BY AARON BLOCK
Author: Susan Whitall
Filed Under: Biography, Nonfiction.
Towards the end of Fever, author Susan Whitall describes a public feud in the late 60s between soul singer Joe Tex and James Brown regarding Brown’s sobriquet, “Soul Brother No. 1.” Tex argued that title really belonged to Little Willie John, who at the time was serving a sentence for second-degree murder, and openly campaigned against Brown’s using it. Obviously Tex lost, and Brown tossed the phrase atop a pile of bragadacio that also includes “Godfather of Soul,” “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” and “Mr. Dynamite.”
Fever is a more detailed and nuanced extension of that argument. Whitall, who evidently worked closely with the John family, especially Willie’s sons Kevin and Keith, mounts a campaign to install John in the soul music pantheon, alongside acknowledged greats Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and James Brown. He certainly deserves renewed attention—while the other three are staples of oldies radio formats, Willie John’s voice has long been relegated to a kind of cult status, the stuff of record collectors, critics, and nostalgics. The oversight is unaccountable, given how exciting and advanced John’s records are, and how many singers and musicians cite him as a formative influence.
In fact, much of Whitall’s biography of the singer is built around the glowing testimony of his contemporaries, along with friends and family, just about all of who agree that Willie John was a preternaturally gifted singer and showman, a loving son and brother, dedicated father and husband, and a generous, easy going friend. Which isn’t to suggest that Whitall shies away from the less positive aspects of John’s career (his drug use, various affairs, and imprisonment) – but those issues are addressed gingerly, as if dwelling too long on whether cocaine and alleged heroin use might’ve exacerbated his epilepsy, or the effect of his seeing other women on his marriage would hamper the Little Willie John rehabilitation effort. On the one hand I understand the impulse completely—the tabloid-friendly aspects of an artist’s career too easily distort the narrative and draw attention away from their work. But the book suffers a bit from the absence of that perspective.
That said, Whitall makes hay with the paucity of archival information about her subject. Discovered at the age of fifteen, Willie’s career lasted only another fifteen years before he died at age 30, under mysterious circumstances while imprisoned. He recorded nine albums and dozens of singles in that time, but very little of the media that would give us a sense of who Willie was when he wasn’t in a recording booth (television and film appearances, radio interviews, etc.) or personal documents (letters, diaries, etc.) has survived. Whitall apparently made up for that lack with a remarkably thorough brace of interviews, piecing together the “real” Willie from recollections and remembrances. She goes as far a-field as interviewing Art Swanson, the prosecuting attorney for King County who tried Willie for second-degree murder (it turns out he was quite fond of Willie, and has some very specific criticisms of the defending attorney.) Its like biography based on gestalt theory—the subject is largely missing, but the context completes the picture for us.
Whitall’s prose is confident if not florid. She often defers to direct quotes when describing John’s music, but her own descriptions are quite evocative, as when she’s detailing “Fever,” Willie’s most enduring hit:
While the song is in a minor key, the combination of blues and jazz licks gives it an uptown, urbane feel. Willie, the veteran of so many Count Basie gigs, swings effortlessly with his voice, echoed by a bluesy backup chorus. Even the finger-snapping ends up adding to the charm, giving the recording a cool, late-night vibe.
Speaking of “Fever”: I found the book most interesting when it dug into the possible reasons for John’s relative obscurity despite being a major artist of his day, among them Peggy Lee’s well-known cover of that particular tune. The white man (or woman) who steals the blues is a well-worn critical archetype, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. Lee’s “Fever” has a permanent place in our cultural lexicon, advertising shorthand for slinky sexuality and available to sell everything from pudding to coffee filters; John’s original recording is superior, but little heard. But even more than that, the story of “Fever” gives me a more legitimate reason to root for Willie than taking his friends and family’s word for it that he was a nice guy.
In the dedication and acknowledgements page Kevin John, Willie’s oldest son, wrote for the book, he mentions “four wishes regarding [his] father’s musical legacy,” which include induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, wide release of Willie’s music, participating in a book about Willie’s life, and finally seeing that story told in film. He notes that all but the last have been accomplished, and hopes for the fourth. But Fever is so consumed with rounding off the corners of Willie’s life that it makes a poor movie pitch.
After years of reductive write-ups, there’s certainly a space for the John’s family and Susan Whitall’s take on Willie’s story, but I hope it isn’t the final word. In the wake of increased attention to his life and music, a more critical look at the subject would be more than welcome. I finished Fever really liking Little Willie John as a person and a musician, but I’m not sure I had much of a choice in the matter.
Recommendations: Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke – Peter Guralnick; James Brown: The Godfather of Soul – James Brown; One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture – Gerald Early
[A review copy was provided.]