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. Continue reading