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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Little Richard and Esquerita Camp: A Seismic Explosion


 Little Richard

"OOH, MY SOUL!"
NO ONE PLAYS ROCK LIKE LITTLE RICHARD... NO ONE!

"Rock 'n' roll fully exploded into the American consciousness in 1955. With his immortal proclamation "A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop, a-lop-bam-boom," Little Richard placed himself at its epicenter, his seismic impact akin to that of an atomic bomb.

"None of the groundbreakers -- Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley -- seminal as they were, packed the same molten heat that Richard Penniman unleashed anytime he ventured near a microphone. His banshee screams were primal, his save piano attack lethal, his energy levels stratospheric. Little Richard was the ultimate 
embodiment of rock 'n' roll, dangerous and a tad exotic and utterly without constraint. No wonder conservative Caucasian parents,
 secure until then in the bland, "Your Hit Parade"-dominated sounds 
of the Eisenhower era, were scared out of their wits. Here was a figurehead whose crazed wails could shake teenagers' 
souls down to the very core."

(Bill Dahl. "Little Richard Rocks." Liner Notes. Bear Family Records. 2011)

One of twelve children who grew up in poverty in the Deep South of Macon, Georgia, Little Richard claims to be the architect of rock and roll. And, who can doubt that solid postulation? Born Richard Penniman during the Depression, he soaked up music as a youngster -- blues, country, gospel, vaudeville -- all parts of the fabric of life in the black community. He was nicknamed "Lil' Richard" by family due to his small and skinny frame as a child. A mischievous child who played pranks on neighbors, Penniman began singing in church at a young age.

Little Richard first recorded in a bluesy vein in 1951, but it was his tenure at Specialty Records beginning in 1955 that made his mark as a rock and roll architect. Working at Cosimo Matassa’s now-legendary J&M Studio in New Orleans with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and some of the Crescent City’s finest musicians, Little Richard laid down a stunning succession of rock and roll sides over the next several years, including “Rip It Up,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny” and “Keep a Knockin’,” in addition to the songs previously mentioned. He also appeared in rock and roll-themed movies such as Don’t Knock the Rock and The Girl Can’t Help It (both from 1956). - See more at: http://rockhall.com/inductees/little-richard/bio/#sthash.8RiPtd05.dpuf
Little Richard first recorded in a bluesy vein in 1951, but beginning in 1955 at Specialty Records, he made his mark as a rock and roll architect. Working at Cosimo Matassa’s now-legendary J&M Studio in New Orleans with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and some of the Crescent City’s finest musicians, Little Richard laid down a stunning succession of rock and roll sides over the next several years, including "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly, Miss Molly," "Rip It Up," "Slippin’ and Slidin’," "Lucille," "Keep a Knockin'," and "Jenny Jenny."

'Nuff said? But how about Richard's influences? Today, on the blog, let's dig deeper.


 Esquerita

How Did Pennimen Become Rockin' Little Richard?

One word -- Esquerita -- became most central to the transformation.

Richard Pennimen learned to play piano from a little-known, equally flamboyant character named Esquerita (who also recorded rock and roll early on for Capitol Records). Esquerita was also a piano-pounding R&B “shouter” from the South who sported a six-inch pompadour, rhinestone shades, brocaded shirts, heavy lipstick, and heavier jewelry. He, like Richard, was noted for his unique vocals -- falsetto trills, yelps, and screams.

Richard was already singing professionally, often in drag, sometimes balancing a chair on his chin as part of his act. Yet, Reeder taught him his thundering piano style, this would be the key element in his development that would take him to the top of the charts.  

The question of Reeder's influence on Little Richard is complicated by the fact that Reeder did not record until after Little Richard's initial mid-1950s recordings for RCA and Back Beat labels, which makes it unclear that Esquerita influenced Richard stylistically.

However, early Little Richard recordings made at WGST Radio Station in Atlanta do not show the style that was to make Little Richard famous. In addition, Little Richard also had not intended to use what came to be his (and Esquerita's) characteristic style during his first New Orleans session for his famous Specialty Records. Session producer, Robert "Bumps" Blackwell prodded him to use the Esquerita-esque presentation.

The influence of Esquerita seems apparent. So, here's my story, and it seems very plausible.


Esquerita

Esquerita’s life story is shrouded in mystery. He may be considered an outsider, even a lost rocker.

In 1935, Eskew Reeder Jr., originally known as Steven Quincy Reeder Jr., was born in the “Greasy Corner” section of Greenville, South Carolina. He grew up in a religious environment and taught himself piano as a young child. He was playing gospel in churches by the time he was ten years old.

As part of the Heavenly Echoes gospel group, Reeder got his first tastes of the road and the recording process. When the band disbanded in the early ‘50s, the by-then-named Esquerita drifted through the rock ‘n’ roll scene. On the “chitlin’ circuit” in the Deep South during the early 1950s, Little Richard first caught his act.

Then, in 1958, Esquerita signed with Capitol recording in a raucous, piano-based New Orleans style that had been popularized by Fats Domino, Lloyd Price. As with Little Richard’s material, the lyrical content of the songs was largely harmless and betrayed little of the sexual innuendo so pronounced elsewhere. But, his songs just didn't seem to catch on. Esquerita's best known songs from this time include: "Hey Miss Lucy", "Get Back Baby", "Getting’ Plenty of Lovin’", "Rockin’ the Joint", and "Oh Baby." Hardly rock anthems, would you agree?

Capitol cut him. He attempted comebacks in the early ‘60s, hooking up with Big Joe Turner and even Little Richard, but nothing much came from the efforts.

According to rock historian Iain Ellis, "The mystery that surrounds these post-Capitol years is exacerbated by the fact that he was not only constantly jumping from one independent label to another (Minit, Everest, Motown, Instant, Brunswick), but he was also constantly changing his stage name (Professor Eskew Reeder, Esquetita, Milochi, Voola, the Magnificent Malochi)."

(Iain Ellis."Esquerita: The Other Originator of Rock 'n' Roll Camp." 
popmatters.com. July 31, 2008)

By the '70s, Esquerita was playing back-alley, New York City gay clubs as Fabulash and even did some time in Riker's Island. He spent his final years wandering the streets of New York, begging for change as an itinerant car window-washer. He died of AIDS, impoverished and largely forgotten, in Harlem in 1986. He was 48 years old.

Little Richard has made concessions to Esquerita’s influence and skills, recognizing the original source of many of his own chops and even calling him “one of the greatest pianists."


Living Legacy Of Camp

But, Eskew Reeder taught Richard Penniman more than piano and vocals. He showed him the image, the style, and the performance that rocked. Esquerita established the dynamic strain that ignited the persona of Little Richard and continued to course through rock history. 

The visual and gesturing humor that Esquerita and Little Richard inducted into rock ‘n’ roll is often referred to as “camp." A term first used in print during the early years of the 20th century, camp referred to variant types of ostentatious expression, usually featuring extreme affectations and theatrical effeminacy. (Indeed, the word camp derives from the French se camper, which means “to pose in exaggerated fashion.")

Such behavior shocked mainstream 1950s society even more than the "juvenile delinquent" image of early rockers like Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Camp was so shockingly outlandish in the '50s because it blurred the much-guarded demarcations of gender, race, and sexual roles.

Camp humor served Esquerita and Little Richard well in the midst of surrounding prejudicial forces. It became as much a means of survival and a marker of self as simply stagecraft for showing off. It certainly helped break the portrayal of black performers as old-line, “subservient Negroes.”

To get a little more technical, Iain Ellis describes the campish style and its "queening":

"A style crafted from within subaltern (implied) confines, camp operates via the implied rather than the explicit; its craftily coded slang serves to include the sexually marginalized and silenced within its 'camp' as it simultaneously mocks the hypocrites of sexual repression (both straight and gay) who have themselves been (unwitting) participants in forming this humor of hint and allusion.

"The camp 'queening' that constituted the stage shows of Little Richard and Esquerita operated through what humor critic Andy Medhurst describes as a 'reciprocated conspiracy' between artist and intended audience, where the latter 'laugh at the gap between what is known and what can be said.' Of course, unintended audiences are ironically excluded from this in-'camp,' themselves marginalized into the role of outside observers. The humor of camp from their perspective—should it exist—is not one of inclusiveness and belonging, but one of scornful 'superiority,' a laughing at rather than with, a reassignment of subject as object." 


(Iain Ellis."Esquerita: The Other Originator of Rock 'n' Roll Camp." 
popmatters.com. July 31, 2008)

Of course, even Esquerita and Little Richard had successful predecessors in the black R&B musical subculture of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Swing-setters Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan and blues-jumpers Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris had long been recognized for their peacock-strutting looks and gestures. The trickster trade took on new meaning with Esquerita and Richard.

A little later, the camp of rockers such as David Bowie, Elton John, Prince, and Boy George became a staple in rock. The expression provided an over-the-top display of “queer parody” often credited with providing tongue-in-cheek critiques of mainstream sexual identity norms and bringing gender-bending, free-form fashions, and socio-political dissent into broader social acceptance.

Would Little Richard be Little Richard without Esquerita? I'll just put it this way: any watered-down, diluted form of Richard Penniman would diminish rock music. Whether Esquerita was deserving of any kind of equal footing with Richard or not, it matters most only to historians of the music. And, with that, I'll just say, "I've been told, baby, you've been bold. Your a solid sender, and I won't be your fool no more."


*  Note: A 1959 eponymous LP, introducing Esquerita is of primary interest today for its striking cover shot of him in camp full bloom, the bright colors and glistening sparkles of his attire and adornments bursting out from the sleeve. Nowadays, that original picture-sleeve disc, along with the one for the 1958 single “Hey Miss Lucy” / “I’m Battie Over Hattie”, are much sought-after on the collectors’ market, valued at around $2000 apiece.

 "If a producer or arranger was deputed to the sessions he must have been bound and gagged and put in a corner, for there was little sign that anyone responsible for the records had been concerned for their commercial potential...The violence that was normally only a promise (or threat) in rock'n'roll was realized in Esquerita's sound."

From Charles Gillett's  The Sound of the City
 
Listen to Esquerita: Click it -- 
"Believe Me When I Say Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay
"Good Golly, Annie May"
 
In a 1990 interview, Little Richard offered this explanation for the birth of rock: “I would say that boogie-woogie and rhythm & blues mixed is rock and roll.” His frenzied approach to music was fueled by a genuinely outrageous personality. He was born Richard Penniman during the Depression in Macon, Georgia, one of twelve children who grew up in poverty in the Deep South. As a youngster, he soaked up music - blues, country, gospel, vaudeville - which was part of the fabric of life in the black community. He learned to play piano from an equally flamboyant character named Esquerita (who also recorded rock and roll early on for Capitol Records). - See more at: http://rockhall.com/inductees/little-richard/bio/#sthash.8RiPtd05.dpuf
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