three Larry Williams covers, ‘Slow Down’, ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’. Or how Paul effectively writes his own Little Richard song, ‘I’m Down’, which closed many of their live shows in 1965/66. Later still, John opens ‘Revolution’ with a familiar, demonic cry, while Paul goes full-on Richard for a vocal tour de force on Abbey Road’s ‘Oh! Darling’. And, of course, several of his songs featured when they ran through their favourite rock ‘n’ roll oldies during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969 (you can hear a snippet of ‘Rip It Up’ on Anthology 3).

After the break-up, it was a similar story. John covered four Richard tunes on his 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll album – a giddy medley of ‘Rip It Up’/’Ready Teddy’, plus fantastic versions of ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’ and ‘Send Me Some Lovin’’. Paul, in turn, played Richard songs live with Wings in 1972, ‘73 and ‘79, and while there were no such covers on the mammoth Wings Over the World 1975-76 tour, you have only to listen to the Wings Over America album to hear the man’s spirit writ large over barn-storming performances of songs like ‘Beware My Love’, ‘Hi Hi Hi’ and ‘Soily’. And it wasn’t just on the uptempo rock numbers where Richard’s legacy was apparent in their work, as it often helped to power some of their most personal, introspective material. When John came to unleash the results of his so-called primal scream therapy on 1970’s Plastic Ono Band album, I suspect the screams owed more than a little to a certain flamboyant black R&B shouter from the southern United States. Likewise Paul’s startling vocal volcanic eruptions on songs like ‘Back Seat of My Car’ (1971) and ‘The Pound is Sinking’ (1982), two career high points, drew deeply on that same well of inspiration.

John channelling Richard in 1975

When Paul returned to the live arena for the 1986 Prince’s Trust concert after seven years away (Live Aid excepted), it was somehow inevitable that he chose ‘Long Tall Sally’ – 30 years after Butlins – as one of the three songs to ease himself back in. And was equally unsurprising that the covers album he cut the following year and initially released only in Russia, Choba B CCP, feature two old Richard chestnuts, ‘Kansas City’ and ‘Lucille’. Yet the years without touring, combined with his age and (probably) earlier years of heavy smoking, had taken its toll on that part of his vocal range – the fire was still there, but he sounded a little more raspy, more gale force than the full-blown hurricane of yore. The McCartney voice is a remarkable instrument, however, and it underwent a renaissance in the late ’90s/early ’00s – just in time for his second rock ‘n’ roll covers collection, Run Devil Run (1999), which featured a powerhouse reading of a soulful, lesser-know Richard number called ‘Shake a Hand’. And he rode that wave into his next album of originals, Driving Rain (2001), tearing it up on loose, garage band-style rockers like ‘Lonely Road’ and ‘About You’, not forgetting the end-of-the-world scream which tops off the epic closer ‘Rinse The Raindrops’.

Paul’s fabulous Richard cover, 1999

Little Richard’s run of hits may have been short lived, but it’s impact continues to echo down the generations. And not just through the Fab Four – James Brown, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Prince and many others have acknowledged his influence. But The Beatles remain perhaps his leading torch-bearers. There’s been a lot of debate about the state of Paul’s voice during concerts over the past decade or so, and whether it’s still up to scratch. I can see both sides of the argument, but the last time I saw him live, at London’s O2 in 2015, it sounded in pretty good nick to me – and never more so than during the encore. When he launched into savage, throat-shredding renditions of ‘Hi Hi Hi’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, I swear he shook the arena to its very foundations. Nearly 60 years on, he was still “doing his Little Richard”.

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