- - Sunday, July 5, 2015

Little Richard has always been an enigma. Did he, as he often bragged, invent rock ‘n’ roll, or was this just another case of him trying to overhype his importance? Was he a true innovator or just a cheap imitation of cult music personality Equerita?

Who was Little Richard, and why did he matter? That question wasn’t easy for me to answer. It took many years and several failed attempts to finally “get” Little Richard.

In college, a friend and I got into an argument when I mentioned that I thought Prince was a genius. He snarled, “You know Prince stole everything.” I replied, “Look, he was obviously influenced by James Brown and Sly Stone,” both of whom I was a huge fan of, “but stole?”

“No, you don’t get it,” he said. “Prince stole everything from Little Richard.”

I disagreed. Disgusted, my friend said, “Forget it. You’ll never really understand unless you see him live.”

So in the early 1990s, I did just that. Twice. The first show was a mild, overproduced, nostalgia-heavy, Vegas-style review, complete with lots of “shut up”s and “whooo”s. But not a lot of soul. The only exciting part was when a friend of mine at the theater invited me backstage.

Though not a fan, I was never one to turn down a photo op. I took my place, fourth in line, behind Bob Costas and the guy who played the painter on “Murphy Brown.” After the third person took their photo, I heard Richard scream, “That’s it. I’m too beautiful for any more pictures. Whooo!” He then dashed past me, arms flailing, like a terrified “E.T.,” out the theater’s back door and into an awaiting limo, disappearing into the darkness of the night. Leaving me less of a Little Richard fan than ever.

Three months later, a friend of mine who ran a theater in my home state of Rhode Island sent me the summer schedule of shows, which included Little Richard. I was then determined to get my revenge, or at least the proper photo op. The show that night was, to put it mildly, a train wreck. As Little Richard played the same country song — for the fourth time in a row — I escaped outside to the bar waiting for the show to end so I could get my photo and go home.

Forty-five minutes later, I walked backstage, making sure to place myself third in line to secure the shot. We were introduced, and I took my place next to Little Richard. Just then, he let out a familiar wail. “I’m too beautiful for .” I tightened my arm around the soul singer and clamped my hand down on his shoulder hard. Cutting him off, I said, “Not yet, Richard. Just one more, please.”

As he stared at me, I swore I saw his crazy eyes soften a bit. “OK. OK,” he said quietly. Click. Click. Two photos taken, then, “Whoooo! I’m too beautiful for any more pictures.”

Away he went. Never to be seen again.

I have to admit, I haven’t given Little Richard much thought in recent years. I remember reading an article about how health issues had forced him to retire and spend his days in seclusion. Then recently, a package arrived from the fine folks at Concord. For those not familiar with the label, they are third to Omnivore and Rhino Records as a home for many a quality CD reissue.

When I opened it, I saw him staring up at me, lips pursed, indignant glare in his eyes as if to say, “Do you get me now? Whooo!” It was Little Richard on the cover of the definitive three-CD box set titled “Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years.” The comprehensive set collects all his best-known songs, including “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Tutti Frutti” alongside many gems I have never heard, such as the beautiful title track, “Directly From My Heart.”

Because I have a rule about listening to everything that people send me, I peeled away the pretense, the parody and the preening and listened to the music. All three CDs.

Something amazing happened. Track by track, the raw power and emotion of these early songs shook me in a way I haven’t been shaken in years. This opened my eyes, ears and mind to the true genius of Little Richard. For the first time in my life, I not only “got” him but was joyous in his aural arrogance.

Whether you are a longtime fan or new to Little Richard, this set will serve as a nice introduction and/or reminder of why Little Richard matters. It is a box of brilliance. And to those who don’t agree, including my younger self, I would have to quote the man himself: “Shut up!”

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