The Early Days of the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Comeback’ Album




When the album-rock revolution hit full force in 1967, blues veterans were immediately in a great place to benefit. Revered by the new, young rock stars and guitar gods who had appropriated and updated their music, many were still middle-aged and creatively vital. So after years — decades, really — of releasing often-lo-fi singles and occasional singles-collecting albums, they were treated as possibly important acts. Royalty.

Results were mixed, both creatively and commercially, but it represented rock looking backward while looking forward, and acts like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Otis Spann and others really began to benefit. The sons were honoring the fathers, to paraphrase the title (Fathers and Sons) of a successful Chess Records album of the time.

It followed, then, that the Fathers of Rock ‘n’ Roll (and a mother or two) might also benefit from well-produced, high-profile albums aimed at Boomers. Many weren’t even middle-aged yet, but they had seemed to drop off the map when their 1950s/early 1960s hits stopped in the wake of Beatlemania and the growth of album rock.

There were a few exceptions. The pioneer with the most distinctive guitar sound, Chuck Berry, had more or less stayed current in the 1960s, developing a countercultural following by playing the hippie ballrooms. Meanwhile Jerry Lee Lewis had crossed over to country. Elvis, who as the 1960s wore on released irrelevant minor hits like “Do the Clam,” reentered the arena on 1968’s rootsy From Elvis in Memphis TV special.

This beginning erA — or movement — of rock comebacks and reinventions produced some strange and interesting albums. Also many forgotten ones, since it produced few hits.

Today, some of those early rock comebacks are getting a second hearing, thanks especially to the reissue program from mail-order house/custom label Collectors’ Choice Music. It has just re-released the three early-1970s albums that Little Richard put out for Reprise Records, which with sister label Warner Bros. comprised the hippest company at the time. There are new liner notes by Gene Sculatti. (Songs for a fourth CD, Southern Child, were also cut and belatedly came out as part of Rhino Handmade’s Complete Reprise Recordings limited-edition set.)

Little Richard posed a problem for the label. Not yet 40, he had a lot of music left in him but was starting to be seen as a kind of outré nostalgia act a la Tiny Tim. As he remerged on the pop scene, he appeared on talk shows bellowing “shaddup” at everyone else. He was kind of a comedy act.

Yet Reprise didn’t see him that way, and didn’t sign him with that in mind. The label first sent him to Muscle Shoals, Ala., to make a rootsy, contemporary rock ‘n’ roll album. And he came back with a pretty good one, 1970’s The Rill Thing. But it emphasized Southern rock and grit at the expense of the horn-blasting, piano-pumping, squealing “roll” that had made him famous in the 1950s with “Long Tall Sally,” “Tutti Frutti” and others.

The title song was a long, funky-soul-stew instrumental jam that simply wasn’t then — and still isn’t — what anyone still interested in Little Richard wanted. The leadoff track and first single, “Freedom Blues,” was weird. His a cappella shouts of “La, la, la da da da” undeniably had conviction and an allure. But the song struggled with hard-rock sluggishness and clichéd lyrics. Still, he sang his heart out on this self-penned number, and overall it was compelling if not earth-shattering.

The album came to life best on those songs featuring the familiar Little Richard sound (“Dew Drop Inn,” “I Saw Her Standing There”). But there weren’t enough. One assumes at the time, record executives probably felt he needed some modernizing. But it’s hard to improve upon a classic … just let it rip.

King of Rock and Roll, recorded with producer H.B. Barnum, is the best of his Reprise albums. It had some borderline hokey, faux-gospel call-and-response shouting with a crowd, but today that sounds like what Little Richard really enjoyed the most.

Overall, the album is heavy on pop hits rearranged for his squealing, growling voice and upbeat, horn-driven sound — “Joy to the World” (which became a sermon in his hands), “Brown Sugar” (a great scream here), “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “Born on the Bayou.” There’s also a moving version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” This album gives a distinctive old voice some new but familiar material, and then watches the sparks ignite.

His third album, the very loose and relaxed but still energetic The Second Coming, used his former Specialty Records’ producer “Bumps” Blackwell and featured four tracks with New Orleans musicians who played on his Crescent City-recorded 1950s hits. Good stuff, but not powerful or memorable enough to break through at the time.

Actually, Warner-Reprise had already had experience with career-reinventions before the high-profile Little Richard venture. It smartly realized that the Everly Brothers, who it had signed in 1960 and then watched as the steady hits stopped in 1962, were a natural fit with the growing country-rock movement and released Roots in 1968. (Collectors’ Choice reissued it in 2005.) It didn’t sell and the duo split up in the 1970s, waiting until the 1980s to reunite, sign with Mercury and release the classic comeback LP EB 84.

(It’s also worth noting that Rick Nelson, a teen idol who lost his following — while still in his mid-twenties — when Beatlemania hit, started moving in the same direction as the Everlys even earlier, with 1966’s Bright Lights & Country Music on Decca. Strangely, his country-rock albums never clicked, but he did have one of the biggest hit singles of any of the 1950s rockers — 1973’s “Garden Party,” which criticized rock nostalgia.)

 Reprise also smartly realized that the Beatles’ early-1968 hit “Lady Madonna” sure sounded like a Fats Domino song with its cascading piano and hip saxophone. So it signed New Orleans’ larger-than-life Fat Man, himself, and assigned rising pop-rock producer Richard Perry (Tiny Tim) to work with him. The result was the fine Fats Is Back, from late 1968. Again, Collectors’ Choice has made this available on CD with notes by Sculatti.

Domino had just turned 40 and was languishing in obscurity; he hadn’t had a big hit since 1960’s “Walking to New Orleans.” (He still hasn’t, actually.) But he also was prickly, declining to play his piano on all but one song (“I’m Ready”). However he got James Booker, a great New Orleans pianist in his own right, instead. With King Curtis providing horn, Eric Gale guitar, and the Blossoms harmonies (and the Holy Mackerel providing handclaps), the overall playing was first-rate.

Among the 11 tunes —  after a too-softly recorded “Fats Is Back” medley of old-hits snippets — were infectiously likeable versions of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” and “Lovely Rita.” Booker provided a song that sounded like classic Domino, “So Swell When You’re Well,” and the writing team of Pasquale Zompa and Bernard DeCesare offered another new one that was a comfortable fit, “Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Better.”

Although there was a minor boomlet in the late 1960s of R&B stars having hits with Beatles tunes (Ray Charles’ “Yesterday,” Steve Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out,” Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude”) Domino’s single version of “Lady Madonna” inexplicably never caught fire. Nor did the album. Today, it sounds like the hit that got away. (He subsequently cut “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide But Me and My Monkey.”)

Collectors’ Choice also has available Fats, which Warner Bros. released in 1971 in England. It consists of material he and collaborator Dave Bartholomew had recorded before signing in 1968.

There are too many other comeback attempts from these years to mention fully. But one that deserves attention, since it has become a template for soul divas, is the 1973 self-titled Chess album Etta James recorded with Gabriel Mekler (Steppenwolf, Janis Joplin). It pushed her toward such contemporary singer-songwriters as Randy Newman (“Leave Your Hat On,” “Sail Away” and “God’s Song”) and Tracy Nelson (“Down So Low”). Hip-O Select reissued it in 2006.

Elsewhere, there was a lot going on. Carl Perkins recorded with NRBQ; Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd took Ronnie Hawkins to Muscle Shoals to sing with such stellar session musicians as Duane Allman and Eddie Hinton; tragic Gene Vincent in short order put out three albums for contemporary rock labels Dandelion and Kama Sutra before his death in 1971 from a bleeding ulcer (at age 36).

Finally, a personal note. I was a high-school/college student at this time, and when I’d read about these comeback albums in Rolling Stone I thought, “God, these guys are so old to be doing this.” Today, Chuck Berry is almost 83 and reportedly at work on a new comeback album. Rock ‘n’ roll really is about constantly renewing oneself and staying in play — age is secondary. If I’d realized it then, maybe I’d have bought Fats Is Back when it was new. I’d have liked it then as much as I do now.

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