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Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul: The Authorized Biography

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Little Willie John lived for a fleeting 30 years, but his dynamic and daring sound left an indelible mark on the history of music. His deep blues, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll and swinging ballads inspired a generation of musicians, forming the basis for what we now know as soul music.   Born in Arkansas in 1937, William Edward John found his voice in the church halls, rec cen Little Willie John lived for a fleeting 30 years, but his dynamic and daring sound left an indelible mark on the history of music. His deep blues, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll and swinging ballads inspired a generation of musicians, forming the basis for what we now know as soul music.   Born in Arkansas in 1937, William Edward John found his voice in the church halls, rec centers and nightclubs of Detroit, a fertile proving ground that produced the likes of Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. One voice rose above the rest in those formative years of the 1950s, and Little Willie John went on to have 15 hit singles in the American rhythm & blues chart, with considerable cross-over success in pop. Some of his songs might be best known by their cover versions (“Fever” by Peggy Lee, “Need Your Love So Bad” by Fleetwood Mac and “Leave My Kitten Alone” by The Beatles) but Little Willie John’s original recording of these and other songs are widely considered to be definitive, and it is this sound that is credited with ushering in a new age in American music as the 1950s turned into the 60s and rock ‘n’ roll took its place in popular culture.   The soaring heights of Little Willie John’s career are matched only by the tragic events of his death, cutting short a life so full of promise. Charged with a violent crime in the late 1960s, an abbreviated trial saw Willie convicted and incarcerated in Walla Walla Washington, where he died under mysterious circumstances in 1968.   In this, the first official biography of one of the most important figures in rhythm & blues history, author Susan Whitall, with the help of Little Willie John’s eldest son Kevin John, has interviewed some of the biggest names in the music industry and delved into the personal archive of the John family to produce an unprecedented account of the man who invented soul music. “Little Willie John is the soul singer’s soul singer.” – Marvin Gaye   “My mother told me, if you call yourself 'Little' Stevie Wonder you'd better be as good as Little Willie John." – Stevie Wonder   “Willie John was one of the most brilliant singers you would ever want to come across, bar none. There are things that were great, there are things that were good. Willie John was past great.” – Sam Moore   “Little Willie John did not know how to sing wrong, know what I mean?”– Dion   “Little Willie John was a soul singer before anyone thought to call it that.” – James Brown


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Little Willie John lived for a fleeting 30 years, but his dynamic and daring sound left an indelible mark on the history of music. His deep blues, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll and swinging ballads inspired a generation of musicians, forming the basis for what we now know as soul music.   Born in Arkansas in 1937, William Edward John found his voice in the church halls, rec cen Little Willie John lived for a fleeting 30 years, but his dynamic and daring sound left an indelible mark on the history of music. His deep blues, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll and swinging ballads inspired a generation of musicians, forming the basis for what we now know as soul music.   Born in Arkansas in 1937, William Edward John found his voice in the church halls, rec centers and nightclubs of Detroit, a fertile proving ground that produced the likes of Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. One voice rose above the rest in those formative years of the 1950s, and Little Willie John went on to have 15 hit singles in the American rhythm & blues chart, with considerable cross-over success in pop. Some of his songs might be best known by their cover versions (“Fever” by Peggy Lee, “Need Your Love So Bad” by Fleetwood Mac and “Leave My Kitten Alone” by The Beatles) but Little Willie John’s original recording of these and other songs are widely considered to be definitive, and it is this sound that is credited with ushering in a new age in American music as the 1950s turned into the 60s and rock ‘n’ roll took its place in popular culture.   The soaring heights of Little Willie John’s career are matched only by the tragic events of his death, cutting short a life so full of promise. Charged with a violent crime in the late 1960s, an abbreviated trial saw Willie convicted and incarcerated in Walla Walla Washington, where he died under mysterious circumstances in 1968.   In this, the first official biography of one of the most important figures in rhythm & blues history, author Susan Whitall, with the help of Little Willie John’s eldest son Kevin John, has interviewed some of the biggest names in the music industry and delved into the personal archive of the John family to produce an unprecedented account of the man who invented soul music. “Little Willie John is the soul singer’s soul singer.” – Marvin Gaye   “My mother told me, if you call yourself 'Little' Stevie Wonder you'd better be as good as Little Willie John." – Stevie Wonder   “Willie John was one of the most brilliant singers you would ever want to come across, bar none. There are things that were great, there are things that were good. Willie John was past great.” – Sam Moore   “Little Willie John did not know how to sing wrong, know what I mean?”– Dion   “Little Willie John was a soul singer before anyone thought to call it that.” – James Brown

30 review for Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul: The Authorized Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Philip

    Fever: Little Willie John--A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul is a short read. But that's only because Willie John's life was tragically cut so short. He lived fast, and short. But in the short time that he was alive, Little Willie John made some of the biggest contributions of any artist in the music industry. Among those contributions is the first recording of the now famed song, 'Fever'. The story behind that song is part of what makes Mr. John's bio such an entertaining read Fever: Little Willie John--A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul is a short read. But that's only because Willie John's life was tragically cut so short. He lived fast, and short. But in the short time that he was alive, Little Willie John made some of the biggest contributions of any artist in the music industry. Among those contributions is the first recording of the now famed song, 'Fever'. The story behind that song is part of what makes Mr. John's bio such an entertaining read. In the chapter about the song's creation, author Susan Whitall--and Willie's son, Kevin--write that for the longest time there was no consensus on who actually wrote the song, and where it was actually recorded. Such a story is the stuff of legends. The story of 'Fever's creation is one thing. But reading Willie's reaction to Peggy Lee and other artists taking black artists' music, and trying to make it their own, is a real eye opener. This portion of the story hints at the racial tensions brewing just below the surface both in the music business, and in the general population. The story behind 'Fever' isn't the only high point to the book. Music lovers and historians alike will be amazed at little tidbits such as the fact that Count Basie wanted Willie to go on tour with his band when he was just a teenager. Apparently his father wasn't keen on that. That shows real talent. And while there's more than enough name dropping throughout the book, to make an extended awards thank you list, that name dropping has historical purpose, too. What it does in the grand scheme of Willie's story is it shows the rich musical history of Detroit. It shows the history of the early days of R & B and rock and roll. Readers who didn't already know, learn that Willie was friends with the likes of Aretha Franklin, and that her father was a minister. In that same vein, it's revealed that even someone as wild and crazy as Little Richard even left his band, The Upsetters--for a period of time--to go to seminary. In that time, Willie made The Upsetters possibly bigger than they were with Little Richard. The musical history lesson and the laughs aside, the story behind Willie's death is the stuff of movie scripts. Heck, for that matter, the entire story is the stuff of movie scripts. As the story goes in the book, the prison autopsy report claims that Willie ultimately died as a result of a heart attack. Though, because no official autopsy report has been produced since, some believe that he was actually murdered while he was still in prison. To add to the mystery surrounding his death, the reports on his treatment for pneumonia while he served out his sentence allegedly no longer exist. So to this day, no one is entirely certain how exactly one of the greatest legends in music history died. That aside, the story of his life, and the rich musical culture of the time makes Fever: Little Willie John--A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul a must for any avid music historian or even the most casual music lover.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mickey McIntosh

    First ever in depth book about Little Willie John. Great insight into his life, music, and the results of his prison sentence, and the circumstances surrounding his death. A pioneer of soul music, and Detroit music as well. Susan Whitall has done an outstanding job researching and putting together this story. Anybody who is into music, and Detroit music and culture should read this

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rob

    a wonderfully readable and insightful biography of a sadly neglected talent. highly recommended for both longtime fans and for those new to willie's music. a wonderfully readable and insightful biography of a sadly neglected talent. highly recommended for both longtime fans and for those new to willie's music.

  4. 4 out of 5

    John K.

    The Library of Michigan has named this book: Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Strange Death and the Birth of Soul to it's 2012 list of "MICHIGAN NOTABLE BOOKS!" The library only selects twenty (20) books each year for this list. This book is worth reading! :) Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Strange Death and the Birth of Soul, on Titan/Random House books! The Library of Michigan has named this book: Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Strange Death and the Birth of Soul to it's 2012 list of "MICHIGAN NOTABLE BOOKS!" The library only selects twenty (20) books each year for this list. This book is worth reading! :) Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Strange Death and the Birth of Soul, on Titan/Random House books!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tom Schulte

    I really enjoyed this life of the Detroit legend. It was interesting to learn of this roll at the transition into rock-n-roll. He ovecame the star power of Jackie Wilson and then it took jail to make him lose the soul star competition with James Brown.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    I was disappointed with how belabored this was. About five key points comprise the entirety of the first 140 pages: 1. John was short/tiny. 2. He always dressed well. 3. He could sing better than anyone and no one in their right mind would want to follow him on stage. 4. He was really sweet and generous. 5. But he had a devilish side (Maybe six, there's a good amount of "he came from nothing" worked in.) After that, two people die in about 25 pages, and we finish the book reiterating the top fiv I was disappointed with how belabored this was. About five key points comprise the entirety of the first 140 pages: 1. John was short/tiny. 2. He always dressed well. 3. He could sing better than anyone and no one in their right mind would want to follow him on stage. 4. He was really sweet and generous. 5. But he had a devilish side (Maybe six, there's a good amount of "he came from nothing" worked in.) After that, two people die in about 25 pages, and we finish the book reiterating the top five (six?) points. There's an awful lot of effort here to absolve John of any wrong-doing and not a lot of actual reporting on the events that transpired. It seems at first that maybe there isn't much information available but then the author mentions an article from elsewhere that contains a detailed account of the party where the murder occurs - is it too much to ask that we get them in a book about John's life? I think we can all agree to loving Willie John but I think this biography takes it to a truth-obscuring level.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Simon

    Concise, wonderfully written and absolutely heartbreaking.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ted Gurley

    Well researched and well told bio of Little Willie John.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nandi Crawford

    A star so bright, too fast I think history has portrayed Little Willie John with a somewhat negative brush. Coupled with the fact that he lived a relatively short life that sadly ended in jail on a mysterious note over a thousand miles away from loved ones just one month shy of hitting parole. One should ask why?? In spite of it all, Detroit Times writer Susan Whitall, along with his son, Keith, write a story that shows that the singer, wasn't as bad as noted. A child prodigy who sang before with A star so bright, too fast I think history has portrayed Little Willie John with a somewhat negative brush. Coupled with the fact that he lived a relatively short life that sadly ended in jail on a mysterious note over a thousand miles away from loved ones just one month shy of hitting parole. One should ask why?? In spite of it all, Detroit Times writer Susan Whitall, along with his son, Keith, write a story that shows that the singer, wasn't as bad as noted. A child prodigy who sang before with Count Basie and others before going solo and making hits such as "All Around the World", " Fever", "Talk to Me, Talk to Me", all recorded before he reached adulthood, and his version of Fever recorded a full two years before Peggy Lee's version was recorded. He was a big draw that then upcoming James Brown and the Famous Flames OPENED for him!( Brown tried later to get him released from prison and recorded an album of John's songs after his passing).

  10. 4 out of 5

    Nate

    Sweet in that John's family was heavily involved. Frustrating because that clearly meant straining to put his behavior and habits in the best possible light. In virtually every other book about R&B and soul singers of the era Little Willie John is notorious for his bad behavior so I see why they were trying to balance it out. It does seem like he was a sweetheart, just a sweetheart with a drug problem and Napoleon syndrome. Sad story of an incredible talent who couldn't handle the rock and roll l Sweet in that John's family was heavily involved. Frustrating because that clearly meant straining to put his behavior and habits in the best possible light. In virtually every other book about R&B and soul singers of the era Little Willie John is notorious for his bad behavior so I see why they were trying to balance it out. It does seem like he was a sweetheart, just a sweetheart with a drug problem and Napoleon syndrome. Sad story of an incredible talent who couldn't handle the rock and roll lifestyle, much less prison. His music is soooo good. Listen to that.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tasha

    This book was pretty interesting. I discovered I was a fan of his son Keith's work and I never knew he had music in his blood. I also hope at some point the family is able to find out more information about Little Willie's death because I don't believe he died the way they were told either. This book was pretty interesting. I discovered I was a fan of his son Keith's work and I never knew he had music in his blood. I also hope at some point the family is able to find out more information about Little Willie's death because I don't believe he died the way they were told either.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Phil Overeem

    A very informative but slightly padded bio of the tragically short-lived R&B great. To a great extent, despite the authors' hard work, John remains an enigma, but some interesting claims are made for him that are fairly convincing. A very informative but slightly padded bio of the tragically short-lived R&B great. To a great extent, despite the authors' hard work, John remains an enigma, but some interesting claims are made for him that are fairly convincing.

  13. 5 out of 5

    George Arnold

    Fond Memories From 1958 to 1959 I lived around the corner from the John family in Detroit. They lived on Leslie and I lived on Glendale. Ernest and I were friends and we used to hang out telling jokes. This book brings back fond memories.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

    Interesting, well-written bio of now little-known Detroit legend. Willie John sort of road the cusp between old-school R&B and 60's era soul music. Interesting, well-written bio of now little-known Detroit legend. Willie John sort of road the cusp between old-school R&B and 60's era soul music.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Gordy Robertson

    If you love music and great singers then this book is a must.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

  17. 5 out of 5

    Biff D

  18. 5 out of 5

    Dave Penny

  19. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  20. 4 out of 5

    Scott

  21. 5 out of 5

    Diddleydaddy

  22. 5 out of 5

    Christa

  23. 5 out of 5

    Chuck

  24. 5 out of 5

    Judy Alston

  25. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Riopelle

  26. 5 out of 5

    Paula

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ted Forbes

  28. 4 out of 5

    Scott Geyer

  29. 4 out of 5

    Brennan

  30. 4 out of 5

    Feben

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