LITTLE WILLIE JOHN WAS A SMALL MAN with a big voice, an outsized talent who could croon and growl, sing ballads and rhythm and blues, dig deep into his lower register and hit high notes that took the wind out of lesser tenors. He was also a fierce performer; not even James Brown, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, wanted to follow Little Willie John on a bill.
In the late 1950s, before Motown and the British Invasion, Little Willie John owned rhythm and blues. In Susan Whitall’s authorized biography (written with John’s older son, Kevin, and the cooperation of his widow, Darlynn John), he emerges as a “singer’s singer,” admired by the likes of Solomon Burke, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Stevie Wonder, who wrote a foreword for the book. But his promising career — which took off in 1955 when a teenaged Little Willie released his first hit record, “All Around the World,” on Syd Nathan’s independent King label — was cut short by a series of disasters that left him broke, indebted to King, and convicted of second-degree murder. When he died in May 1968, authorities at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where Willie John was serving an eight- to 20-year sentence for manslaughter, attributed it to a heart attack. But friends and family, who have never obtained the prison report of a purported autopsy, doubted that Willie John had died of “natural” causes.
Willie John’s sudden passing in prison is the “mysterious death” of Whitall’s subtitle. As she notes, documents obtained from the Washington State Department of Corrections are silent on the matter of how and why an apparently healthy 30-year-old man could have fallen so desperately ill so suddenly. Prison documents similarly contain no documentation of the singer’s hospitalization for pneumonia, which James Brown, who visited his friend in Walla Walla, describes in his 2005 I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life in Soul. “Conspiracy theories started circulating almost immediately [after Willie’s death] among his peers in the music business, and especially in the black community,” Whitall writes. The phrase “conspiracy theory” is potentially misleading here, suggesting a plot against the singer. Yet if Little Willie died as a result of fatal wounds suffered in a fight with another inmate, as a couple of Whitall’s sources speculate, then his death might more accurately be understood in terms of a routinized — and therefore all the more appalling — disregard for the lives of African-American men, both inside and outside the prison system.
Given the circumstances of Little Willie John’s last years, it is difficult to come up with a narrative of his career that does not in some ways frame it in tragic terms. Yet Whitall sets herself the task of writing Willie John’s story in a manner that avoids the formulaic nature of “so many mawkish online biographies” of the singer, which focus on his “doomed and violent” temperament. In Fever she has succeeded in doing this, breathing life into the story of Willie’s rapid ascent in the mid and late 1950s as one of R & B’s most respected and influential singers, a voice of such power that it blasts through the ensuing decades, demanding to be heard. She does this without the benefit of much, if any, preserved film footage of Little Wil...read more