So this is the first blog post in [checks date] eight-and-a-half weeks, huh. I’m still more timely than Perspectives of New Music! I kid, I kid.
But, no, I haven’t been doing much music writing while under lockdown. Still, the death of Little Richard last week was enough to make me carve out some time from my home-schooling duties, put together a reflection, and pitch it around a bit. There were no takers, not surprisingly. (The market for a post-Boomer white classical music critic’s thoughts on Little Richard is not exactly robust.) But I’ve spent a lot of time with Little Richard over the years, with his music and his biography.
Little Richard was a key focus of the early research for my forever-in-progress, forever-unfinished history of music in the 1950s, in large part for what his music revealed about concepts of space and territory. That was Little Richard’s power: collapsing the space separating you, the listener, from rock-and-roll’s exhilarating and scandalous energy. One of the startling things about 1955 thesis statement, “Tutti Frutti,” is how close-up it feels. The original recording, made in the tiny, back-of-the-store J&M Recording Studio in New Orleans, was exceptionally and noticeably dry, with hardly any ambience at all. All that was there was the performance, incandescent and direct.
That dry, right-next-to-you sound was not necessarily the norm, even in rock-and-roll. Others tried to make sure you kept your distance. “Tutti Frutti” was, infamously, covered by Pat Boone, an early entry in the catalog of whitewashed R&B covers that, for a brief time, clogged and distorted the airwaves and the charts. In the cover version, Boone’s voice was draped in a halo of reverb. It created a concert-hall-like aura, an expansion of the space into which the sound seems to be projected, a decorous gap between the audience and the stage—not to mention the song’s racial and sexual charge. When you listen to Boone’s version, you’re forced to enter into that simulated space. When you listen to the original, Little Richard comes into the space in which the recording is being played—your car, your living room, your bedroom. He and the song are right there, close enough to touch.
The dividing line between rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll might well be Little Richard’s undefinable but unmistakeable immediacy: the animation, the abandon, the scream. His influence was, paradoxically, both instantaneous and deferred. The year after “Tutti Frutti,” Little Richard was a featured player in director Frank Tashlin’s 1956 romp The Girl Can’t Help It. It’s still one of the best rock-and-roll movies ever made, and one of the most incisive: both the film and its most flamboyant performer amplify rock’s sensual, silly, and cynical qualities in ways most practitioners and fans would not come to terms with for years. Little Richard is in on it from the start. Take the opening scene: Jayne Mansfield, shoehorned into a low-cut, deep-blue dress, sashaying down a New York sidewalk, oblivious to her effect on men and matter—melting ice, erupting milk bottles. It’s a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, an over-the-top release of post-World War II psychosexual repression. The soundtrack is the title song, performed by—who else?—Little Richard.
One of my foundational texts for deciphering rock-and-roll was Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, written in 1968 and revised in 1972. In stealing Little Richard’s indelible interjection for his title, Cohn neatly epitomized the oft-mythologized sense of rock-and-roll’s detonative impact. Generations of rock-and-roll adherents, from the British Invasion to the punk rock and its offspring, venerated Little Richard’s stripped-down efficiency, while wave after wave of rock-and-roll heretics—glam rock, disco, hair metal—embraced his heightened flamboyance. But Cohn’s book has an elegiac streak, a realization, perhaps, that Little Richard’s transcendent combination of virtuosity, defiance, confrontation, glamour, camp, and utter individual freedom was an unrepeatable phenomenon.
Some artists embody their era. Little Richard excavated and revealed his. Every tendency that white, respectable American society would have rather neutralized, Little Richard brought to the fore and epitomized. As much of the country was reinstating and reasserting reactionary gender roles, Little Richard flaunted a queer identity. While religious leaders refashioned churches into suburban temples of middle-class propriety and prosperity, Little Richard hollered with Pentecostal zeal, in tongue-twisting lyrics that verged on glossolalia. As the country’s history of racial conflict once again came to an inflection point, Little Richard stood black, loud, and proud, joyously dangerous and dangerously joyous, preaching integration through rhythm, a precise and pervasive piano backbeat embracing and containing multitudes.
Even when the power seemed to frighten Little Richard himself, and he would turn back to the church, you could still feel the pull of both forces. His 1962 album, titled (with characteristically cocksure piety) “The King of the Gospel Singers,” showed him at his most restrained and accomplished, but the old exuberance still emerged, most recognizably in the spiritual “Ride On, King Jesus,” soaring again and again into the stratosphere on the line “no man can hinder me.”
And, sure enough, Little Richard would always come roaring back, contradictory, unapologetic, uninhibited. He put it best on his 1970 single “Freedom Blues,” expressing, in the face of social and political upheaval and inequality, his creed and salvation: “I got my duty,” he sang, “rock-and-roll.” You couldn’t keep Little Richard from his calling, any more than you could keep lightning from flashing.
As noted on Twitter, our daughter has decided that our lockdown soundtrack should be Broadway musicals. For the first five weeks, the musical was She Loves Me, with its lovely, operetta-ish, Budapest-by-way-of-Times-Square score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Listening to the various soundtracks of the show—the 1963 original, this 1978 BBC version, the 1993 Broadway revival, the 1994 London cast, and the 2016 revival that is our daughter’s favorite—you can appreciate both the evolution and the importance of tempo for some shows. The 1963 production She Loves Me was not successful; the 2016 show, in which the songs are, across the board, performed considerably faster than in 1963, was a hit.
More recently, the musical-of-choice has become Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, which our daughter prefers to watch in 1955 film version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson. This confirms that she is my offspring, having apparently inherited my undying affection for fascinatingly flawed works of art. Because, holy cow, is Guys and Dolls a weird movie. (Even the trailer is weird.) The artifice is in-your-face: six years after Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen shot parts of On the Town on location in New York City, Mankiewicz encases everybody in soundstage sets that are very obviously soundstage sets. The acting styles are all over the map, from the highly-stylized work done by the holdovers from the stage show to Sinatra’s less-is-theoretically-more studio shrugging to Brando and Jean Simmons’s subtly but intensely physical performances. The contrast between Sinatra and Brando is particularly sharp. Sinatra does some of his best-ever singing while never really doing anything but playing himself. (Loesser couldn’t stand him as Nathan Detroit.) Brando can’t sing, but, otherwise, this is some of the most elegant acting he ever did—every gesture, every posture considered, not from the standpoint of an actor, but from the standpoint of a character who prizes and depends upon a particular attitude.
Brando had a talent for sly parody, playing off a concept or a character in ways that could be deeply funny. The most famous instance of this was The Freshman, in which the original Vito Corleone offered an extended, surreal lampoon of Brando-as-Godfather that put all other impressions in the shade. I’ve started to think of Guys and Dolls in the same way. Brando had previously worked with Mankiewicz on Julius Caesar, and, the more I watch it (and, the way my daughter’s obsessions work, I’ve been watching it a lot), the more I’m convinced that Brando’s Sky Masterson is a long and impish riff on his own performance as Mark Antony. Long story short: there are worse ways to spend two-and-a-half hours avoiding the mundane parade of horror and idiocy outside your door than to watch a young Marlon Brando dance his way through a role that, among other things, triangulates the craft, celebrity, and foolishness of acting itself.