LITTLE WILLIE JOHN
Born William Edward John, 15 November 1937, Lafayette, Ouachita County, Arkansas (according to his birth certificate)
Little Willie John possessed one of the great black voices of the 1950s, in the same league as Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. Many Afro-American singers have cited him as an influence. James Brown called him "a soul singer before anyone thought to call it that." However, Willie defies categorization. His vocal style crossed barriers, bringing together the sounds of blues, gospel, R&B, doo-wop, early soul and rock n roll. Alas, his great professional qualities were counterbalanced by severe personality disorders, sustained by the use of drugs and drink from an early age. He hit it big at a young age, flamed out early and came to a bad end. Born in Arkansas, Willie was raised in Detroit where his family had moved in 1941. While still very young, he began to sing with his four elder siblings in a family gospel 'quartet', which they called The United Four. By the age of fourteen, Willie was a seasoned performer. His voice was hip, powerful, and yearning, all at the same time. Talent scout Johnny Otis recommended him to Syd Nathan of King Records in 1951, but Nathan refused to sign the youngster at that time.
Willie John made his first solo recording at the end of 1953, the schmaltzy "Mommy What Happened To Our Christmas Tree"/"Jingle Bells" (Prize 6900). He performed in Detroit clubs before going on the road with band leader Paul 'Hucklebuck' Williams in 1954 and he sang lead on "Betty Ann (Ring-A-Ling)" in early 1955, though the record (Rama 167) was credited to Williams. The bandleader couldn't handle Willie ('just a wild, tough kid') and fired him in June 1955. Needing money, Willie went to see Henry Glover at King's branch office in New York City. Glover : "I heard Willie John at five o'clock and I was so impressed with him that at eight o'clock I had musicians in the studio and I recorded him. 'All Around the World' had just been released that day [by Titus Turner]. I picked the record up, covered it, and changed the arrangement completely."
John's version of "All Around the World" ('Grits ain't groceries / Eggs ain't poultries / and Mona Lisa was a man') outsold Titus Turner's original by far and spent four months on the R&B charts in 1955, peaking at # 5. His second King single, "Need Your Love So Bad"/"Home At Last" was a double sided hit, with peak positions of # 5 and # 6. Willie did his best work in his first three years on King, when he recorded under the direction of Henry Glover, both in New York City (with such top-shelf musicians as Mickey Baker, Willis Jackson, Hal Singer and Panama Francis) and Cincinnati. In the summer of 1956, Willie hit a home run with his fourth single for King, "Fever", a song co-written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell (under the pseudonym John Davenport). The record was John's only number one single (for five weeks, R&B), his first appearance on the pop charts (# 24) and the definitive version of a song that became a classic through recordings by Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley and others. The B-side, "Letter From My Darling", also went Top 10 R&B. After "Do Something For Me" had charted briefly in late 1956, the year 1957 went by without any hits. Meanwhile, Willie was touring heavily, under often gruelling circumstances. 'No wonder he resorted to drink and drugs to try to, on the one hand, relax and, on the other, to always be on top form for the next in his seemingly never-ending round of live performances', writes Pete Nickols.
Beginning in 1958, a distinct change can be heard in John's records, as King started aiming them more at the pop market. This more lavish approach would characterise the singer's sound on many but by no means all of his subsequent recordings. It soon paid off with the hit "Talk To Me, Talk To Me" (# 5 R&B, # 20 pop) in the spring of 1958. The song was successfully revived by Sunny and the Sunglows in 1963 (# 11 pop) and by Mickey Gilley in 1982 (# 1 country). Another hit that would spawn later cover versions (Johnny Preston, Beatles*) was the rocker "Leave My Kitten Alone", which charted twice on Billboard's pop charts (in 1959 and 1961, both times peaking at # 60) and went to # 13 on the R&B lists. In 1960, a string-laden version of "Sleep" (a # 1 hit for Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians in 1924) gave Willie his biggest pop hit (# 13) and after some smaller hits, the excellent "Take My Love" became his final chart entry (# 5 R&B, # 87 pop), in the summer of 1961.
King stopped recording Willie John after September 1963, though he was still formally contracted to the label. Willie, who squandered his money, found his decline in popularity and the consequent lack of ready funds difficult to handle. His behaviour began to seriously deterioate. In October 1964 he got into an argument at an after-hours club and stabbed a man to death in Seattle. John was convicted of manslaughter (reduced from the original charge of second-degree murder), but he jumped bail and disappeared. He was arrested several months later, in May 1965. Legal proceedings and hearings managed to delay the inevitable for a year or so, but eventually Willie John entered the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla in July 1966 to serve an eight-to-twenty year sentence. Willie told his friend James Brown that he wouldn't survive prison. He was right. He died on May 26, 1968, the victim of a heart attack, pneumonia, or a severe beating, depending on which source you believe.
Somehow John had managed to record three sessions for Capitol in February 1966. Syd Nathan prevented the release of that material, which finally came out in 2008 on an Ace/Kent CD called "Nineteen Sixty Six". Little Willie John may well be the most overlooked pioneer from the early days of rock and soul music. It took until 1996 before he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
* The Beatles' version of "Leave My Kitten Alone" was recorded on August 14, 1964, but was rejected for the "Beatles For Sale" LP and remained unissued until 1995.
Acknowledgements : Pete Nickols, Jon Hartley Fox (book "King of the Queen City", 2009), Bill Dahl.
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