“A wop bop a loo mop, a good goddam!”
Fifty-four years ago today, per Bumps Blackwell’s recommendation, Little Richard Penniman (seen above with Jet Harris, Gene Vincent and Sam Cooke) joined forces with Fats Domino’s band — which included the late Earl Palmer, drummer extraordinaire who performed at the 1st annual Ponderosa Stomp and served as Master of Ceremonies for Stomp #4 — at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio.
Their collective goal was to lay down tracks for Art Rupe’s Specialty label. As legend has it, nothing much happened, though, until the group broke for lunch. Then, in true recording studio mythology (see Elvis’ inaugural Sun session, or the story behind Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Hold On, I’m Comin'”), Little Richard sat down at the piano and began banging out a high voltage tune that he’d woodshedded in gay bars:
“Tutti Frutti, good booty
If it don’t fit, don’t force it
You can grease it, make it easy.”
Blackwell called in Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up the lyrics, and, after rolling tape for a record 15 minutes, one of the most iconic songs ever recorded in Orleans Parish was complete.
Mac Rebennack just happened to be standing outside J&M when the magic happened — and I got to quiz him about it 50 years later, for an article published in MOJO magazine:
“I was always hanging out there during Specialty sessions, trying to sell Art Rupe some songs. I remember telling my older sister, ‘This guy Little Richard is doing a session at the studio,’ and she replied, ‘Oh, I used to see him at Panama City.’ So Richard was already doing his thing as a solo act. He came out of those revues, where he had to really know his shit. Some people say he bummed his act from Esquerita, but to me, Eskew was more gospel sounding, and Richard was straight up hip. Sure, he sang kinda gospel but he played that ratty shit on the piano, with Earl Palmer following on the cymbals. His style was a revelation, a really good sound that could rock the house without fail.
Richard was a totally original cat – everything about him was off the hook. He was a little flamboyant, sure, but it went with that turf. Seeing him and Eskew hanging out wearing men’s suits, topped off with lipstick, that high hair, and women’s shades, would catch people off guard – they’d give them the once over two or three times, even though in New Orleans, we were used to the drag queen revues and traditions like that.
This is what made Richard special: As Fats Domino told me, ‘I couldn’t tell you what’s the difference between rock and roll and R&B.’ But Richard changed something in the New Orleans groove. Instead of a shuffle, he could play that eighth note thing on the piano, which set him apart from the rest of us. He used it from that first record on, and a lot of other people started using that shit. They still use it in rock and roll today.”
As Cosimo explained to writer Todd Mouton in the pages of Offbeat a while back, “If you transmit an emotion to the listener, it’s a good record. It’s gonna be a successful record. Now, having said that, how you measure it, I don’t know. How you predict it, I have not a clue. Because it happens, and everybody’s aware of it, you know, it’s fundamental. And yet totally evasive.”
Rebennack: “Back then, though, we didn’t really appreciate it. Everybody in New Orleans had so much to do, so many sessions to play on, that Tutti Frutti was just a little chunk of their lives. They didn’t have time to think much about it. I remember someone asking Red Tyler and Earl Palmer, ‘What do you remember about playing on it?’ and they both said, without batting an eye, ‘Very little.’”
Of course, like any million-selling single, there’s been an argument over the songwriting credits ever since.
LaBostrie, from Jeff Hannusch’s I Hear You Knocking: The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues:
“Little Richard didn’t write none ‘Tutti Fruitti.’ I’ll tell you exactly how I came to write that. I used to live on Galvez Street and my girlfriend and I liked to go down to the drug store and buy ice cream. One day we went in and saw this new flavor, Tutti Fruitti. Right away I thought, ‘Boy, that’s a great idea for a song.’ So I kept it in the back of my mind until I got to the studio that day. I also wrote the flip side of ‘Tutti Fruitti,’ ‘I’m Just a Lonely Guy,’ and a spiritual, ‘Blessed Mother,’ all in the same day.”
Blackwell, quoted in Charles White’s biography of Little Richard:
“I Knew that the lyrics were too lewd and suggestive to record. It would never have got played on air. So I got hold of Dorothy La Bostrie, who had come over to see how the recording of her song [I’m Just A Lonely Guy?] was going. I brought her to the Dew Drop. I said to her: ‘Look. You come and write some lyrics to this, ’cause I can’t use the lyrics Richard’s got.’ Richard turned to face the wall and sang the song two ot three times and Dorothy listened. Break time was over, and we went back to the studio to finish the session, leaving Dorothy to write the words. Fifteen minutes before the session was to end, the chick comes in and puts these little trite lyrics in front of me.”
And Penniman himself, again from White’s book:
“I’d been singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ for years, but it never struck me as a song you’d record. I didn’t go to New Orleans to record no ‘Tutti Frutti.’ Sure, it used to crack the crowds up when I sang it in the clubs, with those risqué lyrics. But I never thought it would be a hit, even with the lyrics cleaned up.”
I’ll let Mac close it out:
“Of course, the idea for Tutti Frutti was probably already floating around New Orleans. I bet Richard heard something like it from Eddie Bo. Considering who actually wrote this sucker – Dorothy LaBostrie, who wrote Johnny Adams’ and Irma Thomas’ first hit records – I’m sure the song came straight up out of the dozens. ‘A gal named Sue/She knows just what to do’ – that shit was nasty! Some New Orleans songs, like Tee-Nah-Nah, are Creole. You know, your tee-nah-nah is your ass cheeks, and your tee-nah-noo is your asshole. But Tutti Frutti isn’t Creole, and I don’t think it went with the ice cream flavor. You know what a fruit is, right? I think it had more to do with that shit. But did you ever hear Pat fucking Boone singing that crap? I don’t know if he got it and fucked it up, or if he didn’t get it, and fucked it up. Either way, it was pretty fucked up, but we didn’t pay no attention to that crap!”