Review: Never Heard Of Specialty Records? Let This Short But Potent Compilation Be Your Introduction

Various Artists
Rip It Up: The Best of Specialty Records
(Craft Recordings)
4.5 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

The Specialty label out of Southern California may not have recorded the first rock and roll music, but they were inarguably a major factor in its popularity. After all, if it wasn’t for artists on their roster such as Little Richard, Larry Williams, Roy Milton, Lloyd Price, and others, there may never have been an Elvis or Beatles. The latter might have made less of an initial impression if McCartney hadn’t “borrowed” Richards’ “woo-hoo-hoo” shout and guttural vocal style for their early work.

This single-disc compilation of Specialty’s highlights celebrates the 75th anniversary of its inception. It winnows their substantial output of singles and albums released from 1945-1959 down to a manageable but still somewhat skimpy 18 tracks. Since the total CD time doesn’t break 50 minutes, there was room for lots more. Those looking for a fuller recap of the fertile Specialty catalog are advised to hunt down the five-disc The Specialty Story box since its 130 tracks obviously cover more ground. 

Entrepreneur Art Rupe started the label to record the black music he loved and which didn’t really have a home anywhere else. That aesthetic made Specialty unique as an outlet for the pure, raw sounds that were then generally sanitized by white artists for mass consumption. The diverse categories covered can be roughly sectioned into R&B, blues, gospel, soul, doo-wop, and jazz.  But the beauty is how many of these tunes combined those genres into the purest, most visceral form of rock and roll.

From the jump swing of Roy Milton’s “R.M. Blues” (the earliest track here hails from 1945), through four of Little Richard’s indelible firecrackers, including the title track, and selections from the more obscure but still influential Jimmy Liggins & His Drops of Joy (how’s that for a cool band name?) and Jesse & Marvin, this provides a pocket-sized guide to Rupe’s wares.

Few realize that Specialty also featured a young Sam Cooke fronting the Soul Stirrers on an early secular gem “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” a sweet follow-up to “You Send Me.” Lloyd Price is represented by the classic “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” but also gets to strut his stuff on the less recognizable but sultry “Oooh-Ooooh-Oooo.” And Larry Williams, best known for “Bad Boy,” which The Beatles famously covered, weighs in with “Short Fat Fanny,” a No. 1 charting precursor to “Bony Maronie.” In legendary producer/A&R man/arranger “Bumps” Blackwell Rupe also employed a multi-talented organizer who could craft hits from his capable artists.  

Detailed liner notes from musician and scholar Billy Vera (he also provided that service for many of Specialty’s individual artist compilations), recap the company’s rather brief but incredibly rich legacy.

These 18 killers (all in glorious mono) fly by quickly. They leave you wanting more from a somewhat forgotten, yet historically vital imprint that provided the music world with timeless tracks which sound as vibrant today as when they were cut seventy-some years ago.      

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