My Pop Life #213 : Long Tall Sally – Little Richard

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Long Tall Sally – Little Richard

Going to tell Aunt Mary about Uncle John
He claim he has the misery but he has a lot of fun…

I have written a great deal in this blog about a production of Return To The Forbidden Planet at the Tricycle Theatre in 1985.  It is where I met my wife after all (see My Pop Life #190) even though we had to wait three plus years until our first date…

It was also where I met Hereward K who was MD of the show, a musicman who would turn up 25 years later in Sussex (see My Pop Life #65) and who made the call on the encore every night.  Basically we did the first encore every night, which was the Boris Pickett & The Crypt Kicker Five cartoon song The Monster Mash (it was a Graveyard Smash), memorably covered by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.  For this song, as for many of the others in the show, I was on the saxophone, although I should add in passing that we all changed instruments in the show to give the impression that we could all play everything. Thus I was on the drum-kit for Go Now and the bass guitar for All Shook Up, keyboards for Teenager In Love.  Or something like that. But generally I was on the alto sax, the same trusty horn I’d bought when 15 years old (see My Pop Life#19).

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There are no bad Specialty singles (fact)

But the 3rd encore was Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally and we only did it if the crowd were going apeshit.  Which was on average, once a week.  Friday night usually.  There is an unwritten law in the theatre that Friday night is the best night – people can argue, but it is.  Saturday is for people who book in advance and who (in general) sit back with arms folded thinking “go on then – impress me“.   We never did Long Tall Sally on a Saturday night.

The key thing about Long Tall Sally was that I was the fella singing it.  Probably the worst singer in the company, my only lead vocal contribution during the show was the humiliation of singing the first verse of “Who’s Sorry Now” the 1957 Connie Francis evergreen pop hit – humiliating because the baton was then passed to fellow thesp Nat Augustin (trombone player & Ariel the robot) who warbled magnificat for the rest of the tune.  Proper singing mate.  So when every seven days Hereward gave us musical max factors the magic signal to go back out there and re-engage with the audience, I would walk up to the lead microphone, strike some kind of archaic pose and snarl “Let’s have some rock ‘n’roll“.  Writer and recently-passed legend Bob Carlton used to enjoy that moment, and told me so.  He must have liked me, because it was half-way through this production that I upped and left my girlfriend of 9 years, and then found myself without anywhere to live, not for the first time in my life.  Homelessness not being a good enough reason to stay in a relationship which has run its course.

I crashed at Simon’s in Stoke Newington for two weeks, then Bob offered me the key to his Bow flat, 22 floors up overlooking the Mile End Road.  I spent the summer there while another member of the company, actor Ram John Holder, organised a Housing Association interview for me at West Hampstead.  Sometime later that year I moved into a condemned (by a Motorway plan) ground floor flat on Archway Road which I eventually bought, with Jenny.

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Meanwhile back on stage I was singing Long Tall Sally all wrong.  Ironic this, because Little Richard wrote it to bamboozle his white tribute act Pat Boone who’d taken his vanilla cover of Tutti Frutti to the “top” of the charts (ie number 12) in late 1955 and was sure to attempt a cover of the follow-up single too. According to producer Robert Blackwell ‘Long Tall Sally” was deliberately sped up so that Boone couldn’t follow the words. Well, neither could I.  I sang “Long Tall Sally she’s pretty sweet” for example, and the lyrics actually are “…she’s built for speed“.  Clear when you know and watch the Youtube clip below but we didn’t have Youtube in 1984 and neither did Pat Boone in 1956.  Other notable covers came from Elvis Presley and The Beatles with St Paul singing the ripping falsetto quite impressively.  I never had the equipment or the bottle to attempt that kind of singing so I just kind of grunted through it and gave it some animal attitude to cover my vocal shortcomings.

What I found out later was rather amazing though. Future wife Jenny being occasionally out there as an usher, it seems that it was her friend Kate and herself and the other youth theatre crew who kicked up the noise on Friday nights so that they would get an extra song.  It’s enough to make a stone heart melt so it is.

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Little Richard of course is one of the true originals – full camp, in full make-up, singing about sex & dancing & more sex, he smashed the mid-to-late fifties music scene with his iconoclastic energy and irrepressible confidence & charm.  One of a group who changed the world along with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Apparently the song is based on a real woman with only two teeth who used to get drunk on sugared whisky because she had a cold, and then got a worse cold, leading to further tots, but the early verse was written by a young girl who’d won a radio competition :

I saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally, they saw Aunt Mary coming so they jumped back in the alley

and Richard Penniman did the rest, although he changed her words to “baldheaded Sally…”   Clearly a major influence on music in general, in particular he inspired Jimi Hendrix and Prince, both of whom took his extraordinary attitude to showmanship and ran with it.  Unlike both of those huge talents, Richard himself is still alive (as of September 2018).

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Richard Penniman in 2017

He followed Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally with a string of hits – Rip It Up, Ready Teddy, The Girl Can’t Help It, Lucille, Send Me Some Lovin’, Good Golly Miss Molly, Hey Hey Hey Hey, many others.  Later on I would discover All Around The World (a B-side) thanks to the film Gremlins. Fantastic song.  What an artist.  What a wife.

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