Larry Williams may not be a household name, but he is responsible for some of rock and roll's earliest--and still relevant--hits. "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," "Bonie Maronie," and "Short Fat Fannie" all came from the pen of the raucous singer and pianist. Released between 1957-1959, his singles attracted the attention of British Invasion artists the Who, the Shadows, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and most famously the Beatles. John Lennon, an avowed Williams fan, imitated his shouting on covers of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and "Slow Down," effectively reintroducing the artist to American audiences in the mid-1960s. "Slow Down," a Little Richard-meets-Fats Domino rocker, encapsulates Williams' signature wild yet catchy delivery.
Born in New Orleans in 1935, Williams learned how to play piano and refined his vocals. After he and his family moved to California, he joined the R&B group the Lemon Drops; this proved to be short lived, as when he visited New Orleans at 19 he met the singer Lloyd Price. Price hired the teenager as his valet and eventually introduced him to executives at his record label Specialty. After the label signed Williams in 1957, the aspiring singer cut the single " Just Because" with Little Richard's backing band (the "Tutti Frutti" wailer had recently quit to devote his life to the ministry). That song reached number 11 on the R&B charts, and the company began grooming him to become the next big rock and roll crossover star.
Williams fared even better with his sophomore effort "Short Fat Fannie," a bawdy, uptempo number that topped the R&B charts and cracked the top five pop singles chart. That song would mark his commercial peak--"Bonie Maronie" peaked at number four on the R&B charts and number 14 on the pop charts, and the followup releases "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and "You Bug Me, Baby" failed to register with soul audiences. By 1959 he was arrested for selling drugs, causing Specialty to drop him from their roster. Drifting from label to label through much of the 1960s, he experienced minor success with "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" (1967) and "Nobody" (1968). He dropped out of the music business until 1978, when he resurfaced with the album That's Larry Williams. After the album failed commercially and critically, he disappeared once again. Tragically he was found dead in his Los Angeles home in 1980; although the death was officially ruled a suicide, it has long been rumored that his longtime connections to crime may have lead to his murder.
Despite his sad end, Williams' legacy remains intact through his music. The 1958 "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" B-side "Slow Down" combines his New Orleans background with pure rock and roll, his energetic yet raw vocals at the forefront. He begs his girlfriend to give him one more chance, but the chorus suggests that she needs to give him "something" he needs. For the late fifties, the lyrics are suggestive: "You gotta gimme little lovin' / Gimme little lovin'--ooh! / If you want our love to last." The "ow," similar to Little Richard's signature interjections, lends the lines a sexual air. Further lyrics suggest that the love interest may not be the picture of innocence; she has a new boyfriend, prompting Williams to desperately plead "Come on pretty baby, why can't you be true?" He desires her "lovin,'" calling her "the best little woman that a man ever had."
The uninhibited arrangement and slightly sloppy playing, arguably foreshadowing the garage band sound, adds to the song's sly sexuality. The pounding piano recalls Little Richard, but also echoes Fats Domino's strident style. The saxophone jabs and wails, underscoring the frenetic tone of the song. The phrenetic aura is anchored by Williams' confident, barely restrained delivery, occasionally punctuated with humorous sounds such as "brrr." It is a joyous performance, exemplifying the carefree spirit of early rock and roll and revealing the genre's R&B roots.
While Williams may not have experienced deserved recognition in his lifetime, the Beatles' covers of his work ensure that future generations will rediscover this early rock pioneer. Starting with "Slow Down," dig into his brief yet satisfying catalog to uncover even more gems such as "Bad Boy" and other classics.