LITTLE WILLIE JOHN: ‘Nineteen Sixty Six’ (Label: Kent)

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LITTLE WILLIE JOHN: 'Nineteen Sixty Six'

Between 1955 and 1961, diminutive powerhouse singer Little Willie John – born William Edgar John in Arkansas and who was the brother of Motown/Stax singer Mable John – racked up an impressive 17 chart entries for Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based King Records on Billboard’s R&B singles listings. His biggest smash was the infectious ‘Fever,’ which achieved pole position in the R&B charts for five long weeks in the summer of 1956 (it was later appropriated by jazz chanteuse, Peggy Lee, who gave the song a wider appeal). But after 1961, the hits dried up and three years later, John – who was an alcoholic and possessed a volatile temperament – was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. He was just 27. Willie John’s music career should have ended right there but in 1966 his lawyers lodged an appeal and for a time, the troubled singer was allowed time out of prison. His first priority was to try and re-establish himself in a music business that had all but forgotten him and a deal was brokered with Capitol Records, who put John in the studio with ace producer David Axelrod – who was achieving success with Lou Rawls at the time – and arranger H.B. Barnum. An LP’s worth of material was recorded but Syd Nathan of King got to hear about John’s Capitol hook-up and tried to scupper the deal, saying that the singer owed King two albums. With the lawyers of both record companies poised to do battle in court, John’s appeal was denied and he was sent back to prison (where he died, from pneumonia, two years later). With John no longer available to promote the record, Capitol had no option but to shelve the LP and consign it to the vaults, where it’s lain for over forty years. Now, though, thanks to those resourceful folks at Ace Records, Little Willie John’s long lost swansong is available for the first time. It’s hard to say whether the record, if released, would have got John’s career back on track but it’s certainly a strong piece of work and features a great re-working of his 1956 hit ‘Home At Last’ (re-titled ‘Country Girl’ here), which possesses a propulsive beat that should appeal to Northern Soul fans (there’s also a driving Northern Soul beat on ‘[I Need] Someone’). John revisits another one of his earlier King sides, ‘Suffering With The Blues,’ and manages to make it sound fresh. Also impressive is the blues-soaked ‘I Had a Dream,’ which boasts a funky rhythmic undertow thanks to an in-the-pocket groove laid down by the late great Earl Palmer on drums. John displays his prowess as a balladeer on the excellent ‘Never Let Me Go’ and ‘If I Loved Someone’ – his performances on these and other tracks on this aborted LP provide strong evidence that Little Willie John truly was a key figure in the nascent evolution of soul music and perhaps, if tragedy and personal problems hadn’t taken their toll, he might have been as influential as his contemporary, Sam Cooke. John’s versatility as a vocalist is underlined by the jazz-tinged, finger-clicking swinger, ‘Welcome To The Club’ and the bluesy stomper, ‘Early In the Morning,’ which is enlivened by some tasty horn charts. In addition to the complete original LP, this excellent CD reissue contains a raft of alternate takes from the Capitol sessions. A great reminder of one of soul’s forgotten figures.
(CW) 4/5