Fever: Little Willie John

An exclusive extract...
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Little Willie John is one of the best singers you never knew, or forgot about much too soon.

The diminutive Detroiter hit back in the pre-soul era with "All Around the World" and the original version of "Fever," both recorded when he was still in his teens. His dynamic and daring sound left an indelible mark on pop music and his fans include some of the top names in music: B.B. King, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. His deep blues, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll, and swinging ballads inspired a generation of musicians, forming the basis for what we now know as soul music. A new biography, "Fever: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysteiorus Death and the Birth of Soul" written by music journalist Susan Whitall with the help of his son Kevin John (Titan Books) is the first attempt to shed light on Willie's life, his music and sad end in a Washington state prison.

James Brown almost wore himself out telling the story of how he blew Willie John off the stage. He told it in his autobiography, in interviews, to anyone who would listen. There was a lot at stake in the high-testosterone world of male rhythm & blues singers. Every night, on every stage, superiority would have to be proven again. From 1956 to 1960, Willie John was always in play, he was the guy you had to beat.

James and the Famous Flames had been recording for King’s Federal Records label since 1956, when they released the song “Please, Please, Please.” Syd Nathan wasn’t thrilled about the song. He respected a singer like Willie, who never screamed, and enunciated lyrics as crisply as Sinatra, thanks to his Detroit public school music teachers. But Hal Neely personally guaranteed the tune, and it sailed to No. 6 on the rhythm & blues chart. Their next few releases didn’t do as well, but in 1958, promoted to King from the “junior” Federal label thanks to Neely’s efforts, James and the group burst right out of the gate with the song, “Try Me,” which went to No. 1 on the rhythm & blues charts. James’ passionate performance on “Try Me” also earned the group a week-long booking at the Apollo Theater starting April 24th, 1959—on the bottom of a bill topped by Willie. The Upsetters were on the show, as well as the comedy act Butterbeans & Susie, Verna White and singer/contortionist (you got a lot for a two dollar ticket at the Apollo) Vi Kemp.

James Brown finally had his chance to go up against the prince of the blues, the guy who tore everybody up. To a proper competitor who thrived on the contest, it didn’t get any better than this. Describing his fateful first night on the Apollo stage, James could hardly contain himself. “Little Willie John didn’t want us coming on anywhere near him—he knew what we could do—so they had us opening the show,” he said in The Godfather of Soul. Never mind that it would make no sense for the Apollo neophyte to top the bill over a popular performer like Willie, backed by the high-stepping Upsetters. But let Mr Brown continue. “I came out smoking,” James wrote. “The audience went wild. I don’t think they’d ever seen a man move that fast. I put them on Little Willie John’s case right away.”

James pulled out every move he’d developed in his stage act so far, he fell to his knees, cried and pleaded during a song, he had one of the Flames put a coat on his shoulders and lead him off, a precursor of the schtick with the ornate cape that he would refine to an art over the following few years. “Little Willie John couldn’t hardly handle it,” James crowed. “He said I was using tricks to get over.” Yes, indeed he was. James and the Famous Flames kept it up all week, and finally convinced Apollo owner Frank Schiffman to move them into the “co-starring” slot, just before Willie. “He couldn’t hardly stand it. He was a balladeer and I ate him alive. He could sing, though. Later I got where I could out-sing him too,” James bragged.

It’s hard to listen to his 1961 hit “Prisoner of Love” and agree with that last boast. Clearly, he was trying to beat Little Willie John at his own game, proving that he could be a suave, lovesick crooner as well as a dancing, sweating, rhythmic genius. He deploys a fluttering vibrato, singing of romantic anguish in a painfully high part of his range atop a layer of gossamer backing voices. Of course, he can’t help but be James, and wail and shriek, screaming “you… you… you,” at the end of the track.

There isn’t the sense, as there was with Willie, that the voice is being used like a horn, that he was singing as naturally and effortlessly as a bird. James Brown did nothing without sweating, without showing how much effort he was making, proud of his image as the hardest working man in show business. Willie John, on the other hand, made singing seem easy, just like moving one leg in front of the other, just like swatting a fly. “Willie was always, always ready to sing. It was just something that he seemed to love, seemed to be a part of him,” said Louise Williams Bishop. She was morning host on Philadelphia’s WDAS in the 1950s. Bishop watched him often at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia and confessed, “I probably had a little crush on him, although he never paid any attention to it.” Bishop was usually backstage, where she observed all the performers. “Diana Ross was scared to death,” she remembered. “I stood in the wings and held her, and encouraged her to go out there. But Willie, there was never any encouraging. As soon as the spotlight hit him, he came alive.”

A December 1959 Variety review of an Apollo Theater show featuring both Willie and James restores a corrective balance to Mr Brown’s somewhat self- aggrandizing memory. Willie was on the top of the bill again, so if James had indeed eaten him alive in April, it didn’t affect the Apollo’s billing arrangements. The Drifters were next under Willie on the bill, then the Flames, then Laura Johnson, Stan Kirk, Reuben Phillips Band, followed by a movie screening of Return of the Fly.

Variety reported that Willie was not only the “star-singer” of the show that night, but the emcee as well. “…In both capacities (he) attempts valiantly to make something cohesive out of what is otherwise a haphazard collection of acts. Young performer has an easy, winning way and provides show’s best moments when he takes over the mike next-to-closing and belts out four numbers ranging from rock ’n’ roll to pop to blues. He’s an energetic but disciplined performer with a lot of the rhythmic drive that marks Johnnie Ray’s delivery, especially in the sweet-tempoed ‘Talk to Me’ and the bluesy ‘Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere’.”

James went on to achieve funk immortality, so it’s inevitable that his voice (and version of history) has prevailed, but in 1959 he was no match for Little Willie John. For all his competitive feelings (and Darlynn John believed he was indeed jealous of her husband) James did love Willie. He spoke of him for years with an almost obsessive awe. When he sang “I Lost Someone” at the Apollo in October of 1962, he even riffed on Willie, ad-libbing his crooning, pleading line, “I need your love, so baaaad” into the song, immortalized on vinyl on Live at the Apollo.

Copyright Susan Whitall and Kevin John.

From: “Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul,” (Titan Books), available June 21st in the US and June 24th in the UK.

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