Book Review: Fever: Little Willie John – A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul

I recently had a conversation with a friend and fellow writer/editor, and the subject of that discussion was the dwindling opportunities to tell compelling stories from pop music history. So much ground has been covered; many of the major artists have had books – or at least chapters – written about them, and that sort of writing is likely to continue (though the choice of delivery medium is by no means a sure thing). When it comes to ultra-obscure artists – one-hit wonders or even no-hit wonders – interested readers will turn to blogs and print magazines such as Ugly Things for the stories.

But it’s those in-between artists – the ones who didn’t enjoy fame on a level of, say, Led Zeppelin, but who did find commercial and critical success – who make up the “sweet spot” for music journalists. And Susan Whitall, former editor of Creem magazine (among her other notable achievements) has found one of these. Her latest book, Fever: Little Willie John – A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul takes up the story of a largely forgotten (if quietly influential) figure from the earlier days of pop music.

Willie John is most remembered for the first recorded version of “Fever,” but he scored fourteen hit singles on the U.S. R&B charts, and – perhaps more surprisingly — thirteen on the pop charts. No mean feat, that: in the years during which he was most successful (1955-1961), making inroads to the pop charts was no sort of given for an African American recording artist.

Whitall’s book (co-written with John’s son Kevin) traces the singer’s life from birth to death at age 30. Whitall deftly straddles journalistic and scholarly approaches, making sure throughout to focus on the story. That story – like Willie John’s life – moves quickly across the middle third of the 20th century, and pulls in a remarkable number of famous names. These well-known artists didn’t simply interact with Willie John in that sort of peak-of-fame backstage hello sort of way; they were his friends, musical rivals, neighbors. Whitall seamlessly weaves their connections to Willie John into the pages of Fever, including quotes whenever possible.

Possessed of a voice a bit like Sam Cooke — but with an astoundingly effortless approach and an impressive range – Willie John knew just how talented he was, and his cocksure attitude may have contributed in some ways to the troubles that beset him in the 1960s. Whitall is careful not to paint John as some sort of saintly figure, but neither does she set out to dig dirt. Pulling together a narrative where one barely existed before is no easy task: since more than forty years have passed since John’s death in 1968 (officially listed as a heart attack, but more likely a prison murder), the surviving witnesses to his life are not always the most reliable. Whitall is careful to note this, often applying Occam’s Razor and offering that (in absence of proof) the most common-sense explanation is usually the correct one.

John’s family was extremely cooperative with Whitall’s research, and the family’s archive has been opened to share a number of previously unpublished photos of Willie John. For those photos alone, Fever is well worth the price of admission. That it’s an economically-written, fascinating story makes it even better. Even if your knowledge of the man’s music doesn’t extend beyond knowing that he’s the guy who first cut the song that would revive Peggy Lee’s career, Fever should be essential reading. Anyone interested in the development of soul, R&B and/or the Detroit music scene of the late 50s and early 60s will find much of value within the pages of Fever.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.