CD Review: Little Richard - Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years

New box set collects tracks from Little Richard's most vital years.
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If there was a Mount Rushmore of rock and roll's founding fathers, one would think the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis would be among its members. Another, equally important, performer would be Little Richard. His boisterous style and larger-than-life persona paved the way for countless other performers and his music represents the very DNA of rock.

While Little Richard may have always seemed to be a star, his early period proved to be a struggle, in spite of being signed to the RCA label, which would soon be the home to Presley. After a series of singles that stalled on the charts, both for RCA and later for Duke/Peacock Records, Richard signed with Specialty Records. Specialty was the home of Brother Joe May, one of Richard's heroes, and it was there where his fortunes began to turn around in a big way when a lyrical rewrite of "Tutti Frutti" rocketed up the charts. His work at Specialty and, later, at Vee-Jay records represents some of the most electric rock and roll performances ever committed to tape and the best of those recordings are collected on the three-CD set, Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years.

Disc one opens with the haunting ballad, "Lonesome and Blue." Richard delivers a stunning vocal, showcasing his powerful voice in a track that recalls "I Put A Spell On You" and proves that he wasn't just about raucous rockers. Similarly, Richard gives a passionate vocal on the emotional ballad "Wonderin'." Of course, Richard is best known for his breakneck performances and there are plenty of those here too.

"Tutti Frutti," rewritten from the original, more risqué, "Tutti Frutti, Good Bootie," is as exciting a rock and roll track ever recorded, Richard's voice exploding out of the speakers, his piano playing matching his trademark screams. "Kansas City," one of several tracks later covered by the Beatles, finds Richard using gang vocals in the choruses to great effect, giving the song a real swagger with its call and response.

"Slippin' and Slidin' (Peepin' and Hidin'), later covered by John Lennon, offers more of the same with its killer vocal, great rock and roll piano and fine sax playing. Richard gives an impassioned vocal on "Long Tall Sally (The Thing)." This is early rock and roll at its best.

Disc two offers more of the same. If disc one had the pedal pushed to the floor, disc two keeps it there with a blistering "Lucille," one of the great rockers of all time. "Jenny, Jenny" and "Good Golly, Miss Molly," later combined by Mitch Ryder in his classic cover offer the same sense of urgency, melting the speakers with their pure power. "The Girl Can't Help It," from the classic film of the same name, delivers the same great rock and roll sound and solidified Richard's star at its highest peak.

After seeing the Sputnik satellite soar across the sky while on tour, Richard had a religious awakening and abandoned "the Devil's music." He later returned to secular music and eventually landed on Vee-Jay Records in the 1960s, then on its last legs. While some of this period included lesser reworkings of his classic Specialty material, there are still some gems here as well, as evidenced on disc three. Among those are a jazzy reworking of "Only You," featuring horns and as gritty, soulful vocal from Richard and "I Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me" featuring a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar.

Little Richard's importance in the history of rock and roll cannot be understated. His influence can be seen in artists as diverse as Hendrix and Prince and his recordings represent rock and roll at its most vital. Directly from My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years is a great collection of a great artist and well worth owning for any fan of early rock and roll.