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Little Richard 

King of Rock and Roll: The Complete Reprise Recordings (Rhino Handmade)

Before he devolved into a talk-show celebrity best known for saying "shut up," Little Richard found his core muse in 1970. Call it southern soul. And call Little Richard one of its greatest exponents. The proof is this limited-edition, three-disc set, the sad and thrilling document of a comeback that failed.

King of Rock and Roll collects 1970's stunning The Rill Thing, 1971's less cutting, cover-heavy King of Rock 'n' Roll, 1972's desperately titled, incandescent The Second Coming, cuts from the movie $, and 10 surprisingly profound country-flecked tunes from the unreleased album Southern Child. As the set progresses, it becomes more experimental and unexpected, as if Reprise (and Little Richard) had less and less to lose. Such are the exigencies of commerce.

Even though Little Richard splendidly reworks tunes by the Beatles, Stones, and Martha and the Vandellas in particular, it's his originals that propel this remarkable collection. The Rill Thing, especially, is fantastic. Driven by Little Richard's lower, more honest, and less exhibitionist voice, it's southern soul of the most snazzy and heartfelt kind.

Our only criticism here is that there's little commentary on the sessions themselves -- just as in the original liner notes. The definitive Muscle Shoals Rhythm section contributed; so did longtime Richard associates Lee Allen on sax and the masterful Earl Palmer on drums (both cut tracks with him at Cosimo Matassa's New Orleans studio in 1955). But that's a minor beef. The set is exceptional -- southern soul at its finest.

More by Carlo Wolff

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