The Perfect Music for a Heat Wave
“Never know how much I love you
Never know how much I care
When you put your arms around me
I get a fever that’s so hard to bear”
—“Fever,” Little Willie John
Little Willie John died in Washington State Penitentiary 43 years ago after being convicted of stabbing a man to death in a Seattle bar.
He was just 30.
A heart attack was the official cause of death. Some believe he was asphyxiated by a fellow prisoner.
It was neither. Booze killed Little Willie. It got to him early and made him crazy as a Doberman in heat.
Too bad, too, because Little Willie John could have been one of the great ones. Great like Sam Cooke or Al Green or even James Brown. Joe Tex said so. So did James Brown himself.
“My mother told me,” recalls Stevie Wonder, “if you call yourself ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder you’d better be as good as Little Willie John.”
As it is, John’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His rendition of “Fever,” covered by Peggy Lee (sans the soul power), is the seminal version.
You also want to listen to “Talk to Me, Talk to Me,” “Leave My Kitten Alone” and “Need Your Love So Bad.”
If those songs grab you, there’s more. Lots more. John recorded nine albums and scores of singles before the liquor got quicker.
And if sampling LWJ’s music takes you on a can’t-get-enough-of-this-cat bender, there’s a new Little Willie John biography to set your summer right. It’s by Detroit music journalist Susan Whitall, written with the cooperation of Willie John’s oldest son. It’s called Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul.
Whitall settled in Detroit a long time ago, but she was born in Philly, and lived here until she was ten. She still remembers the wonder of Philadelphia radio and the pop and soul AM stations up and down the dial.
“Oh, and the Tymes?” Whitall says. “‘So Much in Love’? You know it? So Philly. I still swoon when I hear that song.”
It’s not surprising that Whitall would choose Little Willie John as a book topic. Short as his career was, he’s always been a favorite of the soul music cognoscenti. And Whitall, a stone cold soul music aficionado, earned her cred early, she’s quick to point out, growing up in Philly and Detroit, soul music meccas both.
John’s life and death was filled with anguish and ambiguity, and until now his was one of soul music’s few remaining untold stories—long overlooked, in part, because soul music didn’t go mainstream until Berry Gordy found the sweet spot for white people with Motown. Little Willie came along before that, when R&B was still being called race music.
Whitall wisely tells John’s story as part mystery and part tale of the times. And harsh times they were for blacks, including performers, especially when working on the road. Read this book, and you’ll be there, not just with Little Willie John, but in the shadows with the hustlers and the dreamers.
Whitall confronts the fatal stabbing that sent John to prison “like a CSI episode.” She “over-reported” the incident, telling it from as many angles as possible, and it reads that way. At moments you can feel Whitall searching for light, for anything that might cast some possible innocence in Little Willie’s direction.
But all these many decades later, light remains hard to find in that Seattle bar. It’s still dark and boozy and dangerous. Little Willie John didn’t belong there.
The light was in his voice, and that you can hear, still.
Fun to think of him, especially in these sweltering summer days, as he was onstage, grabbing the microphone, bending down on one knee, giving everyone a fever that can be so very, very hard to bear.
Tim Whitaker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.