Little Willie John

TrackSingle / Album
All Around The WorldKing 45 - 4818
Need Your Love So BadKing 45 - 4841
Home At LastKing 45 - 4841
FeverKing 45 - 4935
Talk To Me, Talk To MeKing 45 - 5108
Leave My Kitten AloneKing 45 - 5219
Heartbreak (It's Hurtin' Me)King 45 - 5356
You Hurt MeKing 45 - 5428
There Is Someone In This World For MeKing 45 - 5577
Crying Over YouNineteen Sixty Six

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Little Willie John photo

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

Peggy Lee’s Fever was a great record and still is. It came out in ’58, probably the peak year for first generation rock and roll and a time when forties and fifties swing time vocalists were recoiling in horror at this ‘new music’ that was stealing their sales. Like many others, I was turned on to the whole popular music thing by rock and roll. This almost inevitably meant that I rejected what went before. But Fever still had appeal. There was some of the raunch of rock in there plus the finger snapping stuff which I didn’t mind too much on this particular record. And Elvis gave the song enhanced credibility when he included it in Elvis Is Back in 1960.

Every now and then a radio DJ would introduce the Lee record as “Peggy Lee’s version of Little Willie John’s Fever”. Didn’t mean anything to me at the time but it piqued the curiosity a little. Back in those pre-internet days it wasn’t easy to satisfy such a query and, where I then lived, there wasn’t a knowledgeable record shop owner just round the corner to help. Somewhat later, in the early to mid sixties, with the Brit R&B boom in full flower, the spotlight got shone on several big US names from broadly the same time frame as Willie John who were near as dammit unknown in the UK – James Brown and Bobby Bland were key examples, but they weren’t the only ones. Willie John didn’t get a look in. I was oblivious at the time to the fact that a certain John Lennon was a fan of Willie, and that the Beatles recorded a version of his Leave My Kitten Alone which was intended for Beatles For Sale but didn’t get included.

In the prologue to her authorized biography, “Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death And The Birth Of Soul”, Susan Whitall states that, over the years, Willie’s life has very largely been summarised as a haiku:

Great talent
A violent assault in Seattle
Prison and then death

but she recalls loving that voice, when she was growing up in Philadelphia.

William Edward John, later to be known as Little Willie John due to his lack of height, was born in Cullendale, Arkansas, in November, 1937. The family moved to Detroit when Willie was four. He was one of a large family and the eldest members of that family formed a gospel singing group which they called The United Five. Willie also performed in talent shows. He did get spotted by Johnny Otis but this didn’t come to anything. In 1954 he fronted the Paul Williams Orchestra as lead vocalist. (Paul had had an instrumental hit with The Huckle-Buck in 1948.) That didn’t last because Williams found the young Willie John difficult to handle. Also in this early time frame, Willie made a couple of records which rarely get a mention in discographies: Mommy What Happened To Our Christmas Tree c/w Jingle Bells credited to Willie John and the Three Lads and a Lass; and Ring A Ling, sometimes referred to as Betty Ann, with the Paul Williams Orchestra (and by this time Willie had picked up the “Little” according to the credit). Other than showing off the vocal abilities of Willie John at such a young age, neither is remarkable but, for completeness, here they are. On the first his voice is still somewhere between a soprano and a tenor. On the second, which is much more of a jumping blues affair, it’s definitely broken.

 

In late June 1955, Willie had an audition in King Records’ New York office with Henry Glover who was A&R Man for the label. Glover was immediately impressed and, unlike Johnny Otis, managed to persuade label owner Syd Nathan to sign him. His first recording session was held on the same day and the result of that activity, All Around The World (or Grits Ain’t Groceries as it was later known) zoomed to #5 in the US R&B Chart, a near unheard-of success for a new artist.

A capella intro, some punchy chords from the band, and then we’re into, what was for the time, a thoroughly modern slab of jump blues, complete with snaking guitar work and a splendid honking sax solo. It wasn’t typical of the sort of work we would associate with him but, boy, what a starter. And writer Titus Turner sure had a way with lyrics:

Now if I don’t love you baby, I tell you
Grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry
And Mona Lisa was a man

Listened to now, it’s that confidence/maturity in Willie’s voice that first hits you. The fact that this was recorded before his eighteenth birthday is quite staggering.

The flip side, Don’t Leave Me Dear, confirmed immediately that Willie wasn’t a one-trick-pony. A slow blues ballad, or 8 bar blues, depending on how you want to describe it, the song was penned by the man himself – William Edward John as it states in brackets on the record – and it was one of the earliest examples of what got christened as soul blues, sometime early in the next decade. Willie wailed all the way through with what seemed like every syllable given a marinade in melisma. A remarkable affair, the like of which hadn’t been heard before. James Brown who would shortly open for Willie in a touring show, came out with the similarly themed Please, Please, Please nine months later

I’m home in bed but my thoughts are on you
Darling if I don’t see you again, to give this letter to
Oh, let me hear you say you want me baby

And that “Oh” just stretched and stretched …

The highly original Fever gave Willie his first crossover to the US Pop Chart in ’56. It wasn’t the only one of his records to achieve such a feat; he registered Hot 100 entries up to 1961. However the hits then started dropping off, and Willie’s short temper and increasing usage of alcohol caused King to drop him from his contract in Autumn 1963. He continued working the club circuit but was arrested in August 1964 for attacking a man with a broken bottle in Miami (where he was then living). In October that same year, he was arrested for killing a man with a knife at a night club in Seattle. He was convicted of manslaughter but appealed the conviction. While he was out on bail awaiting the retrial he recorded tracks for Capitol Records which were intended for a comeback album. These tracks didn’t get released at the time because King contested them. However, they eventually saw the light of day via Ace Records UK who released them via their Kent subsidiary under the title Nineteen Sixty Six in 2008.

The appeal failed and John commenced serving his eight to twenty year sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on July 6th, 1966. Nearly two years later, on May 26th 1968, he was found dead in an isolation room, having previously reported to the prison infirmary with pneumonia. The death certificate recorded the cause of death as due to a heart attack, but rumours of beatings or asphyxiation by guards or inmates have continued to surround the death.

The last couple of paragraphs might have come as something of a shock in comparison to the opening section, but I believe that they are a reasonably accurate representation of events based on multiple biographic essays on Willie John. But I’d beg the reader not to jump to the conclusion that John was some kind of evil person. He was known to have a short fuse, apt to flare up on the slightest pretext, and increased dependence on alcohol wouldn’t have helped. He was also known to be highly competitive and the fact that ‘rivals’ like Brown, Charles and Burke were getting higher recognition wouldn’t have gone down well with him either. In both recorded instances of him attacking another person (with the second one resulting in a death), it is documented that there was provocation. I have to add though, that no provocation could have justified what John did. I should also note that casual violence wasn’t entirely unusual in black communities at that time, nor was it so rare in white blue collar areas. Again that’s no excuse but it is context.

I’ve never gone along with the concept of popular performers in any medium being role models, though I respect those with the opposite opinion. In my world view the occasional Ike Turner or Chuck Berry will appear every now and again, but the personal life of such people shouldn’t invalidate any musical contribution he or she makes (see also Footnote #22).

On to the music …

Unlike the equivalent from some artists, the body of work created by Willie is easy to identify; that long period at King plus the tracks that made up the Nineteen Sixty Six album, and that was it. But pinning down favourites outside a handful of obvious choices is far from simple. I could easily have created a top ten from the first ten or a dozen King singles. His consistency was so high and flip sides weren’t seen as filler. On the contrary, the King team – Nathan and Glover – usually paired a slowie with a jumper with each side honed to perfection. Yes, there was a degree of front loading in terms of quality but that’s not to say that there weren’t gems in the later years. It’s certainly true that backing vocalists started to feature after a year or so, followed by the almost inevitable strings somewhere round about late ‘59, and there was increasing recognition of both other blues/soul artists, plus the pop music scene in general, but these weren’t necessarily negatives. Hindsight is wonderful of course but I get the impression that, in those early days, Willie John ably assisted by Henry Glover were pioneers, but as time moved on he/they moved more to a following role.

Need Your Love So Bad, Willie’s second record for King, was the finest of his whole career. I’m not quite alone in saying that. In his “The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made”, Dave Marsh rates it at #49, out of the six singles he includes in that top 1001. He does get one thing wrong though. His sentence, “But can anyone sound so abject as Little Willie John does here, on the follow-up to his biggest hit “Fever””, would have been okay but for the sequencing – Fever was King record #4 and didn’t see release till the following year. Marsh goes on to criticise the Peggy Lee Fever as a rip off and, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, goes on to say that it could account for Willie’s abject misery. Oh well, his heart was in the right place.

The reader might well know the Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac version of this song but is far less likely to have heard this record. It climbed the US R&B Chart but there wasn’t a hint of crossover. It didn’t get released as a single in the UK (or any other country as far as I can ascertain). But it’s one of those quintessential records in the history of black music that merges blues, gospel and, yes, pop, into what we would eventually label as soul. Agony, served up with that sinuous guitar again, a tripletting piano, with a lazy but rasping sax entering at the end of the first verse, and little more apart from the lonesome bass man. Willie plumbs the depths of human misery. There’s less vocal flamboyance than on Don’t Leave Me Dear and the whole thing is over in not a lot more than two minutes but, my, does it leave an impression.

Listen to my plea, bring it home to me
I need your love so bad

Although the credit on the record label tells us that Willie wrote the song, he didn’t. The writer was Willie’s older brother, Mertis. For the flip, King went outside the family to Rudy Toombs, writer of a number of R&B ditties. The result was Home At Last (sometimes called Country Girl), a mid tempo minor key blues with an ear catching dropping guitar figure and a horn section supplying extra interest. As close to conventional blues as Willie would get whilst at King and not unlike the tradition of guitar/horns blues that was starting to appear, particularly in Los Angeles and throughout Texas, as a result of T-Bone Walker’s early work at labels like Black & White and Imperial.

It’s interesting to compare this take to the one recorded later for Capitol and eventually released by Ace/Kent. After a semi-deceptive near funk intro, the second version is more bouncy and certainly has increased surface sparkle. I’ll stick with the first though. Subtlety wins.

Fever (King record #4, May 1956) was a good song, from Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell (writing under the pseudonym, John Davenport), but lifted out of the ordinary by a great Henry Glover arrangement and a superb vocal from Willie. It must have been a difficult choice; reportedly Willie was none too keen initially, and the song, coupled with the Glover arrangement, smacked more of lounge than anything Willie had laid down before. That said, this song lyrically wasn’t a million miles from the single entendre jump blues efforts waxed by Amos Milburn and others, albeit delivered with considerably greater style and sophistication. Syd Nathan’s target was probably no more than topping the R&B Chart. He did that and more; it clambered its way up to #24 in the US Hot 100 and at last saw release in countries other than the US. All of which attracted the attention of white A&R men which, after slightly more delay than usual, resulted in the Peggy Lee single. While sticking broadly to the arrangement, the new version added a number of changes: instrumentation was stripped back to not much more than bass and finger-snapping, there was upwards movement of keys between verses presumably to ramp up excitement/titillation, and extra lyrics were added (emanating from Lee herself) presumably to up the literacy quotient and/or to add a degree of novelty. The overall effect was distinctly different from the Willie John single. This lady was eyeing you up and there could well be something predatory in that look. You haven’t heard it? I’m not sure I believe you, but if so, here’s Peggy, digits snapping furiously:

What a lovely way to burn. An observation is that Ms Lee’s age was over twice that of Mr John if you were to compare release dates. Further versions followed, notably the one from Mr Presley in Elvis Is Back as already noted, and, more recently, from Madonna and Beyoncé (separately I hasten to add).

Thankfully, King didn’t deluge their new found public with a host of Fever sound-alikes – there were a couple or so, but that was about it. However, every now and again they did let Willie have a go at a standard (using forties/fifties speak). Autumn Leaves and The Very Thought Of You are both well worth a listen but I’m a tad partial to the lesser known A Cottage For Sale, a song often associated with Billy Eckstine though all the big name crooners have done it. I’d warn that it is definitely in the strings-heavy category.

Within months of Willie John dying, James Brown, who was extremely affected by the death, put out an album entitled Thinking About Little Willie John And A Few Nice Things. Several of the songs present were ones written by Willie or associated with him. Here’s James on Cottage For Sale from the set:

More of a soul reading of the song, though it’s worth adding that James had already embarked on his Godfather of Funk role by the time this album was recorded so this was something of a reversion to a ballad styling.

I’ve stated that Syd Nathan liked to have a slowie – blues or blues ballad – on one side, and something to get the punter up on the dance floor on the other. Probably the best and certainly the most well known of the latter must be 1959’s Leave My Kitten Alone. Fabulous title. Was it sexist? Maybe but still a great record. Medium tempo and somewhere between 12 bar blues, and rock and roll in form with a riff that has you thinking, have I ever heard that before? For once the presence of the femme chorus is welcome, and as a clincher, Willie releases a stunning falsetto in the third verse.

I done told you big bad bulldog
You’d better leave my kitten alone

I also stated that, particularly in the sixties, arranger/producer Henry Glover was prone to taking on board external influences. I’m Shakin’ (1960), and its immediate successor, Heartbreak (It’s Hurtin’ Me), display traces of James Brown and/or Bobby Bland with his declamatory blues like Ain’t Doin’ Too Bad. There’s the irony in that both Bland and Brown were influenced by Willie John. It was a toss up between the two for selection but the second of the pair eventually won out. But I’m giving you both clips. Note the James Brown style organ at the start of Heartbreak.

Thematically that one definitely evokes Fever but it’s almost as good.

The staccato guitar intro to You Hurt Me, a later single released in the same year, is also reminiscent of Brown and Bland, but it settles into an excellent blues ballad. File alongside Need Your Love So Bad; it comes from that same world of pain.

Willie’s July ’62 single stands out as being different, but only if you don’t take account of the twin facts that Ray Charles Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music album had come out in April that year, and that Solomon Burke’s Just Out Of Reach single had been released in August 1961, and that both had sold very nicely indeed. The record in question was the Willie John take on George Jones No.1 Country Chart hit from earlier that year, She Thinks I Still Care.

Here’s George:

Here’s Willie:

The song could have been written for Willie. When it came to heartbreak he could beat most men at ten paces. He stared old George in the eye and let him have it. (I’m a tad less sure about those Floyd Cramer-isms on piano though.) This track very, very nearly got selected, and it’s only because my heart is pledged elsewhere on this song, that it didn’t.

The eagle-eyed reader will have spotted that I’ve been roughly categorising Willie John’s output over the last few paras but there’s one that I’ve left till last. The one that supersedes all others. The one that Willie made his very own.

Blues ballads.

Okay, technically, most of them were 8 bar blues but labelling doesn’t matter. These songs were the primary mode of expression for Willie John regardless of all else. They just kept coming – Are You Ever Coming Back, Do Something For Me, Suffering With The Blues, I’ve Got To Cry, Person To Person, No Regrets, Let Them Talk – and the titles alone told a story.

Talk To Me, Talk To Me is one of the better-known Willie John records, which is undoubtedly why it crept up on me via later cover versions. I first heard the song on an album called I Heard It On The X from a loose conglomeration of musicians calling themselves Los Super Seven, and which was released in 2005. The artist performing this particular song was Delbert McClinton who was doing it as a tribute to Doug Sahm and/or Sunny and the Sunglows (later Sunliners), The whole album was a celebration of ‘Tex Mex border music’ from the fifties and sixties and the last named artist(s) was/were a Chicano outfit based in San Antonio. They covered Willie’s song in 1962, dropped the second “Talk To Me”, and had a decent sized hit with it. And that’s how Doug Sahm would have gotten to hear it. I eventually dug back to the Willie John original but, in this instance, I still have a soft spot for Delbert and Los Super Seven (and ‘twas I that uploaded that McClinton track to YouTube).

Little Willie John: Talk To Me, Talk To Me

Delbert McClinton: Talk To Me

My penultimate selection is one of the later ones but it could have been recorded within those first half dozen or so singles (see Footnotes). There are no angelic ladies or sweeping strings in There Is Someone In This World For Me. Instead we get what sounds like the Henry Glover big band, almost harking back to jump blues days, and Willie virtually revelling in his loneliness. It’s an absolute virtuoso performance from the man; check out what he does to the word ‘lonely’.

I said “penultimate” so there’s one more. And it’s from the Nineteen Sixty Six album, comprising tracks recorded for Capitol and probably originally intended for single release. I should talk a little about that set. It was produced by David Axlerod and H.B. Barnum, who between them brought a wide range of experience to the table. There were alternating sessions, with or without a large orchestra, strings and all. The core group though, consisted of the cream of the L.A. session world, veterans of countless sessions working for Phil Spector et al. There’s no drastic divergence between the music contained in the album and the King singles. The songs could have been recorded for King, indeed several had been. What we do have though, is a mid/late sixties view of blues/soul/pop music with hints of jazz rather than any attempt to replicate the, by then, retro styling of the King records. Willie himself sounds in good voice. There’s not a hint of what’s hanging over him. Although the listing tells us there are twenty tracks, eight of these are alternates but note my earlier comment on variation of support from small group to big band/orchestra which is reflected in the alternate takes.

Unfortunately, only a few of the tracks have found their way to YouTube so I’m limited in my choice of clips. One notable omission is the Willie John take on Jody Reynolds’ Endless Sleep. I’m guessing that someone at Capitol thought that this could be a good track to cover, given that Willie had hit the Hot 100 with a song called Sleep. From the tantalising sample I can say that the arrangement differs considerably from the original.

One track that I would draw attention to – and is on YT – is You Are My Sunshine. A corny old ditty I hear you say. Take a listen and see whether that view gets amended at all:

Masterly. Little Willie John takes on Tony Bennett and wins (or at least draws, depending on your opinion).

Crying Over You was the only new Willie John penned song in the set and it’s almost worth buying it for this track alone. Slower than usual and that electric keyboard is a little off putting at first but as soon as the big fat raft of horns hoves into view we’re on much firmer territory.

In terms of sequence, Crying Over You, or to be pedantic, the alternate take of the song, is the last track listed on Nineteen Sixty Six suggesting that it was one of the last songs ever recorded by Willie.

Vocally, I see Little Willie John as sitting somewhere on a line between the early James Brown and Sam Cooke. On occasion he could be as raspy and pleading as James, or at other times as sweet as Sam, but he did things his own way. Neither of those redoubtable gentlemen bared their respective heart to the world as much as Willie did. In importance he was up there with those guys too. If Willie hadn’t needed her love so bad would Sam Cooke have made the move from gospel to secular music?

 

QUOTES

“He was a singer’s singer. God, he had a voice that was beyond most people I’d heard at the time. And it still stands out, (when) you hear him years after his death. He had that identifying voice on him.” B.B. King – from “Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death And The Birth Of Soul” – the Authorized Biography by Susan Whitall

“My mother told me, if you call yourself “Little” Stevie Wonder, you’d better be as good as Little Willie John.” Stevie Wonder – from “Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death And The Birth Of Soul” – the Authorized Biography by Susan Whitall

“When he cut the shrewd “All Around the World,” the bereft “Need Your Love So Bad,” and the consoled “Home at Last,” he was 17 years old. When he cut a “Fever” so fervid Peggy Lee couldn’t top it with a strip-tease, he was 18. When he last charted, he was 23. When he died in the penitentiary, guilty of manslaughter but too good for whatever befell him inside, he was 30.” Robert Christgau in a review of The Best Of Little Willie John (1995)

“If Willie hadn’t lived for those fleeting three decades, we would have had to invent him to explain how rhythm & blues segued into soul.” Susan Whitall

“Laying in the back seat listening to Little Willie John. Yea, that’s when time stood still” Robbie Robertson in his song Somewhere Down The Crazy River

 

FOOTNOTES

1. The first of ten children in the John family was Mable John, who was a member of Ray Charles’ Raelettes, and also recorded as a solo artist for Motown and Stax. That’s one heck of a pedigree and, yes, she is that good; if you don’t know the lady, search her out. After an inexplicable lack of success, Mable largely moved away from secular singing and, in the seventies, began managing gospel acts.

2. Willie John used to play with Levi Stubbs (lead singer of the Four Tops) as a child in Detroit, and later, performed in talent competitions with the man.

3. Both as a child and in later life. Willie John suffered from epileptic seizures, something that was regarded as shameful in the forties and fifties.

4. King Records of Cincinatti was formed by Syd Nathan in 1943. Initially the label specialised in country, usually referred to as hillbilly at the time. This included some rockabilly, most notably, from Charlie Feathers who made his best records for the label. In the late forties, King moved more into rhythm and blues, in part via label acquisitions, but also by recognition of a lot of talent that didn’t get picked up by labels on the east and west coast. Artists included Hank Ballard, Roy Brown, James Brown, Joe Tex, Little Willie John of course, and more. Nathan sometimes used subsidiaries like Federal and Queen to distribute records from these artists.

5. Most biographies have it that all-round music industry man Johnny Otis discovered Little Willie John and got him signed to King Records. Part of that is true but the rest isn’t. The full story is that Otis held a talent competition in Detroit. Those who took part included Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and a 14-year-old Willie John. On the strength of that appearance Otis recommended John to Syd Nathan of King Records but Nathan didn’t take him on board then because he felt Willie was too young. Even this story has its doubters. Otis will certainly have seen Wilson, Ballard (with the Royals/Midnighters) and John, but whether it was on one show does seem improbable. For those who might not recognise the name, Hank Ballard was ten years older than Willie and got signed to the King subsidiary Federal before him. He was the guy who had the original Twist record, though he certainly made more interesting ones than that.

6. Henry Glover was a pioneering black man in the music industry. When Syd Nathan signed him as A&R man and arranger in 1946, he would have been one of the first Afro-Americans to hold a music industry executive position, years before Berry Gordy. Not only did Glover work with a range of R&B artists that was more extensive than that of the more well known Atlantic Records, he was also involved in arrangement and production roles, with the sessions for King’s country artists. In addition, I’m reliably informed – Blackcat Rockabilly Europe – that there are 453 Henry Glover compositions or co-compositions in the BMI Database. These include Drown In My Own Tears, Annie Had A Baby, Blues Stay Away From Me and I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.

7. Grits Ain’t Groceries was the name given to All Around The World by Little Milton when he covered it in 1968. It has to be said that Milton gave the song an excellent sixties makeover:

8. Titus Turner is a somewhat shadowy figure in black American pop history. He was a blues and R&B singer who was more renowned for his songs than his own records and performances. Among those songs were Sticks And Stones, and Get On The Right Track Baby for Ray Charles plus All Around The World for Willie, not forgetting Leave My Kitten Alone co-written with Willie. He had a version of All Around The World released on the day Willie recorded his, and, unfortunately for Titus, it was Willie who got into the R&B Chart.

9. Titus Turner/Little Willie John’s All Around The World should not be confused with the same title from Little Richard. They are totally different songs.

10. That snaking guitar on All Around The World was provided by Mickey Baker, king of the New York R&B session guitarists and a man who was later to achieve fame as “Mickey” of Mickey & Sylvia on the record Love Is Strange. Mickey was to go on and appear on numerous Willie John records including Need Your Love So Bad.

11. On piano for All Around The World was an even more remarkable gent, “Champion” Jack Dupree, from New Orleans of course. The “Champion” came from his earlier boxing career. And he had a significant part in rock history. His 1941 hit Junker’s Blues was transformed by one Fats Domino into The Fat Man which was a major R&B Chart hit in 1949, and is one that often gets mentioned when talk gets round to “what was the first rock and roll record?”

12. I’ve referred to 8 bar blues in the text as opposed to the more usual 12 bar blues. If that’s meaningless to the reader, try humming the oldie How Long Blues. It’s that format. Quite a number of songs that are sometimes called blues ballads use this structure. It has a softer feel than the 12 bar though the latter probably gains in versatility (see also Wiki on the subject).

13. Rudy Toombs was the writer of a host of R&B songs in the forties and fifties – he died in ’62. Such songs included several for Atlantic diva Ruth Brown who made mincemeat of the R&B Chart right through the fifties, often with songs from Toombs. He also wrote One Mint Julep for the Clovers, One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer for Amos Milburn but covered by John Lee Hooker, and a later one for Willie John, I’m Shakin’.

14. Dave Marsh is a well respected American music critic and writer. He was born and brought up in Detroit, so would have been well aware of Little Willie John in his youth, probably more so than most other critics. The title of Dave’s book that I refer to in the main text currently shows in Amazon UK as “The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made” which is marginally different from the 1989 version I have. Regardless of minor differences of titling between editions, this book is important in that it’s one of the few that focuses on singles. You won’t agree with everything in here – I didn’t – but you’ll find masses of stimulating writing. Okay, Dave might have got the odd thing wrong but that’s a piffling criticism compared with what he gets right. See also my reference to Mr Marsh and this book in the Shep and the Limelites Toppermost.

15. I Heard It On The X was the third album from the very, very, loose (but tight at the same time) supergroup, Los Super Seven. The inspiration behind it was the pirate-like super power (500,000 watts) radio stations which operated on the Mexican side of the US/Mex border in the fifties and sixties. During that time frame a whopping great mix of music was broadcast including rock and roll, blues, country, jazz, western swing and mariachi. The aim of the producer of this album was to reflect that mix. Most, but by no means all, of the musicians involved in the album had some connection with Texan or Mexican music. They included Raul Malo, Joe Ely, Rick Trevino, Ruben Ramos, Freddy Fender, Delbert McClinton, Gatemouth Brown, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Augie Meyers, Flaco Jimenez and Calexico. The latter provided much of the instrumental backdrop.

16. Pop pickers out there may well remember Delbert McClinton as the man on harmonica on Bruce Channel’s Hey Baby. McClinton, who was born in Lubbock, Texas, has operated as a blues, soul and roots musician for many years, releasing twenty plus albums.

17. Re. There Is Someone In This World For Me, I state “My penultimate selection is one of the later ones but it could have been recorded within those first half dozen or so singles.” That’s because it was. Cal Taylor, proving more than his weight in gold as usual, informed me that this track was actually recorded in 1957 but not released till 1961. My follow-up comments make much more sense with this recording date.

18. Both James Brown and Aretha Franklin visited Willie John in the penitentiary (source, Essay 8414 from Peter Blecha in HistoryLink.org).

19. Willie John’s record No Regrets was featured in the soundtrack to the 2013 award winning film Blue Ruin, which was directed by Jeremy Saulnier.

20. After several previous nominations for induction had failed, Willie John was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. His inductor – is that the right word? – was Stevie Wonder.

21. A snippet of interest which the ever diligent Cal Taylor brought to my attention. There’s a lady singing alongside Willie on the 1957 record, Dinner Date. The small print on the RHS of the record states “Vocal by Little Willie John and His Girl Friend”. In fact that so-called girl friend was his sister Mable on her first record outing.

22 And it’s a good time to record my thanks to Cal for his behind the scenes work on this document. Apart from anything else, he dug me out of a couple of holes which might have proved embarrassing in front of a reader. He also pointed me at websites which I might not otherwise have found. These included “Murder Ballad Monday”, an article about Willie John which appeared in Sing Out!, early this year from Ken Bigger. That article makes reference to the Susan Whitall book and summarises the portion on the trial:

“Whitall’s account of John’s trial argues that he had inadequate legal defense, and that he faced a biased, all-white jury. The prosecuting attorney conceded that John should not have been convicted, and would not have been if he had competent representation. None of the seven witnesses interviewed saw John stab the man who died. If he did stab him, John also had a plausible case for self-defense. Whitall adds that the ambitious, hyper-competitive, and diminutive soul singer came across as alien and unsympathetic to the judge and jury.”

23. The Sing Out! article writer also talks about a song written and performed by Tom Russell. It’s called Blue Wing and is about an ex-con who had a blue wing tattooed on his shoulder:

He said he got that blue wing up in Walla Walla
And his cell mate there was little Willie John
Willie, he was once a great blues singer
And Wing and Willie wrote him up a song

 

Little Willie John (1937–1968)

 

Little Willie John at Discogs

Little Willie John on Ace Records

Little Willie John: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1996)

“Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death And The Birth Of Soul” – the Authorized Biography by Susan Whitall

Little Willie John biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens has written over thirty posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Bobby Bland; Solomon Burke; Sam Cooke; Fats Domino; Charlie Feathers; B.B. King; Little Milton; Little Richard; Mickey & Sylvia; Jody Reynolds; Doug Sahm; Shep and the Limelites; T-Bone Walker; Stevie Wonder

TopperPost #632

4 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jun 5, 2017

    Dave, thanks for this superbly researched and brilliantly comprehensive piece. He had such a superb voice, one of the very greatest in soul music. Will put in a mention for Mark Lanegan’s fine tribute and The Blasters great version of I’m Shakin’.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Jun 8, 2017

    Thanks Andrew. Would that more people would take just a little bit of time to give Willie John a listen. Thanks also for those excellent clips – I’ve just posted Mark Lanegan on Twitter.

  3. Steve Mander
    Nov 13, 2017

    Excellent article and thanks for the info on the ‘unknown’ singer on Dinner Date

    • Cal Taylor
      Nov 13, 2017

      Thanks, Steve. I’m really pleased that you liked the Little Willie John Toppermost. There are so many near obscure, under played and underrated artists from the 1950’s and 1960’s who ‘laid the ground’ for others to benefit from and Little Willie was one of the very best. What a fantastic soulful voice he had and what a terribly tragic short life.

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