Short Fat Fannie

In making a not-so-random comparison of Little Richard and Larry Williams, the two most popular artists of the mid- to late-1950s signed to Specialty Records of Los Angeles, we find a similarity in musical styles and subject matter (Richard did "Long Tall Sally," Larry countered with "Short Fat Fannie"). For years, Little Richard seesawed between rock star-style self-indulgence and a conscience-driven desire to lead a clean, religious lifestyle. Larry's long-term approach was the same...only without the part about anything clean, spiritual, ethical or otherwise. "Slow Down" is one of his best-known songs, but he ignored any message contained in those two words; drugs and prostitution (a salesman and consumer on both counts) were his priorities, pushing his music career (typically hit-and-mostly-miss) down to second place. Perhaps the wild Mr. Williams would have been a more successful singer-songwriter had he not spiraled out of control and turned up dead at the age of 44.

He grew up in Oakland, California, but Larry's birth city of New Orleans influenced his artistic style. He could certainly work an audience into a frenzy and had honed that skill during his teens while fronting a band called The Lemon Drops. Returning to the Crescent City around 1954, he met Lloyd Price (Specialty single "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" had made him a star), who later hired Larry as a valet, chauffeur and occasional pianist in his band. Lloyd, who'd served in Korea with the U.S. Army, found his career had gone cold when he returned to the States in 1956, so he banged out the brilliant "Just Because" for his own label, KRC. Williams had been pestering Specialty owner Art Rupe and producer Robert "Bumps" Blackwell and they finally gave him a shot once he'd quit Price and headed back to L.A. They rushed out a very similar version of "Just Because" in time to compete. Though Lloyd's original was the bigger hit, Larry had positioned himself to take a stab at the big time.

A session at Master Recorders, one of L.A.'s top studios, produced Larry's "Short Fat Fannie," its lyrics less about the voluptuous title lass than the hits of the day; four of Little Richard's tunes were mentioned in rhyme in addition to Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel," Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," LaVern Baker's "Jim Dandy," Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" and other hits by The Midnighters, Little Willie John, "Big Mama" Thornton and Bill Doggett. Catchy, corny...and the original songwriters did most of the work! The single went top ten in the summer of '57, establishing Williams as a hot new contender. B side "High School Dance" was penned by Sonny Bono and Vince Oliva; this Sonny character (and he was quite a character!) would be a key player in Williams' further success...and his own career as a hitmaking married man.

"Bumps" Blackwell left Specialty around this time for a position with crosstown rival Keen Records and the label's most promising artist, Sam Cooke, jumped ship with him. Williams, seeing his chance, began producing his own recordings, and Sonny Bono, in the same mindset, cozied up to Larry (professionally speaking!); they came up with "You Bug Me, Baby" as a surefire A side for the next single. Rupe had a different idea and suggested Larry do the logical follow-up and sing about a slender girl (not Sonny's Cher; she was still just a kid living somewhere in Southern Cal's Imperial Valley). Williams went to extreme and "Bony Moronie" was born ('...she's as skinny as a stick of macaroni!'); the song hit the top 20 late in the year while "Bug Me" charted about 30 positions lower. Larry had staked his claim to stardom on rock and roll novelty songs...but how far could a guy carry such a game plan? He would soon find out.

Larry Williams

"Dizzy, Miss Lizzy" (another Little Richard rip?) had a relatively brief run on radio playlists in the spring of '58, selling well below expectations. The B side, "Slow Down," should have been the hit, as a group of teenage fans on the other side of the Atlantic would illustrate six years later. Lively L.W. creations like "Hootchy-Koo" and "Peaches and Cream" laid dormant while Art Rupe sweated bullets; Cooke was becoming a marquee star for another label and Little Richard had forsaken the altar of rock and roll for something called Christianity while no one else Art signed seemed to be able to crack any radio playlists. Rupe was counting too much on Larry to bring in money from record sales, but the "Moronie" man had his own problems trying to dodge the cops, who were paying closer attention to his drug dealing sideline than he preferred. Rupe cut him loose around the summer of '59 and he went straight over to Chess Records in Chicago, where several singles (some sung slightly off-key: "My Baby's Got Soul," "Teardrops," "Fresh Out of Tears") failed to ignite. A brief '63 fling on Mercury (with a "Woman") was his only vinyl release over a four year stretch.

Larry Williams was the kind of artist John Lennon aspired to be (I'd guess he was unaware of the singer's more questionable endeavors) it's not too surprising The Beatles recorded three of his songs, "Slow Down" (a top 40 hit in the fall of '64), "Dizzy, Miss Lizzy" and "Bad Boy" (the latter two appearing on the band's seventh U.S. album, Beatles XI); Carl Perkins was the only other artist to have as many as three of his songs revived (with big royalty bucks and a newfound relevance the benefits) by Britain's Fab Four. The Rolling Stones joined Larry's party with "She Said 'Yeah'" (the "Bad Boy" flip from '59) on their 1965 album December's Children (And Everybody's). All this Invasion action prompted Larry to tour Britain (where his music was suddenly very popular) with Johnny "Guitar" Watson, a well-received, rollicking good time that resulted in two U.K.-only live albums.

Just as Price had done years before, Williams and Watson formed their own label, Jola, apparently for the release of just one 45 by the pair, "Beatle Time." After a single by Larry on Smash ("Boss Lovin'," which used the old "Fannie" trick of calling out the titles of recent hit songs), the pair signed with Okeh Records, both as a duo and as solo artists (Johnny dropped the "Guitar" from his name and was impressing people with his piano playing). Little Richard also joined the label's roster and Larry produced his 1966 R&B chart hit "Poor Dog (Who Can't Wag His Own Tail)." After a solo Williams single, "I'd Rather Fight Than Switch" (a phrase used in Tareyton cigarettes ads), Williams and Watson teamed for an animated vocal version of "Cannonball" Adderley's jazz and pop smash "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," which entered both pop and R&B charts in early 1967. Then the unexpectedly psychedelic "Nobody," backed by rock band The Kaleidoscope, had a brief chart run for Larry and Johnny in early '68 (several months before the same song signaled Three Dog Night's debut). Solo discs popped up on the Venture label and a final Williams and Watson duet, "Can't Find No Substitute for Love," was released on Bell in 1969.

What is there to say about Larry's B movie acting career? He had a small part in a 1968 teen violence flick, Just For the Hell of It, and two others in which he was little more than a glorified extra: The Klansman in '74 and Drum in '76. Lennon remained loyal to L.W. and included "Bony Moronie" on his 1974 Rock 'n' Roll album. Larry Williams capped his recording career in funk mode with a pair of 1978 singles for Fantasy Records. But more than two decades of pimping and dealing caught up with him; he lived luxuriously, not from his music so much as his shady "night jobs." During the first week of January 1980, police found him at home with a bullet in his head. Was it morder? Suicide? Investigators, apparently, were baffled. The case has never been solved.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Short Fat Fannie Dizzy, Miss Lizzie