Little Willie John is one of the best singers you never knew, or forgot about much too soon. The diminutive Detroiter hit back in the pre-soul era with "All Around the World" and the original version of "Fever," both recorded when he was still in his teens. His dynamic and daring sound left an indelible mark on pop music and his fans include some of the top names in music: B.B. King, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. His deep blues, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll, and swinging ballads inspired a generation of musicians, forming the basis for what we now know as soul music.
A new biography, "Fever: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysteiorus Death and the Birth of Soul" written by music journalist Susan Whitall with the help of his son Kevin John (Titan Books) is the first attempt to shed light on Willie's life, his music and sad end in a Washington state prison.
Willie’s fateful meeting with King Records producer and A&R man Henry Glover took place in late June at King’s New York offices, in a building on West 54th Street. In 1955 King, via its subsidiary labels Deluxe and Federal, was home to Billy Ward & the Dominoes (“Sixty-Minute Man”,1951), Hank Ballard and the Midnighters (“Work With Me, Annie”, 1954) and Otis Williams and the Charms (“Hearts of Stone”,1954). For a black teenager from Cardboard Valley, King Records meant success.
Years before Berry Gordy Jr and Clarence Avant made their mark, Henry Glover was a pioneer as a black record company executive, hired by King in the early 1940s.
It was while performing in Cincinnati with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra that Glover came to the attention of King Records boss Syd Nathan. Short, asthmatic, with a stubby cigar dangling from his mouth, Syd was a hard-boiled, mid-century record man who rarely spoke below a raspy shout. He was especially loud when exploding with fury at musicians during sessions at King’s studio in Cincinnati. Most of his artists and musicians didn’t take offense, but admired his uncanny nose for a hit. “If we made a mistake, he’d say ‘Leave it there, leave it there’,” said Billy Davis, guitarist for Hank Ballard & the Midnighters from 1959 to 1960.
“He said if you make a record too perfect, it wouldn’t sell,” Davis recalled.
Syd’s genius—or his good luck—was in recording music for what he termed “the little man”, tapping the rich vein of hillbilly and black music being played and enjoyed in the three states—southern Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia—around the Queen City.
Glover became one of King’s top producers, writing, arranging and producing not only rhythm & blues, but also many of King’s hillbilly sessions for artists such as Moon Mullican, Grandpa Jones and Cowboy Copas.
After several years in Cincinnati, and after King’s recording studio and pressing plant were launched, Syd let Glover go to New York and run King’s office from a building on 45th Street. It was there that Willie met with Glover at five pm on June 27, 1955. King executive Hal Neely claimed he was present as well. Glover was knocked back on his heels. This was a man who had heard a lot of singers in his day, but it was Willie he called “the artist of artists”.
“He was a really, truly great singer. . . The blues came so natural to him that he was just a master at that and no one living in that day could touch him,” Glover said in an interview with Steve Tracy. Glover particularly admired Willie’s control over his voice, his ability to perform “some of the greatest blues gymnastics and voice gyration that you could ever dream of a person having”. Glover wasted no time, he summoned some of New York’s top players for a session at the Beltone recording studio that night. He had a short list of players he liked to use. Guitarist Mickey “Guitar” Baker was his first call. Baker had become New York’s top rhythm & blues guitarist after a major career re-boot. He was playing a jazz gig in a club in California in the late 1940s when he heard guitarist Pee Wee Crayton play a song called “Blues After Hours”. “I said, ‘You mean to tell me you can make money playing that shit?’” Baker recalled, laughing. “
“The blues didn’t mean a thing in New York. We had Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, all these people like that, but the blues we didn’t pay attention to.” But money was money. So Baker woodshedded, got his chops together, and when he left California, “I was a blues guitar player”. Because he was willing to play blues, Baker became the king of New York session guitarists, on call for most Atlantic, Savoy and King sessions, particularly tight with Henry Glover.
Glover also called tenor player Willis ‘Gatortail’ Jackson, a frenetic showman known for dropping to his knees in the middle of a set, as well as for being singer Ruth Brown’s boyfriend. Playing piano was the able veteran boogie woogie player ‘Champion’ Jack Dupree; Ivan Rolle was on bass and the drummer was Calvin ‘Eagle Eye’ Shields. The veteran musicians gathered at the studio on West 31 Street, just off 5th Avenue, to play behind this wonder boy who’d walked in off the street.
Most of the musicians were 15 or 20 years older than Willie. “He was funny as a kid, he was very young when I knew him,” Baker recalled. The sophisticated New Yorkers thought he was fun, but his clothes were a fright. “Willie had borrowed a suit from someone who was bigger than he was, the cuffs were rolled up because the pants and arms were too long, it was funny,” Baker said. “We laughed at him! But he didn’t care.”
Three hours after Willie set foot in his office, he was standing in a booth at Beltone opposite the orchestra stand, singing a song that had just been released that day, Titus Turner’s boasting blues, “All Around the World”. Turner had written and recorded a month earlier for Wing, Mercury’s jazz and blues sublabel. When Glover played the record for Willie, he bragged, “I can do better than that”. Glover worked up a different arrangement and Willie made good on his boast, making each word his own. He sang the line “If I don’t love you, grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry and Mona Lisa was a man,” with such grown-up male fervor that within weeks of the record’s release in July, those lyrics became imprinted in the hearts of a generation of African Americans.
The musicians are having a ball behind the energetic 17 year-old, playing a rollicking, stop-start backup. Guitarist Baker rips off fat blues chords, Dupree plays a hot boogie-woogie piano and Jackson takes over the break with a wild sax breakdown.
Everything in Willie’s life had been in preparation for this moment, and to flip his first time in a recording studio into one of the mid- 1950s’ most memorable rhythm & blues hits right out of the box was almost too much to take in. But from the moment he took direction from Glover and stood in the isolation booth, surrounded by the best players in the business, Willie had found his place in the world.
All spring Willie had been advising his family back in Detroit that he wasn’t coming back until he had a record out under his own name. A month after Willie recorded the song, it soared up to No. 5 on Billboard’s rhythm & blues chart. EJ remembers his brother’s excited call home. “He said, ‘Y’all turn the radio on. I have a record out. It’s called “All Around the World”.
“And they started playing it,” EJ said. “And that’s all you could hear, all summer. All summer! ‘All Around the World’.”
Copyright Susan Whitall and Kevin John
From: “Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul,” (Titan Books), available June 21st in the US and June 24th in the UK.