(standing) Billy Johnson, Al Abrams, Johnny (“JJ”) Jones, Berry Gordy Jr, Jackie Wilson, Robert Bateman, (kneeling) Willie John
Whitall, Susan and Kevin John. Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul. Titan Books, 2011.
Today’s post looks into a book that introduces you to a forefather of soul music, a singer possessed of a tenor voice with easy top notes unmatched in the history of popular music, a showman of such riveting stage presence that no one dared to take the floor once he had performed, a man so devastatingly attractive that women could not control themselves around him. When he took the stage, panties rained down on him.
Let’s pause and take a look at the photo above, a snapshot of some guys hanging out together one day in Detroit. The man is right there in the picture.
Did you pick the one in the white jacket? Silly you.
Who are the authors kidding? On my first read through, I had the eerie suspicion that Susan Whitall’s original manuscript had been about Jackie Wilson. I envision Whitall listening quietly as Kevin John (one of Willie’s sons) and the rest of the John family ask her to write a book about their patriarch. Later, alone behind the computer in her study, she executes several find-and-replace operations on a lengthy document, expunging the Jackies and Wilsons and inserting Willies and Johns in their places. In the final stage of my vision, Whitall has a moment of inspiration, smiles, and scrolls through the manuscript to locate a minor character of limited talent, one who shrinks in awe at the entrance of the protagonist. Deftly, she obliterates that character’s first name, then surname, replacing them with Jackie and Wilson.
The authors of this book have essentially reversed the positions Jackie Wilson and Willie John hold in terms of talent, achievements, and significance to popular music history. Apparently they think no one will notice because Jackie Wilson’s aging fan base is rapidly dying off and music writers still find Jackie’s story too scary to handle.
The book. Fever is a book about the life and career of William Edward John, known publicly as Little Willie John, who died of a heart attack or pneumonia or both at the age of thirty in Washington State Penitentiary (Walla Walla, Washington), where he was serving a sentence for knifing a man to death. Watch the authors of this book on this local television station interview, and you will see that I do not exaggerate the extent of the outlandish claims they make for John. They say John is the link between Black music of the Forties and Motown. Yes, they actually say that, and they say it flying in the face of these facts:
→ Jackie Wilson recorded and performed in all the major popular music forms except jazz;
→ Jackie Wilson charted blues, rock, pop, and ballads on the main Billboard Top Twenty, not merely the R and B charts, where he was even more successful;
→ Jackie Wilson placed a total of twenty-four hits in the Top Forty in the same years Willie John recorded;
→ Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy Jr, wrote or co-wrote five of the first hits of Jackie Wilson’s solo career;
→ Berry Gordy Jr started Motown with the royalties he earned from Jackie Wilson’s first hits.
And listen carefully as Susan Whitall relates how the man who prosecuted the case against Willie John told her that John should have gotten off because his lawyer did such a terrible job of defending him. If you ARE listening carefully, you will realize that the man did not say that Willie was innocent. He merely said a sharp lawyer would have gotten him off.
Hit recordings. John recorded for the King label in the Fifties and early Sixties. He had repeated successes on the rhythm and blues charts and more modest successes on the pop charts, including two records that penetrated the Top Twenty, “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” in 1958 and “Sleep” in 1960. Another song associated with Willie John and considered an excellent illustration of his vocal style is my personal favorite among his recordings, “Let Them Talk.”
His signature song, however, is “Fever,” the slow and sultry ballad virtually everyone associates with Peggy Lee. John’s original rendition is better, and if you listen to the recordings one after the other, you must acknowledge how much Lee’s record is a copy, another manifestation of the marketing strategy that gave us Georgia Gibbs singing LaVern Baker’s “Tweedle Dee” and Pat Boone singing Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”
But let’s face it, how mesmerizing is the power of your voice if you are an African American male and, upon hearing the title of your signature song, ninety-nine percent of the music-listening public conjures up the image of a buxom Caucasian woman with platinum blonde hair?
Frankly, I would have called the book Let Them Talk.
Willie John was talented, and unlike most of his contemporaries, he had the benefit of early vocal training. The man could sing. Really sing. However, the book seriously overstates both his achievements and his rightful place in popular music history.
Re-making Willie’s image. Prior to publication of this book, Willie John, an alcoholic known for his quick temper and big mouth, had one of the uglier images in pop music history. Yet, if your only knowledge of John were this book, you might well find yourself amazed that anyone could think such an innocent and playful spirit, a devoted family man, could be accused of a crime just because he was at a party sitting next to a guy who was mysteriously stabbed to death.
One of the more comic aspects of the book is the extent to which the authors conceal or airbrush truth in their quest to aggrandize Willie and repaint his facade. For example, Faye Pridgeon, as her surname is usually spelled (it’s spelled “Pridgon” throughout my ebook copy), was the most famous groupie to haunt the Apollo Theater. For years she boasted that Willie John fathered the first of her illegitimate children, but that is not covered in this book.
Instead, Pridgeon is called upon to place Willie in the select company of the two most famous of her other many lovers, Sam Cooke and Jimi Hendrix, and to assure us that Sam Moore is a liar for saying that Willie introduced him to heroin. And, oh, yes, she speaks to us of how sensitive and reticent Willie was.
Trashing Jackie Wilson. The particular way Jackie Wilson is targeted in the book does more to underscore the weakness of the authors’ claims for Willie John than it does to diminish Jackie Wilson. Personally, I found myself saying, “Not so fast. It’s still too early to assume that no one remembers these times.”
For instance, the authors think they will convince readers that John had a superior voice or was a better singer by saying that Willie “didn’t have to jump up” like Jackie did. When I come to ridiculous lines like that, my concentration breaks, and all empathy I have built up for Willie John evaporates while I focus on the lameness of this tactic. The writers would have done better to leave Jackie Wilson’s name out of the book than to try to convince anyone who had heard both singers that Wilson was the lesser talent.
The Johns. The John family had and retains many contacts in the music industry. One of the Johns was a backup singer for Stevie Wonder for years. (Wonder provided a foreword for the book.) Willie John’s older sister was an early Raelette (one of a group of female backup singers working with Ray Charles). The Johns have known the right people and the music press for generations. They should be commended for having the smarts to hold off on this project until a goodly number of people passed away and little evidence survived to contradict some of the book’s more outlandish claims.
But I will not forgive them for unnecessarily trashing Jackie Wilson. They are confident their fiction will go unchallenged because music writers will not touch Jackie’s story and Jackie does not have a family capable and willing to defend him.
The strategy may work in the long run. It is a shame that the John family took the low road with this book. Willie John was a very talented man who left some terrific recordings to us. His memory would be better served by a realistic assessment of his place in popular music history and a book that did not insult its readers.
However, within another decade the Johns will probably have the last laugh. No one will be alive who remembers Jackie Wilson, and Wilson’s story will remain untold, yet their book will be available to establish Willie John as the major figure in Black music history “between the Forties and Motown.”