Larry Williams was moving way too fast. He should have slowed down.
Born in New Orleans in 1935, he grew up around music, learning to play the piano. In his teens, Williams moved with his family to Oakland, California. There he joined a local R & B group, The Lemon Drops. He also became familiar with what some called “the sporting life.” On a visit back to New Orleans in 1954, he met singer Lloyd Price, then recording for Specialty Records. One thing led to another. Price hired Williams to be his valet. Williams was later introduced to Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, Specialty’s house producer. Soon after, Williams signed a recording contract with Specialty. All the while, according to Blackwell, Williams was also pimping. Things were moving fast already.
Shortly after they signed Williams, Specialty lost its top artist, Little Richard. Returning to the Christian faith he embraced as a child, Little Richard left rock and roll for the ministry. Eventually Little Richard would return to the rock and roll fold, then leave it for the ministry again. This see-sawing between sacred and secular went on for decades. Finally he reconciled the two, determining he could be both rock star and Christian. But Specialty could not wait for Little Richard to sort things out. They began grooming Larry Williams. He would be the star to replace Little Richard.
Williams’ career took off quickly. His recordings with Specialty featured a rocking group, backing him with loads of energy. In 1957, he had two big hits on both the R&B and Pop charts, “Short Fat Fannie” and “Bony Maronie.” But his success slowed just as quickly as it began. Despite writing and recording such great songs as “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” “Slow Down,” and “Bad Boy,” the hits stopped coming for Larry Williams. Thankfully, his records still received attention in England, particularly from a Liverpool teenager named John Lennon.
But it would be a few years before Williams would enjoy further success in the music world. In the meantime, he devoted more energy to drug dealing and prostitution. After an arrest for possession of narcotics in 1959, Specialty dropped him. He went on to record with other labels, including Chess Records, but there were no hits. In 1967 he teamed with old friend Johnny “Guitar” Watson to record the Two For The Price of One album which featured the first vocal rendition of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
In his book, The Heart Of Rock and Roll, Dave Marsh elaborates on “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” saying the “sly lyrics are a pimp’s eye-view of female flesh on parade.” Larry Williams understood that perspective. Watson was reputed to have been involved in prostitution as well. Knowing that, the banter between Williams and Watson comes off as two guys talking shop. Marsh wrote that “the verbal jousting is so high-spirited that it never seems quite as cruel as what one shudderingly imagines inspired it.”
The Williams/Watson rendition of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” was not a hit record. However, a version by The Buckinghams, white bread wonders from Chicago, did peak at number five on the Billboard Hot 100.
Although Larry Williams continued to make records until a year before his death in 1980, his main sources of income were working girls, heroin and cocaine. This fast and seedy life got him a half million dollar home in Laurel Canyon. His garage was replete with a Rolls Royce, a Porsche and other high-end cars. For most of the sixties and seventies, there was little reported on Williams’ musical career. His other lines of work did not get the public’s attention either.
Williams’ disappearance from the scene didn’t faze John Lennon. He loved Williams’ songs and made them part of the Beatles’ on-stage repertoire in the early sixties. Even as the Beatles became a self-contained band, recording and performing mostly Lennon-McCartney compositions, Larry Williams’ songs were included on two of their albums. Besides Carl Perkins (whom George Harrison and Ringo Starr especially revered), Williams was the only artist who had at least three songs covered by the Beatles.
In June 1964, the Beatles’ recording of Williams’ “Slow Down” was featured on a United Kingdom EP and on the Something New album, released a month later in the US. It was also released as a single in the U.S., with a rendition of Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” on the flip side.
The Beatles’ take on “Slow Down” is similar to the Williams original. It’s a 12 bar blues, although the Beatles rock it slightly faster. Both renditions feature some fierce piano playing, by Williams on his recording and producer George Martin on The Beatles’ version. Horns are prominent on the Williams original whereas the Beatles let their chiming guitars dominate.
The story in the song is simple enough. A guy believes his girl has interest in some other fellow, the one down the street. The guy knows he’s put some work into the relationship. He fears his efforts have been futile. The guy reminds his girl of what they have and how they could lose it. Exasperated, he pleads, “Baby, what’re you trying to do?” He then tells her to slow down, she’s moving way too fast. If she doesn’t show him the attention he wants, he’ll just walk away.
Larry Williams’ vocals are strong but not as assertive as John Lennon’s on the Beatles’ version. Williams sounds as if he’s asking her what’s going on. Lennon is resolute. His delivery makes clear he knows exactly what’s going on and that it needs to end. Now.
But it’s not the song’s subject matter that’s important. The way it is played and sung is what makes “Slow Down” so memorable. It’s a forceful and rollicking number. Along with “You Can’t Do That” and “Twist and Shout,” “Slow Down” is one of the songs in which Lennon defined himself as the assured, in-charge vocalist of the Beatles. That’s no small feat, considering the group’s other main vocalist, Paul McCartney, had many of his own shining moments as a lead singer.
On May 6, 1965, the Beatles recorded two Larry Williams’ songs, “Bad Boy” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzie. Both were featured on their U.S. album, Beatles VI. With blazing guitar work and Lennon’s inspired vocals, the Beatles again brought attention to Williams’ work. Fans of the Beatles, relatively new to rock and roll, must have wondered about this Larry Williams guy. Certainly they didn’t perceive him as someone who traded in flesh and drugs.
In 1980, Larry Williams died of a gunshot wound to the head. His body was discovered in the garage by his mother. The LAPD called it suicide. Friends and family members aware of his involvement with drug dealing and prostitution believed he was murdered. Things went from moving way too fast to spiraling out of control. Richard Penniman, aka Little Richard, had only three years earlier nearly been shot by Williams over a drug debt. Williams considered their longtime friendship and decided not to shoot him. Surely Little Richard was thankful Williams remembered the good times. But the incident gave him pause, influencing his decision to dedicate himself again to the Christian ministry. Penniman decided it was time to slow down.