The Beatles, “Bad Boy” from Past Masters (1965): Deep Beatles

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The final installment in Deep Beatles’ salute to some of the band’s best covers involves an artist who has appeared in this column before: Larry Williams. The American R&B singer/songwriter never achieved tremendous fame in his own country, but British bands fell for singles such as “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Slow Down,” and “Bad Boy.”

These raucous tracks were played by numerous British Invasion bands, including the Beatles. John Lennon, a particular fan of Williams’, sang lead on their covers of all three aforementioned songs. “Bad Boy” in particular allows Lennon to unleash his unrestrained rock vocal style; the roughness in his voice is on full display.

New Orleans-born Williams had a background in singing and playing piano when he met Lloyd Price (“Personality,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”). That introduction was fortuitous: Price hired Williams as his valet, which led to Williams’ big break. Eventually, Price introduced Williams to executives at his record label, Speciality.

After Williams was signed in 1957, he cut the Price-composed single “Just Because” with Little Richard’s backing band. Once the single peaked at No. 11 on the R&B charts, the label began grooming the singer to be the next big rock ’n roll crossover star. His followup single, the self-penned “Bony Moronie,” fared even better, but then “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” failed to replicate the previous single’s chart performance. Subsequently, 1959’s “Bad Boy” failed to become a hit.

Unfortunately, Speciality soon dropped Williams from the label, as he had been arrested for selling drugs. He thereafter drifted from label to label, experiencing minor success with singles such as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (1967) and “Nobody” (1968). He dropped out of the music business for 10 years, resurfacing with the album That’s Larry Williams in 1978. After the album failed commercially and critically, Williams left the business for good. He was found dead in a Los Angeles home in 1980; while police ruled his death a suicide, rumors have persisted that he was possibly murdered by one of his drug connections.

Larry Williams may have met with relatively minor success in America, but his singles caught the ear of British musicians such as John Lennon. According to John Blaney’s John Lennon: Listen to This Book, Lennon stated that “Bony Moronie” meant a great deal to him, as it was one of the few songs his mother saw him perform live before her untimely death. In 1975, Lennon paid further tribute to Williams by covering “Bony Moronie” (and “Just Because”) on his album Rock ’n’ Roll.

As a budding rock singer and songwriter, however, Lennon learned his craft by covering Williams’ songs. The witty and occasionally risqué lyrics must have appealed to his sense of humor: Indeed, Williams’ original version of “Bad Boy” emphasized the silliness of the track, undercutting some of his edgy lyrics. (Note how he exaggerates the title words to zany effect.) An earlier take, however, suggests that Williams originally envisioned the song as a straightforward, New Orleans-tinged rocker.

The Beatles recorded “Bad Boy” expressly for the U.S. market, where it appeared on the Beatles VI album in 1965. (It would not see U.K. release until 1966 as part of the compilation A Collection of Beatles Oldies.) Squeezing in recording sessions immediately after filming Help!, the Beatles recorded “Bad Boy” along with “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” on May 10.

The EMI Studios session featured John Lennon on lead vocals and rhythm guitar; Paul McCartney on bass and the Hohner Pianet electric piano; George Harrison on lead guitar; and Ringo Starr on drums and tambourine. Since “Bad Boy” had been part of the Beatles’ live set since the early 1960s, they easily completed the song in four takes. The first three takes were rhythm tracks; they then overdubbed Lennon’s lead vocals, Harrison’s double-tracked lead guitar, McCartney’s piano, and Starr’s tambourine onto the final track.

“Bad Boy” paints a vivid picture of the Beatles’ early sound, the rawness that Cavern Club audiences heard. Harrison’s sharp notes pierce through, the guitar style spanning both R&B and rock. Starr’s driving beat and fills introduce Lennon, and the singer’s volume and raspiness immediately set the tone. “A bad little kid moved in to my neighborhood,” Lennon sneers. “He won’t do nothing right, just sitting down and looks so good.” Harrison’s guitar answers every line, as if underscoring Lennon’s points about the main character’s rebellious qualities.

Lennon stresses certain words such as, “just sits around the house and plays that rock ’n’ roll music all night.” This technique both describes the character but also pokes fun at adults who dismiss the musical genre. How “bad” is this kid? “Well, he put thumbtacks on teacher’s chair / Puts chewing gum in little girls’ hair,” Lennon cries, questioning the boy’s negative reputation. He follows with exaggerated shock: “Now junior, behave yourself!” Lennon’s voice rises on the word “behave,” mocking those who express disapproval – and perhaps imitating the reactions of Beatles fans’ parents.

The next lyrics rattle off what makes the kid a “bad” boy: buying rock magazines, feeding jukeboxes with his money, and worrying his teacher. Tweaking his critics, Lennon must have taken special delight in yelling the line “get to the barber shop and get that hair cut off your head,” although the lyrics take a decidedly darker turn when they mention unarguably deviant acts: “Took the canary and you fed it to the neighbor’s cat / You gave the cocker spaniel a bath in mother’s laundromat.”

The line “Junior’s head is hard as rock,” which John Lennon repeats twice, could be seen as a sign of general stubbornness but also that rock has completely overtaken the youth – and is that necessarily a bad thing? George Harrison’s raucous guitar solo fits the overall tone, but his answering notes to Lennon’s voice firmly anchor the track.

Like the Beatles’ other covers, “Bad Boy” reveals their roots: In this case, rhythm and blues. John Lennon may have been Larry Williams’ most outspoken fan, but one need only listen to “I’m Down” or “She’s a Woman” to understand how Paul McCartney was also impacted by Williams’ late-1950s tracks. Covers like “Bad Boy” give fans additional insight as to how the Beatles mixed in different ingredients — R&B, country, Broadway, and more — to create their distinctive sound.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at
Kit O'Toole
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