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 Willie’s performances, relying instead on the sonic and print archive and the memories of family members, music industry veterans, and fellow musicians, who struggle to find the superlatives to represent Little Willie’s charismatic stage presence and virtuoso talent. If tragedy nevertheless lurks within the story, this can hardly be attributed to Willie’s temperament: If nothing else,Fever is a reminder that some of the last century’s most beautiful, heartfelt, and danceable music was produced in the context of struggles against poverty, state-supported violence, racial segregation, and commercial exploitation. “Willie was a character,” Solomon Burke says. “Back in those days we were all characters, always something crazy to do or say because we lived in an atmosphere of prejudice, segregation, mood swings and changes.”
William Edward John was born in Cullendale, Arkansas, in 1937 into a musical family that migrated to Detroit in the early 1940s. (His older sister is the singer Mable John, a former Raelette, who recorded for the Motown and Stax labels.) The North End neighborhood where the Johns eventually settled was a fertile training ground for some of the 20th century’s most important singers, including Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, and Jackie Wilson. An energetic and outgoing kid — in today’s parenting lingo, he would be deemed a “spirited” child — Little Willie cut his vocal chops at various Holiness churches the family attended and in the Detroit public schools, where like many of the original Motown personnel he learned sight-reading, breath control, and enunciation. Modeling himself after Paul Robeson and the opera sensation Enrico Caruso, Willie briefly studied voice at the Detroit Conservatory of Music, but lacking money for private lessons he ultimately gave up on classical music.
As Fever suggests, the highly competitive artistic milieu of early rhythm and blues culture was its own “conservatory,” prodding budding singers like Willie John to perfect their craft — or give up music for a day job. Performing at roller rinks, talent competitions, and amateur shows in the early 1950s, Willie developed his repertoire and his showmanship, singing “whatever the restless crowd demanded, from the blues-flavored hits of the day, to big band standards or Broadway show tunes.” The amateur/talent show circuit would serve Willie well even once he became a breakout recording star with “All Around the World.” Not unlike the world of hip hop in the 1980s, the rhythm and blues circuit in the 1950s was not for the faint-hearted, with singers and musicians vying to outdo each other, jockeying for position on stage lineups, and looking for ever more creative and memorable ways to take their competitors down. As Whitall is careful to note, this was a decidedly masculine battleground, where the sexual double standard held sway and where supremacy was measured in flashy cars and flashy women. Flush with his early success, a young Willie flaunted his sharp clothes and new silver-gray Cadillac Fleetwood — a “gift” (in lieu of payment) from King’s Syd Nathan — to an envious Jackie Wilson, who felt compelled to prove his worth with his own Fleetwood. Willie’s labelmate James Brown supplies some of Fever’s best illustrations of this bruising world of rhythm and blues singing, boasting that he made it impossible for Willie to follow him on the stage of New York’s Apollo Theater, perhaps the most famous musical battlefield of all. Whitall dutifully reports Brown’s braggadocio, recounted in his 1986 autobiography, The Godfather of Soul, but she makes it clear that she isn’t buying it. In her narrative, Little Willie was the champion, Brown the upstart contender, at least until Brown landed a knockout punch with 1963’s Live at the Apollo.
Even if JB could match Willie on stage, he couldn’t out-sing him. Indeed, part of what drives Whitall’s narrative is the search for an adequate language to describe Willie John’s voice and its affective power on listeners. Willie had a remarkable range (what other men sang in falsetto he could sing in a “natural” voice), a “tasteful” delivery (he knew how to embellish a melody but also how not to over-sing), and a jazz musician’s sense of timing (other singers compared his voice to a horn). But part of Willie’s appeal also came from the apparent disjunction between his stature, reported as 5’4”, and his voice; audiences simply weren’t prepared for that voice issuing from that body. (A Chicago promoter once dubbed him “The Smallest Man with the Biggest Sound.”) Related to but distinct from the issue of Willie John’s height was the fact that he looked younger than his years. Appearing 14 when he was 17, he presented audiences “an intriguing, unsettling combination of youth and worldliness,” Whitall writes, singing in a voice that “sizzled with the muscular, assured macho of a seasoned man of the world” even when he was still a teenager. And unlike Brown, whose prodigious sweating was a sign of how hard he was working, under the stage lights Willie was all suavity, a picture of confidence, physical grace, and modulated energy. Mid-show, after a particularly emotional number, he would pull out a pocket handkerchief to dab his sweat and tears, and while a lesser singer-performer might have performed this as burlesque, with Willie, who moved and dressed immaculately, it never came off as shtick.
Women were particularly taken with Willie’s singing and his stage persona. Whitall describes the stage after a “legendary showdown” in the late 1950s between Willie and Jackie Wilson at the Rockland Palace in Harlem: “After Willie walked off,” she writes, “the stage looked as if there’d been a fight in a lingerie store. Stockings, purses and even panties lay in piles, thrown up by women driven out of their minds by the sound of a male voice expressing such romantic fervor.” Such an image begs for — pardon the pun — more unpacking. What was it about Willie’s performance of masculinity that attracted such fervent — and demonstrative — fan reaction? B.B. King, who headlined a 1956 show with Willie on the bill, suggests that amid the flash and frenzy of mid-1950s rhythm and blues, he wooed fans through understatement. “He didn’t have to jump up like Jackie Wilson and James Brown and all of them and do all of the many things to excite people by moving,” King told Whitall. He could stand … and just sing, and his voice did the rest of it.” For Little Willie John — who famously sang, “If I don’t love you baby, grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry and Mona Lisa was a man” — control in the context of lavish emotional expression was a powerful form of eroticism.
Commercially speaking, Willie peaked early in his career with “Fever,” released on King in April 1956. He initially didn’t want to record the song, but the “uptown” arrangement (finger-snaps, a guitar that adds color and mood, not just rhythm), combined with Willie’s impassioned delivery, made “Fever” the sixth-most-popular jukebox selection of the year and, as Whitall notes, the soundtrack of an unknowable number of romantic seductions. “Fever” went to number 24 on the pop charts, an impressive achievement in the years before Motown successfully marketed black music as “The Sound of Young America,” and an especially noteworthy feat given the smoldering sexuality of the lyrics. For Willie, only 18 when “Fever” was recorded, the song’s success was a sign that he might eventually achieve his dream of appealing equally to white and black audiences.
Willie’s dream, a musician’s dream of racial parity in a segregated music world, was premature. Around the time Willie’s sales of “Fever” passed the one-million mark, Peggy Lee came out with her own version of “Fever,” a record that went on to sell five million copies. According to Whitall, Willie shrugged off Lee’s success, finding her cover a “joke,” but the irony of it was not lost on him. The year Wille’s “Fever” hit big, 1956, was also the year that Elvis cashed in on “Hound Dog,” the Leiber and Stoller song first recorded by Big Mama Thornton, and the year that Georgia Gibbs recorded “Dance with Me, Henry,” her tame makeover of Etta James’s “The Wallflower (Roll with Me, Henry)”. At stake was not merely money — although surely that was important in a world that so limited African-American material success — but cultural memory and historical agency.
Things weren’t all that better at King Records, where Syd Nathan — painted unflatteringly by Whitall as “short [and] asthmatic, with a stubby cigar dangling from his mouth” — picked arguments over his star singer’s sound. Willie wanted to sound like Sinatra, with strings behind him, but Nathan preferred him sounding “blacker.” Such a conundrum placed Willie in the impossible position of being simultaneously “too white” for Nathan’s taste and “not white enough” for the sort of national TV exposure that might have earned him a larger audience. In such a context, the rise of Motown — which, among other things, succeeded in redefining the racial terrain of U.S. popular music — was definitive. As Whitall notes, Motown survived the British Invasion, the Supremes going head to head with the Beatles in 1964, but on the whole artists such as Willie John, who had developed followings on the chitlin circuit and on black radio, did not.
Whitall places Willie John’s decline after 1963 in the context of such changes in the popular music landscape, but she also rightly adds his name to the sad roll call of African-American musical casualties of the early 1960s. Between 1960 and 1964, Jessie Belvin, Dinah Washington, and Sam Cooke all died, and Ray Charles was busted for heroin possession. It’s likely that alcohol and drugs exacerbated Willie’s epilepsy (he had his first seizures as a child) and, in any case, touring was not providing the kind of money he needed to support a wife and two young children. Perhaps most important, Willie hadn’t been able to realize the spoils of talent and hard work. Whitall cites as a low point an Oakland, California, concert featuring Willie, Lou Rawls, and Etta James that drew a disappointing crowd of 600. “Willie had been putting on shows like that since he was 14 years old,” she writes, “and what did he have to show for it?”
It’s not clear what happened at the Seattle party Willie John attended in 1964. Witnesses at Willie’s murder trial later agreed that Willie had a fight with a man named Kendall Roundtree, who died of knife wounds, although no one would claim to have seen Willie stab Roundtree. Willie was eventually convicted of manslaughter by an all-white jury, although according to Whitall shoddy legal representation, not juror bias, was in the main responsible for the verdict. (His lawyer claimed that Willie had suffered an epileptic seizure and couldn’t recall what had happened the night of the party.)
Whitall works her best to end Fever on a positive note, noting Little Willie’s unreleased work with producer David Alexrod on Capitol Records (Sinatra’s label) and his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. But these, too, are bittersweet: King Records blocked the release of the Capitol LP, claiming Willie had illegitimately entered into a contract with Capitol, and Willie’s induction into the Hall of Fame came on the eighth nomination. Fever sets out to temper this disappointing legacy by reconstructing the luminescent career of Willie John the “stone genius,” the man who “could sing the telephone book.” As his widow Darlynn John recalls, “Willie could change the day.” If there’s a tragedy here, it lies not in Willie John’s life, but in the fact that he was incapable of changing the times in which he produced his resplendent and remarkably durable body of work.