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Heaven Is A Playlist, Track 1: Little Richard, "I Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me"
Introducing (OK, re-introducing) a new project
I published this piece on my blog two years ago, intending it to be the first of a series. One my favorite books is Nick Hornby’s SONGBOOK — a collection of essays about songs that move him for one reason or another. I read that and immediately wanted to write something like it, because there are so many songs that move me in ways almost nothing else does. They’re not necessarily my FAVORITE songs — that’s a different list. These are the songs that make me cry out of nowhere, the songs I put on repeat, the songs that have come to mean something to me beyond the notes and the words.
I set aside the project, even though it’s always been on my mind — I got absorbed in other things and worried about managing my time. A couple of things have nudged me back to it. My friend Joe Posnanski wrote his series of stories on the greatest players in baseball history, which became the brilliant book THE BASEBALL 100. And I’ve been completely sucked in by Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast COCAINE AND RHINESTONES, which explores the artists who made 20th-century country music. The entire current season is about George Jones and I can’t get enough.
The truth is, tacking a project like this — open-ended and emotional — scares me a little. But this year I’m trying to do more things that scare me. So I’m committing to writing one of these every few weeks and we’ll see where it goes.
The title for the series is adapted from the great Rick Telander book “Heaven Is a Playground” about street basketball in New York City in the ’70s. Everybody has their own personal version of heaven. Mine would be one where I could listen to an endless loop of these songs.
I’m not a music scholar — the stories here are to the best of my knowledge through my research. Feel free to let me know with corrections or context. I’m also not going to put a lot of links in these pieces — I hope you read the story through, then maybe go check out some of the songs and artists I mention along the way. And I’d love to hear from you in the comments about the songs you can’t stop thinking about.
It’s 25 years ago, at least, and I’m driving through small-town South Carolina. Every weekend back then I’d go to the record store and come out with an armload of CDs. Some of them were the newest stuff I liked from the radio or MTV. The rest were to fill out my musical education. Every time I went on a road trip, I’d throw a few in the car.
This time the stack included a Little Richard greatest-hits CD.
It was put out by Motown, even though he never recorded for Motown — they licensed it from one of his old labels that fell on hard times. I knew the first eight or nine tracks, the songs that just about everybody knows, the red blood cells of rock ‘n’ roll — “Lucille,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally.”
The back half of the CD was a batch of lesser hits, mostly covers, none of them great. But then it got to track 13. I happened to be coming into a town just as the song started. I listened to most of it over the span of a couple of red lights. It hit me so hard I pulled into the parking lot of a Family Dollar to catch my breath.
I later found out that the song — like all the tracks on the CD — had been part of recording sessions he did in 1964 and ’65. Here’s a timeline of Little Richard’s life in the 15 years leading up those sessions: He failed as a young blues singer; went back home to Macon, Georgia, to wash dishes for a living; gave music another shot and basically invented rock ‘n’ roll; quit at the height of stardom to sing gospel and become an evangelist; switched back to rock to keep from being upstaged by Sam Cooke on a concert tour; got so famous a second time that the early Beatles were his opening act overseas; then disappeared from the charts so completely that he was re-recording his old hits, hoping somebody would remember. That’s six semicolons worth of switchbacks, and it’s still oversimplifying things. Anything anybody could write about Little Richard is oversimplifying things.
Artists borrow or steal or recycle all the time, but Little Richard was burgled more than most. The history of rock is built from his spare parts. Some of it is direct and specific: the guitar riff in “Oh, Pretty Woman” came from the bass line in “Lucille,” and the drum lick that opens Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” is lifted from “Keep a Knockin’.” But beyond the hooks, other artists copied Little Richard’s vibe, the clothes, the hair, the sweat, the dance across the boundaries of gender and sex. Without Little Richard there’d be no Elton John, no Bowie, no Prince, not the way we know them.
The thing about Little Richard, as great as he was, is that he never let you forget he was giving a performance. He filled every space with piano frills and falsetto woooooo!-s. Every interview was schtick down to the bit where he’d crack a joke and wait for the laugh, then glare at the audience in mock outrage and holler “SHUT UP!”
It was a fantastic act. The downside of the act was that you never got that suspension of disbelief, that moment in a book or a movie or a song when it transmutes from entertainment to something that strikes bone, as deep and real as anything you can touch.
That’s hard to do in any art, and especially hard in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, which was mostly about sex and cars and dancing. The deeper, more adult emotions didn’t fit the music yet. The Beatles and Stones and Dylan were starting to change that, but in 1964, when Little Richard was trying to get back in the game, that depth belonged to country music, and especially soul music. Little Richard drew from those traditions, but he had never really been that type of singer.
One of his famous sayings was “I’m not conceited…” long pause … “I’m convinced.” It’s a great line, and he got a lot of mileage out of it. But it’s the kind of thing somebody says when they’re not convinced. Gay, straight, black, white, rock, gospel, funny, furious — Little Richard was a little bit of everything, as wide as the Nile. But when you’re spread that wide, it’s hard to go deep.
Sometime in early 1965, with all that life already behind him, he sat down in a studio in New York City to record “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me.”
Good Lord, what a band on this record. The drummer was Bernard Purdie, who has played with everybody from Aretha to Steely Dan, and invented a lick so widely copied they still call it the Purdie Shuffle. The organist was Billy Preston, who basically resurrected the late-period Beatles (watch the “Get Back” documentary) and later had five top-5 hits as a solo act. The guitar player was a young guy who at the time called himself Maurice James. Later he would go out on his own under his real name: Jimi Hendrix.
The songwriter, Don Covay, sang harmony. Covay had once been Richard’s chauffeur, and later built a modest career as an R&B singer, but his best work was as a writer — he wrote two of Aretha’s biggest hits, “Chain of Fools” and “See Saw.” “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got” is a straight-up Memphis ballad, something Otis Redding could’ve sung and Little Richard almost never did.
Hendrix kicks it off with a short guitar lick and the song eases in slowly, carried on a bed of horns. When the vocal comes in, it’s not the normal Little Richard. He’s not rushing through the words, not screaming the mic into overdrive. He’s singing to a lover. He’s stretching out the words, begging for relief.
You ne-e-e-ever treat me kind
You par-r-r-r-ty all the time
You don’t mean me no good
I’d leave you if I only could
The target of his pleas isn’t much to look at, and doesn’t have any cash. But this mean, ugly, broke lover has hooked Richard so deep that he sings down in the low end of his range, letting Covay float over the top in high harmony. It’s all beautifully put together. You can see couples slow-dancing to it in a sweaty club somewhere.
Then, a couple of verses in, Richard starts to preach, and he just about derails the song. All of a sudden Little Richard the entertainer is back.
BAY-by, baby, baby, I feel so all alone. Sometimes I just cry! I sigh! Sometimes I even moan!
He goes into a sermon about how Richard’s best friend tries to warn him about his lover, but Richard doesn’t understand, because he’s innocent. The Stax groove sure is pretty. But it feels like Richard climbing back over the top at the very moment the song needs him to be real.
This goes on for about a minute — an eternity on a pop record — but then he stops preaching, catches his breath, slows back down. It’s a new verse. He understands now.
Now you cheat, cheat, cheat, cheat on me
But baby, let me be
And now he transitions to the chorus with one ad-libbed word:
But he sings it:
It comes out coarse, like he’s ripping the notes from his throat, but there’s still a vibrato underneath, the barest hint of control. It’s the sound of a man barely hanging on.
I always want to romanticize these moments, make them more than they might really be. Maybe Little Richard was just a pure professional, steeped in black gospel, who was so good he could out-Otis Otis if he felt like it.
Or maybe it was the sound of a grown man reaching deep to share a pain he’d never shared. Maybe one he didn’t even know he had.
And the weird thing is, it wouldn’t hit as hard if it weren’t for the preaching right before it. It’s like Richard reminds you of who you thought he was before he shows you who he might really be, under the sweat and the makeup, somebody who kept trying to quit this earthly music for the glory of God, only to find the glory of God in this earthly music.
The song rolls into the outro and the temperature rises. Covay rides the high notes. Purdie steps in with drum fills. Hendrix places little two- or three-note licks in the open spaces. In the last 30 seconds, Billy Preston comes in with an organ line over the top of everything. And Little Richard, singing his ass off on the long fade, rushes just one line: I feel sometimes like I wanna die.
Right as he is certifying his immortality.
The song made it to no. 12 on the R&B charts — his last hit there of any size. On the pop charts, it stalled at no. 92. There is some debate over who played what on the recording sessions, but many Jimi Hendrix scholars believe “I Don’t Know What You Got” is the only Little Richard record Hendrix ever played on. Not long after the recording, Little Richard fired Hendrix from his touring band. He was either late to too many gigs or took too much of Richard’s spotlight, depending on what version you believe.
Little Richard spent the rest of his life declaring, correctly, that he was the architect of rock ‘n’ roll, and complaining, correctly, that he was never appreciated enough. “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got” is so deep on his bench that I can’t find a clip of him playing it live. But it stopped me cold in that little town in South Carolina. And ever since then, a few times a year, something will remind me of it, and I’ll go spend a day or two with it all over again.
If I had to put a finger on why this song has burrowed its way so deep into my soul … maybe it’s the joy and shock of hearing something so different from an artist I thought I knew. Maybe it’s the idea of him finding something deep and true underneath the surface he so brilliantly created. I want to believe he heard it, too, that he didn’t just move on to the next track.
I’ve spent my life paying attention to music — probably too much attention. Sometimes it’s just medicine — something to help me let off steam or move my feet or get past a heartbreak. But every so often, if I listen enough, I hear something that changes my life — that puts a name on a feeling I couldn’t describe, or sends a message to some far-off part of myself. This song changed me, and it changes me again every time I hear it.
Part of the idea behind this series, for me, is trying to understand why the music I love moves me so much. For now, most of it is still a mystery. I don’t know what it’s got, but it’s got me.