Even if you’re a massive rhythm and blues fan with stacks of soul-infused CDs and vinyl cluttering up your living quarters, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Little Willie John. Your collection is apt to be made up of discs by the likes of Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, Otis Redding, and James Brown, with perhaps some Arthur Alexander thrown into the mix, and maybe a few eclectic choices like Chuck Willis, the Clovers, and Roy Brown to round out matters. But trust me, if you don’t have any Willie John, your record collection is sorely lacking.
There was a time, before I’d discovered Willie John, when I thought my own music stash served me well as a hardcore rhythm and blues guy. I loved Arthur Alexander most of all, because he made some of the least compromising music I had ever heard. It might have also been the blackest, and when Alexander really got going—as he does on early ‘60s hits like “Where Have You Been All My Life” and the aptly-titled “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”—I wanted nothing more than to grow up faster so I could bang my beer bottle on a table in time to these tunes.
There was joy in Alexander’s music, but desolation as well, one that would have been instantly recognizable to a doomed Delta blues master like Robert Johnson. Both men walked with you, hand in hand, to the edge of the abyss. But whereas Johnson jumped straight into it, Alexander danced around the edge. With some tears, no doubt, but dancing all the same.
I knew of Alexander because I was a Beatles nut. Any song they covered, I tried to track down in its original guise. It was on the Beatles’ first album that I discovered Arthur Alexander, and a love of R&B, thanks to their version of “Anna (Go to Him)”.
As the years went on, I found that listening to one R&B artist and doing some reading led me to check out another R&B artist, based off of some quote I’d seen or one of those musical reference book asides to a given performer’s influences. But I didn’t have a clue who Little Willie John was until I got into Beatles bootlegs. And so it was that my mind was well and truly blown one day after returning from a local Danbury, Connecticut head shop—I believe it was called Trash America Style—where I had found, buried in a corner behind a laundry basket of cheap tie-dye shirts, a vinyl album by the Beatles titled Not For Sale. Except it was (only, strictly speaking, not legally).
This was probably the best $20 dollars I have ever spent. Not only did it introduce me to a world of Beatledom that, at times—and not that infrequently—is more fascinating than the official, sanctioned one, but it also brought Little Willie John into my life. Not that he was featured on the disc himself—the track that led to my conversion was a cover called “Leave My Kitten Alone”, with a prime John Lennon vocal. I love when John Lennon screams his way through songs. Best rock and roll screamer to date. His screaming usually capped Beatles albums in the early years—their debut Please Please Me ends with the band’s cover of the Isley Brothers “Twist and Shout,” as thrilling a rock and roll vocal performance as I know. (If you have dated me, you have doubtlessly been subjected to what my wife is sometimes subjected to now: “Twist and Shout” cranking out of my stereo at a volume so high that you can actually hear the blood in Lennon’s throat.)
The Beatles’ next album ends with a cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money”, another rabble-rouser. It pleased my teenage eyes to read, in Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why, that “if ‘Twist and Shout’ was the musical equivalent of an orgasm, ‘Money’ is the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of giving society the finger.” “Leave My Kitten Alone” was certainly in the “Money” category. I learned that it had been intended for Beatles For Sale, the band’s fourth album, which ends with a relatively meek cover of Carl Perkins’ “Everybody’s Trying’ To Be My Baby”, with George Harrison given the final vocal spot for some reason.
“Leave My Kitten Alone”
I couldn’t understand why the band hadn’t opted for “Leave My Kitten Alone” instead. And then I heard the original Willie John version, with its effortlessly perfect vocal. Even a vocalist as powerful as John Lennon—perhaps the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll singer—felt that he couldn’t measure up to our man, Little Willie John. So how come hardly anyone has ever heard of him?
The short answer is that he died in 1968, just out of his 20s, in a Washington state penitentiary where he was serving a manslaughter rap. While much of his music has been out of print since then, his last masterpiece, now titled Nineteen Sixty Six, was finally released from Kent Soul /Ace Records in 2008.
Willie John’s biography reads like a bluesman’s lament. He got his start as a manchild phenomenon in the 1950s when, at 17, he was signed to the King record label out of Detroit. He quickly racked up a string of hits—from the wild uptempo jerk of “All Around The World” to the come-over-here-and-ride-me strut of “Fever”—virtually inventing the soul genre in the process (James Brown, who was no shrinking violet, was proud to have once served as John’s opening act, going so far as to record an entire tribute album in John’s honor).
John’s nickname, as you might guess, had to do with his short stature. Standing a little over five feet tall, he compensated for his lack of height with an outward sense of flare: wild clothes, plenty of liquor, Chitlin’ Circuit women, and jackets with deep pockets for the various weapons he liked to carry. But when it came time to deliver a forlorn ballad—music that emanated from a portion of the soul that was generally left unguarded and thus highly vulnerable—Little Willie John all of a sudden morphed into a Romantic poet, hopped up on absinthe and a broken heart To listen to songs like “Suffering with the Blues” and “Need Your Love So Bad”, in those hours when just about everyone else has long gone to sleep, is a downright Keatsian endeavor, a participation in an activity that is bound to shock the system, no matter what happier things might be going on in your life at the time.
Pained as I initially was as a longtime Arthur Alexander advocate, I had to admit that Willie John surpassed him. On the back of the King tracks, John made a case for himself as a singer belonging to the same rank as Lennon, Presley, McCartney, Little Richard, Cooke, and Redding. He had more range than Redding and could rival McCartney and Little Richard in the high registers, underpinning his technique with operatic bursts on the verses and bridges in his songs. One would think that such a gift could not simply be pissed away—and I’m not saying it was, although there’s a ready argument to be made that Little Willie John could squander talent like few other gift-wasters. But I’m much less inclined to think so now that I am aware of what Little Willie John did after he was granted a reprise—however brief—from death.
In the early 1960s, King records attempted to turn John into a supper crowd singer, an artist more likely to play the Copa than haunt you with his intensity. It was one thing to light up the race records charts; quite another to sell Little Willie John to middle class white America. And so as John’s career went along, we get an influx of lush arrangements and syrupy Broadway tunes, and far less outright R&B. John combated the A&R men by becoming ever wilder in concert and in his post-concert tipple. After a show in Miami in October ‘64, he smashed a bottle over a table and attacked a man, leading to his arrest. Jumping bail, John lit out for the Northwest, having himself a pretty good bender until the night of the 17th. After a concert at Seattle’s Magic Inn—probably not the most picturesque venue—he ended up at a party where a burly ex-con started coming on to his date. And as surely as Gene Vincent once asked “Who Slapped John?” in a punchy rockabilly number, Little Willie John made the lyric come alive with an added bit of his own: the con punched John in the face, so John knifed him, and the guy bled out on the floor.
At the trial, John’s lawyers argued that the size differential between the two men made rendered the knifing a case of self-defense. But this proved a tough sell, and John was sentenced to ten years in Walla Walla State Penitentiary. I often find myself wondering what must have gone through his head. Could he have thought that was it, that there’d be no getting out, no way of surviving that environment? Did his thoughts turn to shanks and self-protection? And, of course, I wondered if John thought—or cared—if he’d ever be allowed to practice his art again.
I wondered about all of this for a lot of years, usually stopping myself because I couldn’t help but imagine being in that same situation, and wondering about Little Willie John had a way of creeping me out and making it hard for me to enjoy his music, which by then was a regular facet of my life. And then something opened up—the heavens, the gatekeepers employed by the Fates, who knows—and it felt like I had received a dispatch from some far off world, from Little Willie John himself.
As it turned out, John was let out of prison while the appeal process ran its course. What do you do in a situation like that? How do you best use the time? Do you make a list of all of the people you’ve loved, and who have loved you, and say goodbye? Little Willie John did indeed give us a goodbye, though even his fans wouldn’t know about it for years. He made his way down the coast to LA to cut what he figured would be his final recording.
There are certain instances in the history of recorded sound where the session-—the physical gathering of musicians, in an acoustically tailored room—is inseparable from the music that we hear, no matter how immaculate and self-contained that music is; like when Miles Davis and John Coltrane came together in 1956 and embarked on a marathon date that resulted in no less than four albums. Once you know that story, you want to hear the music even more, and you hear it not just as music, but as history. You hear it as music with a setting, one that is ultimately transcended by musical art, but a setting with a place in time all the same.
Capitol producers David Axelrod and HB Barnum were responsible for getting Little Willie John in the studio with some of LA’s top session men. John, meanwhile, harbored no illusions about what would follow for him personally, and you can hear as much in the music preserved on Nineteen Sixty Six: The David Axelrod and HB Barnum Sessions. Death is in the air. It’s also behind the control room glass, under the music stand and hidden away in the speakers. Huck Finn may have seen his own funeral, but he certainly didn’t deliver his own eulogy, as Little Willie John basically does here.
You might expect everything to be rather grim, but John had lately reinvented himself as a kick-ass soul shouter, while maintaining his customary virtuosity. This was the music that would eventually beguile hardcore English clubbers, a sentiment that “Welcome to the Club” makes plain enough with is chugging bass line and popping beats. John’s own back catalogue gets a proper slaying, with the King classic “Country Girl” broken down and reassembled as a quasi-funk number, sans grindhouse guitar. “Suffering with the Blues”—John’s original dark-night-of-the-soul howl—is every bit as anguished as it was in R&B hit form, but now it’s strangely malleable, like there is somehow joy to be found—at least a smile or two—in the space of these two minutes and forty-five seconds. If the original had an element of the Delta to it, this new version is rockier, as though it is not music to sit and brood over, but rather music that one brings on a journey. Time to be lighting out, as it were, which makes it especially apt given its context in Little Willie John’s soon-to-be-shortened life.
The sessions wrapped and John’s conviction held up. He went off to Walla Walla likely knowing that his swan song would not gain release, due to the King label’s contention that John still owed them two album’s worth of material. Assuming that prison is nightmare even for a large man who can defend himself with his fists, John must have been in a total hell. By the time James Brown paid him a visit, John was in a wheelchair, insisting that the fix was in with the brutal prison staff. Eventual freedom, blue skies, a comeback and all that, simply were not in the cards.
John died in 1968, at age thirty, the official cause of death being a heart attack, though if you’re a Little Willie John fan, you’ve heard one rumor after another over the years, like that a white prison guard beat him to death, or that someone asphyxiated him. The Axelrod/Barnum sessions at least offer this conjecture: left with a final opportunity to cultivate his legacy, John opted for ebullience when most would have been clanging the funeral bell. Of course, in the moment of that ebullience, maybe he thought anything was possible, and prison little more than a temporary delay. So it goes when you have this kind of music inside of you.
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// Notes from the Road
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