After his return to secular music in 1962, following a brief period when he'd travelled as a preacher and recorded only gospel music, Little Richard barely stopped touring and recording for the rest of the decade. Despite never quite revisiting the successes of his fifties heyday, he was rarely busier: gigging with both The Beatles and Rolling Stones; enjoying modest chart success on both sides of the Atlantic; hiring and firing a young Jimi Hendrix from his touring band; recording for a series of labels and engaging in a fruitful working relationship with R&B singer, writer and producer Larry Williams. His 1969 appearances at the Atlantic Pop and Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival Festivals, the latter in support of the nascent Plastic Ono Band, helped raise his critical profile and increase his dwindling fanbase.
Signing for Reprise Records in 1970 he embarked on what was intended to be a series of four R&B-infused albums. Having originally been founded by Frank Sinatra in 1960 as a home for Old Blue Eyes and several of his crooning peers, the label had been sold to Warner Bros. in 1968 and began building a roster of contemporary progressive artists that eventually included Hendrix, Ry Cooder, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart and others. It's unclear where Richard fits in with this assemblage and evidently Reprise struggled to find a niche for their new signing.
Recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and backed largely by the studio's own rhythm section, "The Rill Thing" (1970) sets the template for the Reprise years: blues-inflected R&B, hints of Sly Stone-lite funk, the occasional rambling instrumental and Richard's characteristic scream-singing! Richard receives co-writing credits on several tracks, one of which - 'Freedom Blues' - was a top 50 success in the US. 'Greenwood Mississippi' also scraped into the Billboard Top 100, but elsewhere there is relatively little that could be considered commercial in tone. There's the ten-minute instrumental title track - all deep bass and blues harp but little in the way of inspiration, an ill-advised R&B take on Hank Williams' 'Lovesick Blues' and a pedestrian run through The Beatles' 'I Saw Her Standing There'.
If Reprise had been fairly hands-off during sessions for "The Rill Thing", they intervened ahead of Richard's second album for the label and this may account for the greater number of covers on "King Of Rock And Roll" (1971). Recording took place at Amigo Studios in North Hollywood and there's a pseudo-gospel feel in places: the title track opens with self-aggrandising references to 'King Richard', and 'Joy To The World' includes a frankly bizarre two-minute preamble. There's also a bluesy, R&B version of The Stones' 'Brown Sugar' and a soulful cover of another Hank Williams classic 'I'm So Lonesone I Could Cry'. The title track and 'Settin' The Woods On Fire' are uptempo reminders of Richard in his fifties prime but with long spoken, sung or 'preached' introductions to several tracks the album struggles to gain momentum.
When they convened at The Record Plant, West Hollywood in 1972, Richard and producer R.A. Blackwell had assembled a crack team of session players that allowed things to proceed apace. A total of 22 tracks were committed to tape, with Richard largely singing live as the backing tracks were recorded. The nine tracks eventually chosen for his final Reprise album "The Second Coming" (1972) were mostly written, co-written or arranged by Richard. The recording process may have contributed towards the overall uptempo feel, particularly on side one of the original album. 'Mockingbird Sally' and the slightly less frantic 'Thomasine' are typical of the funk/soul feel and are worthy additions to the Richard canon of songs named for their female protagonists. 'The Saints' has an overdriven rhythm punctuated by brass fills, but the uptempo mood is occasionally broken: the improbably-titled 'Nuki Suki' has a mid-tempo, swampy feel, 'Prophet Of Peace' is an uncharacteristically direct attempt at social commentary, and album closer 'Sanctified, Satisfied Toe-Tapper' is a rambling, seven-minute instrumental workout.
In hindsight, "The Second Coming" may be the most successful of Richard's Reprise albums so it's perhaps disappointing that ten of the remaining tracks from the sessions were assembled into a fourth album, "Southern Child" but after Richard left the label under circumstances that remain unclear this was shelved and remained unreleased until 2005. The three original Reprise albums have been remastered in hi-definition from the original analogue masters on a 2-CD set from British re-issue specialists BGO Records. The slipcased package includes original sleeve notes, personnel details and a short but detailed essay on the Reprise years by Stuart Colman.
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