Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fever: Little Willie John- A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul by Susan Whitall

Any musically conscious person who grew up during the 1950s and early 1960s will no doubt have Little Willie John embedded in their personal soundtrack of the era.  From the often-heard Fever and Grits Ain't Groceries to blues-soaked ballads like My Love Is and his ill-fated Capitol session, LWJ, with a remarkable range and soulful voice- Bobby Bland crossed Jackie Wilson, with some Jimmy Scott thrown in for good measure- was not only one of the best soul singers, but was the equal of, if not better than, most jazz singers, then or now. Moreover, John, who stood at 5'3", and looked younger than his years, produced some of his most memorable recordings while still a teenager.

In Fever, Veteran Detroit rock journalist (Creem magazine, Women of Motown) Susan Whitall, with  help from LWJ's son, Kevin, follows John from his early days on the streets of Detroit, through the ups and downs of his career, to the nightmare of those final days, including the controversial incident which led to his incarceration and, ultimately, to his death. In fact, stories of his drinking, drugs, bravado, confrontations and intermittent bouts of violence, only make John, who did his best  to stylize himself on Sinatra, even more complex and human. Though he sought a party wherever he went, John was also a family man. Yet in an era of unscrupulous promoters and racist attitudes, John wasn't about to be intimidated or ripped-off by anyone. Having interviewed family, friends and fellow artists, Whitall is perceptive not only about the music, but about the culture that created it, whether the migration of African Americans to find work in the north, which led to a vibrant Detroit club and music scene, or the stormy politics of the 1960s.

Of course it's LWJ's music that matters. And anyone reading this well-researched book will inevitably want to dig out  those old records and cds. Too bad in this age of YouTube there isn't any footage around of LWJ singing. But those recordings sounds as fresh and entrancing as they did when they first appeared. For me, Fever might well be the most interesting music biography I've read this year, and maybe longer.

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