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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Potpourri - Larry Williams - Bad Boy

Larry Williams - Bad Boy
1989 Specialty Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

In my youth Friday evenings were largely spent in the living room after dinner in sessions I reflectively refer to as "Friday Night History of Rock 'n Roll." Of course, in the late seventies and early eighties, the rockarolla fifties and early sixties birthplace of American rock 'n roll wasn't really that old but it still was, same as my generation today sits in wonderment that the eighties music we grew up with is already two decades old. Twenty years is a lot of time, sure, but certainly not long enough to forget all the music we cherished and defined ourselves with through our own formative years.

My stepfather would drag out his cherished crate of 45s, meticulously organized even so much he had them all listed on a piece of cardboard tacked to inner side of the wooden lid. I jokingly think of Stephen King's short piece "The Crate" from Creepshow and the carnivorous nasty that lived in there, ready to pounce if cracked open and trifled with. My stepfather was strict but never an ogre, however, the repercussions for messing with that crate was nearly as deadly. As a former DI, you didn't want a piece of the man, trust me. His lungs were all the ammo he needed.

He protected that hidden list of music as closely as he did the 45s themselves, particularly since I was being given a rigorous education in music, and no period as critical as fifties rock 'n roll. In some ways you could call our living room a conservatory because those scratchy shorties of vinyl would spin non-stop all the way until 9:00 pm when Dallas came on, another family addiction. For at least three hours the sounds of The Marcels, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Danny and The Juniors, The Moonglows, The Coasters, Link Wray and just about anyone who ever cut a record in the fifties and sixties would fill the house at a din I'm sure my stepfather felt a giddy spirit of vengeance from having to turn his his record player down when he was a teenager himself, particularly rock 'n roll executed by black musicians; you can probably get the ugly picture of what came out of his living room when spinning the likes of Little Richard... Probably the same as many post World War II living rooms that was still in many cases inherently racist. Generally speaking, the Fabulous Fifties were only fabulous for whites...

Fortunately I was raised better than that since my mother was a progressive hippie at heart and my stepfather had survived Vietnam, where he noted that race played little part amongst the soldiers on the battlelines, one of the few places men are truly equal, sadly enough. My only dilemma growing up was trying to make sure I correctly indentified the musicians, who may have happened to be black considering their woeful blues wails from the Mississippi deltas originally helped shape (along with working class country) rock 'n roll and every form of rock, soul and hip hop thereafter. Months of Friday nights later, I could eventually decipher Bo Diddley from Howlin' Wolf and The Orioles from The Crests from The Larks. What was it about doo wop acts that made them name themselves after birds? Maybe the image of concrete forest chirping. At least there was The Platters to break up the aviary insanity of it all.

As my music ears were still developing, however, one trouble spot I had was separating the rowdy Larry Williams from his mad dog peer Little Richard and even Screamin' Jay Hawkins for that matter, much as I frequently flubbed the Beach Boys for Jan and Dean. Still, there is joy in error if you love your subject matter and if that meant my stepfather would back up and spin "Dizzy, Miss Lizzy" by Larry Williams again then hurriedly toss on Little Richard's "Tutti Fruitti" to point out the subtleties (actually, there weren't so many subtleties considering Richard was far more explosive), then all the better for me. Good music deserves a few spins, while great music deserves to be treated with reverence.

Larry Williams was, in the grand perspective of rock 'n roll, an unsung hero, considering his rival Little Richard would go on to rightly gain larger notoriety. Without Little Richard, I predict that "Mr. Personality" Larry Williams would've had a faster track to bigger success--despite his many high-charting hits--as well as a shoo-in vote to Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, not that Larry's music (much less anyone's) needs to be judged and relegated in such a manner. Stop and consider the many tongue-rolling ditties Larry Williams recorded, bouncing songs such as "Short Fat Fanny," "Bony Maronie," "Dizzy, Miss Lizzy," "She Said Yeah" and the upstart rocker (and my personal favorite Williams tune) "Slow Down."

Listening to all of the songs in succession on Bad Boy, I realize that yeah, Larry Williams was doomed to have his fame and fortune extinguished due to his wreckless lifestyle, which many believe caught up to the rock 'n roll legend in 1979 when Williams was found with a bullet in temple. Suicide or foul play? Only those close to the man can genuinely speculate, but the cold case of Larry Williams to a public that likely has never heard of the man rates far behind the toilet paper Paris Hilton prefers to wipe her platinum butt with, and this is utterly lame. Terrible that our values as a society are spent in envy of an American-ordained duchess of debauchery instead of a rocking soul like Larry Williams who probably agonized that Little Richard ran away to the home stretch as one of the kings of rock 'n roll, while Williams was left in the final turn on faltering horsepower that had kept pace three-quarters of the way.

At least The Beatles covered Williams' rip-snorting "Slow Down" with almost the same snaggletoothed passion in their early Liverpool club days, while Williams took on Huey Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" (covered by many artists including Aersomith, who probably get the beneficiary award in that matter). Larry Williams also did a take on Little Richard's "Heeby-Jeebies," so read into that as you will. Also consider Williams was the recipient of Richard's rhythm section when recording "Short Fat Fannie," so if there was any bona fide rivalry between the two, at least one greatly assisted the other, if even from a distance.

Bad Boy largely bops and grooves through Larry Williams' short career from 1957-59 and it's a three-chord nirvana with a gifted voice occasionally dripping lasciviously and yelping wildly along on songs like "Oh Baby," "Little School Girl," "Hocus Pocus," "Zing Zing" "The Dummy" and "You Bug Me, Baby." Williams also rips the hell out of Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," a song I would've mistakenly attributed to Fats Domino as a rookie kid, largely due to the hammering piano rhythm and the sashaying Southern strut that has a bit of audile okra to it.

Though Williams overpowers the slow dance grooves of "Just Because" and "High School Dance" the songs click because they (moreso "Just Because") force you to grind just a little closer to your steady instead of observing the three inches or more rule in an adult-squashed sock hop, which might as well be considered reflective through Larry Williams' dreadful "Ting-a-Ling," a song that could've been an ad for Lucky Strikes with the disarming Lawrence Welkian vocal section turning a bad track into an utterly stupid one. The same effect as Pat Boone squandering Little Richard for Lettermen America, the same ones who ordered public burnings of Elvis records and EC Comics.

Let us not forget to spotlight the whimsical though gimmicky "Short Fat Fanny" and Larry Williams' nutty ode to his rock 'n roll peers; the song effectively name-drops Williams' associates by tying well-known songs of the day such as "Blueberry Hill," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Tutti Fruitti," "Hound Dog," "Jim Dandy" and "Hello, Mary Lou" into a seamless lyrical thread. Nonsensical, but pure joy nevertheless.

That being said, Bad Boy is still an ankle-provoking time capsule of a rocker who was dropped from his label due to drug possession before he had the opportunity to show us even more of what he had. Then again, if "Ting-a-Ling" was an indicator, fate probably did the brother a favor before he further tainted his stout reputation for wildcat rock 'n roll. At least nowadays I can tell Larry Williams from Little Richard, though I accidentally blurted Beach Boys on "Dead Man's Curve" a few months ago before quickly amending myself to Jan and Dean. As my stepfather would admonish, just pitiful...

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