‘Gonna Tell Aunt Mary . . .’

Originally posted September 1, 2009

The things you can learn rummaging around online!

Remember all the stories about a baseball player promising to hit a home run for a sick kid in the hospital and then actually going out and doing so? (The ballplayer in the story is frequently Babe Ruth, and there is some evidence that things happened that way at least once, which only proves that where Babe Ruth is concerned, fact and fable intersect.) As I dug around at Wikipedia this morning, I found a similar story of rock ’n’ roll lore:

In the mid-1950s, it seems, there was a young woman in or near New Orleans named Enotris Johnson. Her Aunt Mary was ill, and in hopes of gaining the money for her aunt’s treatment, Enotris began to write a rock ’n’ roll song for a popular performer to record. Actually, she only wrote a couple of lines, but somehow, she got in touch with Honey Chile, a popular disk jockey.

Honey Chile took the few lines that Enotris had written and got in touch with a fellow named Bumps Blackwell, who was an A&R man for Specialty Records. Blackwell took the few lines to the performer, who was – Wikipedia says – reluctant to use them. Still, one of the lines resonated with the artist, and he and Blackwell added to Enotris Johnson’s lines and crafted a song out of it. Recorded at a tempo so fast that the artist might have been singing in some language other than English, the song was released as a single. It went as high as No. 6 on the fragmented pop charts of the time and spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the R&B chart.

Those three lines Enotris wrote?

Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally
They saw Aunt Mary comin’
So they ducked back in the alley.

The artist, of course, was Little Richard and the song was “Long Tall Sally,” maybe the most famous song recorded by the flamboyant singer born as Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia. (I’d guess that “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” would be in the running for that “most famous” title.)

As to the truth of the tale I found at Wikipedia, some of the details of the story – minus Aunt Mary – also appear in The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh’s 1989 tome about the 1,001 best singles. In addition, the song’s writing credits have seemingly always included an E. Johnson. On the other hand, “Long Tall Sally” wasn’t a one-shot for Enotris Johnson. She received at least two other writing credits on Little Richard songs: She’s also listed as a co-writer on “Miss Ann” and “Jenny Jenny.” (There may have been more credits for Enotris Johnson on songs that weren’t hits; those are the credits I noticed this morning on the CD The Georgia Peach.)

I did find some more information at Who’s Dated Who, a celebrity website. On an otherwise blank page for Enotris Johnson, a reader named Betty posted this note in May:

What happen to Enotris Johnson, the song writer that almost became a star? She loved the music industry very much and still does. She says that Little Richard was her brother back then. She married a preacher back in September 10, 1956; that ended all of her musical dreams because he was a man of God and he could not have his wife singing the blues. You can only think of what was expected of a housewife back in the 1950’s. Enotris now lives in Bogalusa, Louisiana. She is now 72 years old. She has one daughter, Wilma Dunn, [who] resides in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband. Enotris is a warm loving mother and friend and still supports her husband. Every once in a while you can hear her wailing on that piano and singing in the middle of the night. You would just love to sit around her and hear her tell all the stories from back in the day when all of the old singers were at their humble beginnings. Enotris Johnson has lived a full and happy life with her husband and being the idea preacher’s wife. [Edited slightly.]

The information would mean that Enotris Johnson would have been about nineteen years old when “Long Tall Sally” was recorded. And it still doesn’t address the truth about the ill Aunt Mary, but – like so many other rock ’n’ roll stories and fables (see Mr. Jimmy and the Rolling Stones, for example) – it really doesn’t matter. As I’ve said before, legend drives out fact.

And Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” remains one of the most vital songs in rock ’n roll history, and it must be one of the most covered, as well. Among those who covered it when Little Richard’s version was getting airplay were Pat Boone and Elvis Presley. I shared Boone’s limp version here about a year ago, and – oddly enough – I don’t have a copy of Presley’s.

A quick look at All-Music Guide results in a list of more than eight hundred CDs that contain a version of “Long Tall Sally.” The Little Richard, Pat Boone and Elvis Presley versions account for many of those, of course, but some of the other names that show up are Atlanta Rhythm Section, Cactus, Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys, the Chambers Brothers, Eddie Cochrane, Joey Dee & the Starliters, Wanda Jackson, the Isley Brothers, the Kinks, Sleepy LaBeef, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul McCartney, Molly Hatchet, Don Nix, Carl Perkins, Johnny Rivers, the Rivingtons, Marty Robbins, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Sha Na Na, the Tornadoes, the Trashmen, Walter Trout, Gene Vincent and Roger Whittaker. (That last one baffles me a little.)

[Note from 2022: The website Second Hand Songs lists a total of 161 separate covers of “Long Tall Sally,” including versions in Danish, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish. Note added May 18, 2022.]

I have, strangely, only three covers of “Long Tall Sally” (on mp3 at any rate; vinyl may be another story): The Pat Boone I mentioned earlier and versions by the Beatles and by King Curtis.

The Beatles’ version was issued in 1964; in Britain, it was one of four songs on an EP (“I Call Your Name,” “Slow Down” and “Matchbox” were the others), and here in the U.S., the song was included on the imaginatively titled The Beatles’ Second Album. (It later showed up on several vinyl and CD anthologies, including Past Masters, Vol. 1.)

King Curtis’ version was recorded in New York City on October 28, 1965, and was evidently released as the flip side of “The Boss” [Atlantic 9469] and was included on a 1986 R&B saxophone anthology, Atlantic Honkers. (The sketchy notes on Atlantic Honkers indicate that “Long Tall Sally” was the title track of a King Curtis album, presumably on the Atco label, but I can’t find any other mention of such an album. Anyone out there know anything?)

“Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, Specialty 572 [1956]

“Long Tall Sally” by the Beatles from The Beatles’ Second Album [1964]

“Long Tall Sally” by King Curtis, evidently Atlantic 9469 B-Side [1965]

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