Billy Vera is a Grammy Award-winning songwriter who has written hits for top stars like Dolly Parton and Bonnie Raitt. It’s always a special treat for us when Billy comes by the station because he was the host of his own KCRW show six years ago, when he’d play classic rhythm and blues, gospel, and early rock and roll. Billy is the authority on this stuff, and I’ve learned a lot from him over the years.
There’s a brand new Little Richard 3-CD box set, Directly From My Heart: Best of the Specialty and Vee-Jay Years, that Billy wrote the liner notes for (something you can’t get through your iPod or MP3). The collection charts Little Richard’s Specialty hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” as well as his later, lesser-known rarities for the Vee-Jay label.
Born Richard Penniman (b. 1932), Little Richard was a complicated person from the get-go. Raised in a household with 11 other siblings, he vied for attention by being just a little more outrageous than the rest. Professionally—and throughout his life—Richard found himself caught in limbo between god and the devil. He grew up singing in the church and was hugely inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ability to meld gospel and R&B together. Yet he was also taken with early gay black performers like Billy Wright and Esquerita, with their pompadours, makeup, and lively stage presence. He grew up singing in the church under the mentorship of Lloyd Price, eventually singing in big stadiums, as well as frat houses and seedy clubs in drag. Indeed, Little Richard was a man caught between two worlds.
At the height of his career in 1957, while sailing en route to Australia, Little Richard happened to see the Russian satellite, Sputnik, crossing the night sky and freaked out. He imagined that the end of the world was approaching, and that God was surely punishing him for singing the devil’s music. To pay penitence, he threw all of his jewelry and other worldly goods overboard, resolving to give up his rock and roll singing career. Instead, he devoted himself to gospel music and serving god. However, when his funds began to run low a few years later, he signed on with Vee-Jay records.
But I’d better stop here because my special guest, Billy Vera, knows Little Richard’s music inside-and-out, which he wrote about in Directly From My Heart’s set of liner notes. We had such a great time this week in studio, celebrating this iconic figure of rock and roll. Enjoy!