Little Richard

King of Rock & Roll: The Complete Reprise

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Little Richard was not the only original rock & roller to attempt a comeback in the late '60s and early '70s, but he may have been the one to take the greatest musical risks. Fats Domino merely updated his sound (albeit in a charming fashion), Jerry Lee Lewis refashioned himself as a hardcore country singer, and Chuck Berry pandered with "My Ding-A-Ling," but Little Richard pushed himself on his three albums for Reprise, all of which were collected -- along with his contributions to Quincy Jones' 1972 Dollar$ soundtrack album, non-LP singles, session outtakes, and a complete unreleased album from 1972 called Southern Child -- in 2005 by Rhino Handmade for the triple-disc set The King of Rock and Roll. Richard had been an active recording artist ever since the mid-'60s, when he had signed to Vee-Jay and cut effective but neglected soul singles, but the rock & roll revival of the late '60s gave him the opportunity to launch a splashy, big-budget comeback, and he seized it. Instead of serving up the expected high-energy rock & roll on his 1970 LP, The Rill Thing, he recorded an eclectic, wide-ranging album that touched on country, acoustic blues, hard-driving funk, soul, melodic pop, and rock & roll. While there were wah-wah guitars and electric sitars that clearly marked it as a product of its time, those production quirks fade into the background, since the range and accomplishment of the music are quite staggering. It's overpowering, but not in the familiar Little Richard fashion, where the boundless, reckless energy is the defining characteristic. Instead, The Rill Thing and the albums that followed it -- 1971's King of Rock 'n' Roll, 1972's The Second Coming, and the unreleased Southern Child -- all followed the same musical blueprint and aesthetic: Little Richard opened his music up, slowing things down on occasion, varied his arrangement and styles, and wrote powerful, memorable new songs, while carefully picking songs from Hank Williams, John Fogerty, and the Beatles to showcase the scope of his music. Sure, there still was the familiar piledriving rock & roll, but it was part of a mosaic of American roots music that proved that Little Richard could do it all -- rock, pop, country, blues, soul, gospel, funk -- and do it his own way. There were the occasional missteps -- the instrumental jams all stretch out too long -- but they were rare. On the whole, his Reprise work was all-encompassing, fully realized, and -- in its own way -- as exciting as his timeless work for Specialty. And that's why The King of Rock and Roll isn't just essential for any serious student of rock & roll, it's one of the few reissues of this decade that can truly be called revelatory.

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