Friday, December 9, 2011

Big Voice; Short Song

From: 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

"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. [...]
     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 [: Little Willie John: A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul] 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."
— Gayl Wald, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Get Fever: Little Willie John: A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul by Susan Whitall with Kevin John here...

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