Susan Whitall's "Fever: Little Willie John--A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul" (Titan Books), written with Willie's son Kevin John, goes a long way toward righting the wrongs of neglect. Willie's impassioned singing, his love of family and his tendency toward excess--in other words, the unflinching story of his ups and downs--is beautifully rendered via Whitall's first rate writing and her intensive research and interviews. Known for her work at Creem and the Detroit News, Whitall captures the energy of the pre-Motown scene and connects that rock and soul spirit to the world-wide adulation of Detroit-based music just on the horizon.
Make sure you have a good Little Willie John collection before you pick up the book, though; hearing and knowing that voice is an essential part of understanding the phenomenon of what "Fever: A Fast Life..." chronicles so well. Rhino's Fever: The Best of Little Willie John compilation is a fine representation of his most thrilling moments on King Records, where he waxed most of his output.
Little Willie John electrified the R&B world with his beyond-his-years singing; he and Ray Charles brought a controlled, gospel-infused, bluesy fervor to popular music at a time when Sam Cooke (fronting the Soul Stirrers) was still strictly gospel. Willie's enviable popularity in Detroit, with the Apollo Theater audience in New York and with fans throughout the American South had a flipside: endless, grinding tours and all the hostility that black artists having to deal with over-the-top bigotry implies.
Staying sane on the road had to be Willie John's toughest challenge--if performers were lucky enough to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol and drugs (and many could not), they were subject to wild crowds and even crazier offstage unwanted alliances and hangers-on.
Such is the case of a blurry night in Seattle, as Willie John was later convicted of a murder where many people were present but no one appears to have witnessed the death that ensued; some changed their stories. Whitall does a great job setting the scene
and taking in all the recollections and yet by its very nature, this is not an sequence of details that can be pieced together while sidestepping the inherent confusion.
I'm a big fan of this book, as I am of Little Willie John's performances on "Inside Information," "Person to Person," "All Around the World" (covered by Little Milton as "Grits Ain't Groceries"), "I'm Shakin' " (the Blasters), "Need Your Love So Bad" (the Peter Green edition of Fleetwood Mac), "Let Them Talk" (the Persuasions) and "Leave My Kitten Alone" (cut by the Beatles in 1964 but not released officially until the 1990s). The sheer number of remakes over the years--not to mention a full-scale tribute from James Brown--is a testament to Willie John's artistry and influence.
My sole problem with "Fever: A Fast Life..." is that it deserves a significantly better presentation. It appears to have been edited by at least two different persons with different stylistic approaches, undercutting Whitall's superb journalistic skills. The importance and scope of this project ought to invite consideration in book circles for awards nominations, yet I don't see that happening. Because while the raw content and flair of this biography bears a passing resemblance to, say, Peter Guralnick's beautifully nuanced "Drum Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke," "Fever" is hurt by several instances where an editor's punctuation experience doesn't go beyond the use of a comma. Not punctuation merely as a decoration; I'm talking about elements of style
that pull the reader totally into the story, and some of that is missing.
But don't miss the long-overdue "Fever: Little Willie John--A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul." It's a tremendous addition to anyone's library.