At a time when the KKK would’ve happily gunned down Elvis Presley for playing “nigger music”, Little Richard was an openly gay black man made even larger than life by make‐up, a high pompadour and pastel‐coloured zoot suits. Brave ain’t the word.
Mono Box: The Complete Specialty And Vee-Jay Albums is a deluxe, five‐LP vinyl collection loaded with everything this human embodiment of rock’n’roll cut for the two labels between 1957 and 1965. The presentation is brilliantly simple, with each album dressed in its original sleeve art, remastered from analogue tapes and blessed with its stunning original mono mix.
The trio of albums Richard cut for Art Rupe’s Specialty Records are the important ones here. Just look at the song titles. His 1957 debut Here’s Little Richard kicks off with Tutti Frutti and also tracklists Beatles favourite Long Tall Sally and Slippin’ And Slidin’, the latter memorably covered by John Lennon on his ’75 Rock ’N’ Roll album. 1958’s Little Richard comes loaded with Lucille, Good Golly Miss Molly and the title track of the Jayne Mansfield vehicle The Girl Can’t Help It. His third album, The Fabulous Little Richard (1959), features a dynamite take on Big Maybelle’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and later Paul McCartney vocal showcase Kansas City.
Thanks to the mono presentation, each track on these masterpiece LPs blasts through the speakers like a foghorn. The separation of stereo would just temper the excitement.
After a period spent in self‐imposed exile in devotion to religion, Little Richard signed to Vee‐Jay – the first label to take a punt on The Beatles in the States – and released 1964’s self‐explanatory Little Richard Is Back and follow‐up His Greatest Hits the year after. The latter features re‐recorded versions of his 50s hits and is more interesting than essential.
Little Richard’s legacy is almost too big to fathom. He provided white kids with their first glimpse at the kind of performances southern blacks caught every night in juke joints on the Chitlin’ Circuit. He paved the way for James Brown, gave McCartney a voice to aspire to, and practically invented Prince.
Many CD reissues of Richard’s 50s output, particularly his debut album, have suffered from piss‐poor mastering and presentation. Here, with the beautifully packaged Mono Box, you get to experience the man’s music in all its intense and life‐changing glory. “When I heard Little Richard,” said David Bowie, “I mean, it just set my world on fire.”