This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
After doing a column on “Bigs” last week, it was pretty obvious that I’d do one on “Littles” as well. Here it is.
There are a lot of “Littles” and many I wanted to include didn’t make the cut. Never mind, the ones who did are worth listening to. As with “Big,” most of the tracks seem to be blues or R&B performers but that’s fine with me.
The obvious starting point, at least as far as I’m concerned is LITTLE RICHARD.
Richard Penniman is a somewhat flamboyant artist. He is also one of the half dozen most important musicians in the development of rock & roll. Anyone who has listened to music for the last 60 years can’t help but to have heard his songs.
However, today for your musical delectation, I won’t go with one of Richard’s usual tunes. This is a slow, quite restrained song, Maybe I’m Right.
LITTLE WILLIE JOHN wrote and recorded the original version of the song Fever that Peggy Lee later made into a smash hit.
William John was born in Arkansas but the family moved to Detroit when he was four. As a teenager, he and his siblings started a gospel group and they performed around town.
He caught the ear of Johnny Otis who put him under contract and recorded several songs that made the charts, including Fever which earned him a gold record.
Apparently, Willie John had a short temper and liked a drink or two (or several). He was banged up for manslaughter but released on appeal and he recorded an album that wasn’t released for decades. He died of a heart attack around then at the age of 30. Here is that original version of Fever.
LITTLE JUNIOR'S BLUE FLAMES recorded for Sun records before Elvis got into the recording biz and Sun turned into a rockabilly studio. Little Junior is Junior Parker, or Herman Parker to his mum and dad, and was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the birthplace of a multitude of blues musicians.
Junior sang in gospel groups as a kiddie and was on the blues circuit when he was a teenager. He played with Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King and many others – they’re just the ones I like a lot.
His recording career began when Ike Turner recorded him. Sam Phillips heard this and signed him to Sun records where he cut a bunch of songs including Mystery Train that Elvis later covered, also at Sun.
He died at just 39 while undergoing surgery for a brain tumor. Here’s Junior’s version of Mystery Train.
The legend is that LITTLE EVA, or Eva Boyd to her mum and dad, was a babysitter for Carole King and Jerry Goffin - they were married at the time - and they were so taken with her impromptu dancing style that they wrote a song for her.
The truth is always more boring. They knew before they hired her that she was a pretty good singer so it was only a matter of time before they sent a song her way.
Eva was from North Carolina but her family moved to New York when she was very young. As mentioned, she got this job with the songwriters and when she recorded a demo, with their influence, a real record was released. It was a smash hit.
Another myth is that they were miffed at this, as singers were plentiful but good babysitters were hard to come by. Eva had other songs that weren’t quite as successful and, alas, died of cancer in 2001 at only 59.
The song was later also a huge hit for Australian singer Kylie Minogue, but her version is considerably inferior to the original. The Loco-Motion.
LITTLE FEAT was the brainchild of Lowell George and Bill Payne.
Lowell, at the time they met, was playing in the Mothers of Invention. Bill auditioned for the group but was refused. He struck up a friendship with Lowell and they decided to start their own band.
They grabbed Roy Estrada, also a Mother, and Richie Hayward who was in a previous group with Lowell. They said that spelt Feat that way as an homage to The Beatles.
There are various rumors about Lowell’s departure from the Mothers, all of them revolve around the song Willin’. One is that Frank Zappa didn’t like the drug references in the song; he was seriously anti-drug (apart from his ciggies, I notice).
Some of the other tales are more positive. We probably won’t know the real story as, unfortunately, both Frank and Lowell are dead. Here is Willin’.
LITTLE CHARLIE & THE NIGHTCATS began when Charlie Baty, who was studying mathematics at U.C. Berkeley (yay, another maths major), met Rick Estrin and said, “Let’s form a band” or something like that.
They recruited other musicians but there has been a bit of a turnover in these over the years. The band’s music is essentially Chicago blues with an element of rock & roll, surf music, Western swing, jump blues and anything else they can think of at any performance.
Rick has turned out to be the dominant person in the group and these days they are called Rick Estrin & the Nightcats. Also, lately Charlie no longer tours with the band.
This track is back when they had their original name. I hear a touch of John Hammond in the vocals, by Rick, on this track and that’s no bad thing. It is I Could Deal With It.
Her parents divorced early on and Esther spent her adolescence shuffling between mum and dad in Houston and Los Angeles. Her sister pushed her into a talent contest where she caught the ear of Johnny Otis (he seems to have done a lot of ear catching) who was so impressed he signed her to a recording contract and included her in his touring review.
She had several hits in the early Fifties but they dried up after a while, possibly because Johnny had stopped producing her records. Unfortunately, she was a serious drug user and although she made a comeback of sorts in the late Seventies, the writing seemed to be on the wall for her.
She was nominated for a Grammy but Aretha won that year. Aretha gave her trophy to Esther saying she that she should have won it. Esther died at age 48 due to all sorts of complications related to her drug intake. Here she is with Longing in My Heart.
James Campbell, or as he is more generally known, LITTLE MILTON, was born in Inverness. That’s not the place in Scotland; apparently, it’s in Mississippi.
By the time he was twelve, he was already an accomplished guitarist and was playing on the street. He, along with most guitarists of the time and later, was influenced by T-Bone Walker. While still a teenager he caught the ear of Ike Turner (another prolific ear catcher) who got him a recording session at Sun records.
Later, he recorded for Chess records and that’s not really a surprise. Later still, after the death of Leonard Chess, he recorded for Stax records. So he managed to record for the most influential labels in his field.
Here he is from back in the Sun days with Beggin' My Baby. His guitar playing is not noticeable on this track.
LITTLE WALTER, or Marion Walter Jacobs, was the undisputed king of blues harmonica players.
He was born and bred in Louisiana where he learnt his instrument of choice as well as the guitar. He honed his skills by playing with Sonny Boy Williamson, Honeyboy Edwards, Sunnyland Slim and others. He went to Chicago and found some work playing guitar but he was most in demand playing harmonica.
He further developed his playing style – having the harmonica and microphone cupped in his hands, the mic plugged into a guitar amplifier – when he couldn’t be heard over electric guitars. He played for a long period in the Muddy Waters band.
Here’s Walter singing and playing on Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights).
The town of Little River is between Melbourne and Geelong, the state of Victoria’s two biggest cities. It has a population of three or four hundred people and is most notable today for supplying the name for one of this country’s most successful groups, the LITTLE RIVER BAND.
LRB were really a super group in Australian terms, they contained members of The Twilights, Mississippi, Axiom and Zoot, all of them successful on the Oz music scene. The members had only just got together and were driving from Melbourne to Geelong for a gig and saw the exit sign to Little River and decided that was the name for them.
In the way of these things, after success worldwide the group fragmented and lawsuits and other nasty things followed. Here they are at the top of their game with Long Jumping Jeweller.