Album Review: Little Richard — The Rill Thing

By the end of the 1960s, it was reasonable to assume that Little Richard’s rock ‘n’ roll career was moribund. Though he was one of music’s most important figures, by 1958 he had forsaken secular music in favor of gospel. And while he would return to rock in the ‘60s, too often he and his work paled when weighed against his prime-era output.

But buoyed by the rapturous reception he received onstage at 1969’s Toronto Rock’n’Roll Revival festival – sharing a bill with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Chuck Berry and others – the man born Richard Penniman suddenly entered a new creative phase. The oft-abused word comeback would truly apply with regard to 1970’s The Rill Thing, Little Richard’s finest recorded offering in more than a decade.

Some of Little Richard’s ‘60s era albums featured Motown-style production; clearly, the style wasn’t a good fit. But for The Rill Thing – his first album with Reprise Records – he would draw upon a much rawer aesthetic: the Stax/Muscle Shoals sound. Recorded at legendary FAME Studios and with a musical style closer to Otis Redding, The Rill Thing rocks hard, and the more soulful sensibility of the record meshes well with Richard’s outsize, unbridled vocal approach.

The rock-solid bass lines that anchor tracks like “Freedom Blues” – released as a single, and representing Little Richard’s first singles chart appearance in several years – are a defining characteristic of The Rill Thing. With its stinging lead guitar (courtesy of Travis Wammack), “Greenwood, Mississippi” delivers with the bravado and gusto of any Ike and Tina Turner single of the era.

Occasional backing vocals support Little Richard’s assertive, howling lead vocals; his performance is frequently punctuated by “woooo!” screams, and he seems completely at home in blues shouter mode as the crack ensemble tears out the riff-heavy “Two-Time Loser.”

In 1968, Fats Domino had covered The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” to good effect, good-naturedly underscoring the debt the Beatles (Paul McCartney in particular) owed him. Because Little Richard was an even bigger influence on McCartney – something Penniman never missed the opportunity to remind audiences – it made good sense to cover “I Saw Her Standing There.” In Little Richard’s hands, the early Beatles tune positively sizzles; he truly makes it own. Beefy horns up the musical ante even further.

Even when he revisits his ‘50s style, Richard fares quite well. With a throwback arrangement that somehow still sounds fresh and new, The Rill Thing’s recording of “Dew Drop Inn” is a highlight among uniformly fine material.

Yet as strong as Little Richard’s vocal performances are throughout The Rill Thing, some of the album’s most compelling moments come when he’s not even singing. At more than ten minutes, the instrumental title track is every bit as funky as Isaac Hayes, as groovy as Stevie Wonder. No detailed session information exists for the album, but it’s generally accepted that Penniman took to the ivories during the recording of “The Rill Thing.”

The Omnivore Recordings reissue of this overlooked yet essential gem includes four bonus tracks that originally appeared as singles.