If you buy only one album by Little Richard, who died in May at age 87, it should be the three-disc Specialty Sessions. That terrific 1990 anthology is where you’ll find the original versions of all of his Bumps Blackwell–produced blockbuster hits from the late 1950s as well as everything else he released during his heyday.
Should you want to explore further, though, you have several options. The latest of these include a pair of 1970 and 1971 albums that have just been reissued on CD—not for the first time but with remastered sound, bonus tracks, and new liner notes. Though not on a par with his best work, these records leave no doubt that Richard’s flamboyant personality and high energy level remained intact more than a decade after his years in the limelight.
The 1970 release, the self-produced Rill Thing, finds the singer recording in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with a talented band that prominently features sax. The program—which includes five numbers written or cowritten by Richard—largely eschews the rock and roll and crazed R&B that characterize his groundbreaking Specialty material in favor of a funky Southern soul sound. But he does include a rocking cover of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.” (The Fab Four, of course, were huge fans who recorded Richard numbers like “Long Tall Sally” and “Lucille” early in their career.)
Other selections include “Freedom Blues,” which opens with an acapella part and enjoyed some success as a single; “Greenwood, Mississippi,” which sounds redolent of Creedence Clearwater Revival; and the more than 10-minute title cut, an instrumental jam with Richard on piano. Among the bonus tracks are “Shake a Hand (If You Can),” a reading of the 1953 Faye Adams hit that Richard previously recorded in 1959; the single edit of “I Saw Her Standing There”; and a couple of personality-drenched radio spots in which he touts the album.
The Rill Thing has its moments and should be of interest to serious fans, but it’s not difficult to see why it failed to produce the desired major comeback for Richard: the material and instrumentation simply don’t show off his strengths as well as the Specialty material did.
You could say the same about 1971’s King of Rock and Roll, which was produced by H.B Barnum (Frank Sinatra, the Supremes, etc.). Like The Rill Thing, this CD features strong vocal work but rarely shows Richard in the best light. It opens with the self-congratulatory title cut, which is as convincing as it is immodest: Richard sounds as fired up as he was when he made his early classics. But the album is marred by distractions that include spoken bits, simulated crowd noises, and a surfeit of backup singers. And while Richard’s 1950s work presented him as a trailblazer, the preponderance of covers of other artists’ hits on King of Rock and Rollsuggests that he has become more of a follower.
The program includes more direct nods to Creedence Clearwater than Rill Thing does: it features that group’s “Born on the Bayou” as well as the traditional “Midnight Special,” which Creedence also covered. And, while Rill Thing incorporates one song associated with Hank Williams (“Lovesick Blues”), the expanded version of King of Rock and Roll makes room for three: “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Why Don’t You Love Me.” (Richard was a big Williams fan.) Also here are covers of such contemporaneous hits as Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.” It’s all good fun but, unlike The Specialty Sessions, not the sort of electrifying effort you’d be inclined to urge everyone you know to sample.
Jim Kweskin Band with Samoa Wilson, I Just Want to Be Horizontal. Jim Kweskin is no neophyte when it comes to pre–World War II American acoustic folk, jazz, and pop. More than half a century ago, his Jim Kweskin Jug Band (which included Maria Muldaur) put a fresh face on some of this music. The traditional folk revival that helped to fuel his success faded by the mid 60s, but Kweskin is still making records today.
For about the past 10 years, he and his versatile nine-piece band—which features such instruments as clarinet, trumpet, accordion, cornet, fiddle, alto sax, and ukulele—have been working with a talented singer named Samoa Wilson. Their quintessential roots music draws on the Great American Songbook as well as jazz, country, blues, and folk.
This excellent latest collection includes some famous standards, such as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” which has been recorded by Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, and many other artists. Kweskin enlivens such songs by incorporating little-known verses that have been dropped over the years; and he also delights in unearthing obscure gems, such as this album’s “Someone Turned the Moon Upside Down,” a 1950s Tony Bennett B side; and “At Ebb Tide,” a 1930s Hawaiian pop tune.
Dirk Powell, When I Wait for You. Steve Earle has called fiddler, guitarist, and banjo player Dirk Powell an “artist of unique vision and unbending integrity” while Joan Baez has said he possesses “an overdose of talent.” You may well be offering similar plaudits after listening to this lilting Americana/folk release, Powell’s first solo album since 2014, which finds him delivering a series of indelible originals alongside the traditional “The Silk Merchant’s Daughter.”
Highlights on the album, which prominently showcases fiddle and accordion, include the sweet “The Little Things,” with Sara Watkins sharing vocals; and the Cajun-flavored “Les Yeux de Rosalie,” which Powell sings in French. Also memorable is “Say Old Playmate,” where he duets with Rhiannon Giddens on a lyric inspired by an incidence of racism that his father experienced during childhood. A solid set, from first track to last.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.