Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll

Starred Review in Booklist

In the poem "The House of Blue Light"—whose eponym is where Miss Molly does her rockin', dontcha know—Kirby says that when he, à la Whitman, hears America singing, it "sounds like Little Richard." He sticks to his line in this high-spirited, ambulatory meditation on Richard"s America. Ambulatory literally as Kirby pinballs mostly around Macon, Georgia, Richard's hometown, but also New Orleans, where Richard recorded his first big hit, and L.A., home of Specialty Records, which Richard made a major independent label. Ambulatory spiritually, too, because Kirby adopts Greil Marcus' canny conception of Old, Weird America—poor, superstitious, culturally "backward," but always striving—as the homeground of rock 'n' roll (along with the other vernacular American pop musics: gospel, blues, country) to explain Richard's artistic roots. Kirby insists that that first big hit, "Tutti Frutti," a cleaned-up "paean to heinie-poking" howled by "a gay black cripple from a town nobody ever heard of," is the first 100-proof rock 'n' roll song and devotes the central chapter here to its creation and impact. Kirby packs his prose as fully as he does his verse and likewise runs it on high octane, pedal to the metal. He beats all the professional rock scribes hollow with this light-footed but profound little book.
        Ray Olson, Booklist, October, 2009.

To work out how one song could do so much, Kirby travels to its singer's hometown of Macon, Georgia. Here he meets old associates of Little Richard, discovering the roots of the singer's hysterical performing style in the gospel choirs, medicine shows and flamboyantly wanton nightclubs of the town's war years. . . . If the squares had understood him, would Little Richard have got away with it? Kirby is not a square and, in full swing, he writes with the fast-talking charm of the music he loves. He has made his own hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.
        Times Literary Supplement (London), March 19, 2010

When Kirby hears America singing, it sounds like Little Richard. Ride along on his high-octane travelogue-cum-meditation on the Georgia Peach, and you'll second the perception.
        Booklist's Top 10 Black History Nonfiction list for 2010

Rock 'n' roll was more than a revolution in music. Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll looks at Little Richard and the effects that his wild and energetic piano playing had on 1950s America. Richard's music was one of the many things that helped pushed race relations to the forefront of the American agenda, as young people of both races mixed freely in celebration of the music, as well as looking at the man himself and how a legendary performer gets his starts. Little Richard is a top pick for any autobiography or music history collection.
        Midwest Book Review, February 2010

David Kirby, a Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University as well as a noted poet and music writer, has written a passionate treatise on Little Richard—or more precisely, why "Tutti Frutti" is the single most important song in rock (and pop) history. As evidenced by the above quote, the book is a highly amusing read, and short enough that you can devour it in an evening. But you'll definitely want to keep a copy on your bookshelf, if for no other reason than the numerous examples of truly inspired prose and the overabundance of quotable passages. . . . Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll will most certainly appeal to a very broad market, including fans of Little Richard, R&B music, and music lovers in general, as well as teachers of popular music and creative writing.
        Black Grooves: Archives of African American Music and Culture,
        February 4, 2010.

When Little Richard wailed those syllables in a tiny recording studio in New Orleans in 1955, David Kirby writes, "suddenly, to quote the Book of Genesis, there was a firmament in the midst of the waters. It's a huge song musically, but it's also a seminal text in American culture, as much as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Song of Myself, and the great documents of the Civil Rights era. In a sense, it's America's Other National Anthem." The song is, of course, "Tutti Frutti", which is, depending on how you look at it, a nonsensical novelty song, a raucous masterpiece of innuendo and sexual energy, or - according to Kirby - the birth scream of rock 'n' roll. . . . This book is not a biography of Little Richard. Kirby isn't interested in stolidly documenting all of Little Richard's life; he's interested in him as a transformative figure who embodies a whole array of antitheses in one pompadoured, satin-and-glitter-clad person, like some trickster god of 20th century pop culture. Little Richard is a black musician who has spent most of his life playing for white audiences. He's a hard-partying rock 'n' roll icon who has repeatedly turned his back on that life for the gospel music he grew up on (and then boomeranged back). He's as famous for his flamboyantly gay persona as for his songs, yet remains ambivalent about his sexual identity. He was a galvanizing, massively influential talent in the early days of rock - Keith Richards said of hearing "Tutti Frutti" for the first time that "it was if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to Technicolor" - whose career as an innovator essentially stopped after one year and remains frozen in amber... Did Little Richard invent rock 'n' roll? Kirby knows about your Bill Haley and the Comets ("seven hicks in mismatched shirts playing a watered-down rockabilly"), your Ike Turner, your Elvis, and he bows to Little Richard, even though his subject, ever the trickster, eludes Kirby's efforts to interview him in person.
        St. Petersburg Times, "Books We Love," December 13, 2009.

In Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, David Kirby tells the genesis story of rock & roll's Prime Mover, the ever-willing showman and inveterate iconoclast whose sound, despite his own best efforts, could not be reformed. At the heart of the book is an entertaining account of a young Richard Penniman, a gay, black cripple from the segregated South, breaking rank with the antiseptic airwaves of the '50s and announcing himself unrepentantly, if not articulately, with "A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop. A-lop-bam-boom!" Little Richard, Kirby claims, shakes American culture to its very core and henceforth liberates its music from the wolf pack of social conservatives... "Little Richard is not just a singer. To me, he's a way of looking at the world," says Kirby. In his finer moments Kirby tells us not how to view Little Richard, but shows us what his world was like, from the raucous Pentecostal worship services where he first learned to sing, to the grotesque medicine shows where he promoted quack tonics and wares, to the sonic alchemy of those early recording sessions at Cosima Matassa's New Orleans studio.
        Oxford American, "Books We Love," December 7, 2009.

For English professor David Kirby, author of a new book-length essay on Little Richard, the singer's thunderous impact started with the unforgettable opening gibberish of his first big hit, "Tutti Frutti": "A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!" Of that two-and-a-half-minutes-long cut, Kirby writes, "There is a single greatest rock record, and this is it." He goes on to quote approvingly the culture critic Greil Marcus: "Tutti Frutti" made "a breach in the known world." All this, mind you, about a song that, Kirby argues, was "a cleaned-up version of a paean in praise of anal intercourse." What we now hear as "Tutti Frutti, all rooty" for example, Little Richard and his collaborator originally wrote as "Tutti Frutti, good booty... Both Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are now well into their 70s, and it's hard to imagine they will ever find themselves championed by more enthusiastic and persuasive advocates.
        The Washington Post, December 6, 2009.

David Kirby, a poet and professor in Tallahassee, Florida, is on an uphill, uproarious mission to rewrite the legacy of Macon's outsize Little Richard. "'Tutti Frutti' occupies a finite space smack in the middle of our huge-ass Crab Nebula of a culture," Kirby writes. "It's like the skinniest part of an hourglass; everything that came before flows into this narrow pass, and the world we live in today flows out the other side." Even if you don't agree with the sentiment, you have to admire Kirby's enthusiasm. This is a very personal biography, full of good-humored energy and insightful wit.
        Atlanta Magazine, November, 2009.

In Kirby's book, Elvis and Chuck Berry are milquetoasts next to Little Richard: The former Richard Penniman channeled Baudelaire, hard bop and juke-joint hoodoo, and invented rock & roll in two and a half minutes with "Tutti Frutti." Everyone from Wagner to Poe factors into Florida State English professor Kirby's rejiggering of rock's canon; even if you're not completely convinced, The Georgia Peach is well and truly buffed.
        Rolling Stone, September 17, 2009.

David Kirby, who has published eight collections of verse, limns his subject with the loop-de-loops of wonder, mischief and insight that characterize his poetry, and the resulting non-fiction account . . . sings in a way that, like the singer's hammy, barn-storming performances, makes you gyrate with pleasure.
        Georgia Music, Fall 2009.

If David Kirby had his way we'd start every sentence with "A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!" The guy makes the case in Little Richard: The Birth Of Rock 'n' Roll that "Tutti Frutti" is the rock song that started rock and roll. Less a bio on Little Richard then a socio-musical study, this short hardcover runs us through the whys and wherefores of this very famous early rock hit and how Kirby claims it changed the world. Kirby interviews ex-band mates, recording engineers, musicians who worked and grew up in Little Richard's hometown of Macon, Georgia, and even Little Richard's aunt (the funniest story in the book, actually). There's a lot of quoting other sources as well, even Ralph Waldo Emerson. Kirby is a stickler for detail and he has done his research well. .