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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Little Willie John Weather

If you're into soul music as much as I am, and particularly early Detroit soul, you're gonna love this. 'Cuz two wonderful things happened this summer regarding the greatest, in my opinion, of all the soul singers, Little Willie John.

Actually three things happened this summer that remind me of LWJ and his continuing influence, but the third thing is not good at all--the sad sad death of Michael Jackson. To me, MJ was the last of something I revere and love--the brilliant string of solo romantic male soul singers, possibly starting with Nolan Strong or Clyde McPhatter and definitely ending with Michael. So many greats came between them--LWJ, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, David Ruffin, Donny Hathaway, James Carr, Ben E. King, Luther Vandross. As you can see, Detroit figures famously in this continuum of singers.

On to the better things I mentioned earlier. One of them is personal, in this sense--I was contacted through a friend by Little Willie John's son, Kevin John, who still lives in Detroit and preserves his father's lofty reputation. I was thrilled to get to know him a little bit, and look forward to more talks about music with him. We've had some good exchanges about his dad, and about soul music in general. The other event is something we all can get with: a new collection called Little Willie John,Heaven All Around Me: The Later King Sessions, 1961-63,on Ace Records out of the UK, released earlier this summer.

Now, some brief introductory comments seem necessary when discussing early Detroit artists like Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson or Nolan Strong. It's necessary to discuss genre, location and intent--what they were tryin' to do-- with these singers. Genre is the primary premise for organizing and expressing the emotional details of their music; location informs why they sang what they sang and how they sang it. Their shared intent was probably simple–to make some money singing exciting songs before their career ended. But in one sense, they were all saved by soul, their music left immortal by how they sang.

Little Willie John's high tenor singing, in songs like "Talk To Me, Talk To Me" and "Fever," is best described as thunderclap music--music to be heard from an open window on an evening when the sky is turning somber just before dark. The clouds are steel grey and heavy with rain, and the air--it's late August--is fixed with heat. This is Little Willie John weather. Right now, tonight.His musical offspring are also soul singers: Bob Seger knew where to find his own soul; he knew the distance from Detroit to Memphis to be easily traveled. It's this connection, via Ann Peebles' "Come To Mama" (changed to "Come To Papa" for 1973's Beautiful Loser) and Otis Clay's "Tryin' To Live My Life Without You," that illuminates soul's colorless, borderless state.

The story goes that Seger was so disgusted with the Eagles' crappy1980 rip-off of "Tryin To Live My Life Without You" (give a listen to the bass line and rhythm guitar on "The Long Run") that he had to cut it himself and get it right. "Tryin' To Live My Life Without You" is introduced by Seger on his live Nine Tonight as an "old Memphis song" yet it was actually recorded by Clay with the Hi rhythm section and the Memphis Horns in Chicago in 1972. Seger may have felt a sense of debt to the song's composer, George Jackson. Jackson supplied Seger, for better or worse, with his monumental hit "Old Time Rock and Roll." If Seger felt indebted, it was probably to the soul tradition; he's one of the few white rockers who can truly deliver in a strict soul idiom.

My point is that the essential Detroit music is sewn by a thread; George Clinton has as much in common with Iggy Pop as he does with Nolan Strong; Kid Rock channels Seger as well as David Ruffin. It’s not easily traced; it’s just something you feel.And when viewed as disparate elements in a related social chain, the music seems to say much more. Smokey Robinson & Stevie Wonder’s "Tears of a Clown," for instance, at first listen just another jilted love song, tells the story of the black attitude in Detroit in 1968: "If there's a smile on my face/ it's only there trying to fool the public." While Smokey wasn’t the activist others were, he spoke for far more than the lonely people in his songs. And the thing about Motown--who wasn't a listener? Hell, who still isn't?

As they were building Motown, Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were quite vigilant in acknowledging the sources of their new sound. Gordy, as a songwriter for Jackie Wilson and others, was both a fan and participant in the 50's doo-wop, R&B and rockabilly scene that was to fuel the popular music of the sixties and seventies. Authenticity was something Gordy concerned himself with, although commercial appeal was most important to the Motown machine. Today, there's little question that Motown was, as Gerald Early writes, "The most triumphant black sound in American history." It was not only real, it was real good.

But Little Willie John, recording in the 50s and early 60s before his death at a very young age, wason his own. His music is a product of his own passion, vision, humor and ambition. Life isn't fair; a life chasing hit records is even less fair. So I'm not trying to naively demand that we remember a great singer like LWJ, who is certainly beyond obscure to a modern audience, but to illuminate him as a model and clarify his connection to the artists and music today. (Check out how the spoken middle section of Nolan Strong's 1954 hit "The Wind," for instance, sounds like a scratchy outake from Michael Jackson's Thriller.)And while LWJ earnestly sought "cross over" success, it was on his terms. For Willie John and Nolan Strong, it meant the chance to challenge white America's dominance of the fifties and sixties, an opportunity to reject the dominant ideology of the culture they saw and felt yet could not fully participate in. Willie John in particular shrugged off the final degree of American alienation by refusing to borrow from white culture. He paid dearly for this, but his immediate musical offspring--James Brown--succeeded in subverting all ideology. He invented a new music and language.

Barely five feet tall and only 21 when he recorded Joe Seneca’s "Talk to Me, Talk To Me," Little Willie John sings the song in a voice of desperate passion. He sounds twenty years older, a man prematurely celebrating and disowning his own mortal soul. As he pleads with his lover to talk with him, his voice implies what will happen if she doesn't.

"Talk To Me, Talk To Me" wasn't Little Willie John's biggest hit. He is best known for "Fever," which he recorded in 1956 and took to #1 on the R&B chart, and "Sleep," a 1923 song that Benny Carter and Les Paul had cut in the early fifties and Willie John adapted to vocals in 1959. "Fever," of course, was recorded later by countless other artists, most notably Peggy Lee, and became a top ten pop hit, though Little Willie John's version far outsold hers.

Born William Edward John in Arkansas in 1937 (some sources say William Brooks) John moved to Detroit in the forties when his father, Mervis, took a job at Dodge Main. Willie John began singing in the United Five, a gospel quintet fronted by his elder sister Mabel.He was only 14 in 1951 when Johnny Otis, the R&B band leader who was also a scout for Syd Nathan's King Records in Cincinnati, heard Little Willie John sing at an amateur talent show at the Paradise Theater in Detroit. Nathan passed on him and instead signed the Royals, who appeared on the same bill. By the time of their monstrous 1954 "Work With Me, Annie" smash, the Royals had become Hank Ballard & the Midnighters.

Willie John then sang big band standards with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams,and recorded with the legendary Joe Von Battle in Detroit before Nathan signed him in 1955. At one of Little Willie John's initial sessions, King producer Henry Glover sped up a simple jump blues song of Titus Turner's called "All Around The World" and Little Willie John had his first hit.While the song was still on the R&B charts, Willie John wrote and recorded the sadly elegant "Need Your Love So Bad," a song of such sensual feeling that it's hard to believe the singer is only 19. To hear his tortured tenor crackle out of an AM radio in the fading light of an evening in 1956 must have been more than haunting. This was R&B that was no longer ambivalent in its aim or origin. It was carnal concentration in the white Eisenhower world. But his singing said that everything was now up for grabs.

"Fever," recorded March 1, 1956, followed "Need Your Love So Bad," and Little Willie John was a pop star. Somewhatarrogant and a notorious spendthrift, Willie John began angering the wrong people. Though he still recorded wonderful material--"Young Girl," "Person To Person," "There is Someone In This World For Me"--he didn't have another hit until "Talk To Me, Talk To Me" in 1958 and "Sleep" a year later. In 1961, the bottom fell out. "It Only Hurts A Little While" was the last performance of note; he was dropped by King after a final recording session in 1963. This is the period the new Ace cd deals with, and it's brilliant.

After stabbing a man to death in a Seattle cafe, Willie John was sent to prison in Walla Walla, Washington, where he died on May 27, 1968, not yet 32 years old. This is where his story takes on the Faustian myth of the blues man Robert Johnson: men so distinctly gifted at such a young age that they must have sold their soul to the devil for their talent. Robert Johnson is "saved" by history's recognition of his genius--a genius that rock and roll has since built much of its own myth upon.

Rumors of vicious beatings and fights with inmates abound (James Brown went to see him in prison and Willie John greeted him in a wheelchair), but his death is largely credited to pneumonia, although the 1968 death certificate reads heart attack. Brown later cut a tribute LP, Thinking of Little Willie John...and Other Nice Things, but Little Willie John, who seemed to understand love and loss greater than any other gospel trained soul singer ever, remains a legend neglected. Check out the ACE cd if you love impassioned singing in any style. It's Little Willie John weather.

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