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With sidebars on his sister Mable John and producer Henry Glover of Hot Springs
by Steve Koch
Little Rock, Arkansas
Big voice, Big Hits, Big Trouble - Little Willie John
Arkansas-born R&B Master Lived Large, Died Little
He gave us "Fever."
Yes, Peggy Lee performed it often enough to steal some of the considerable thunder packed within those simmering 2 minutes and 45 seconds, but it was Cullendale, Arkansas-born Little Willie John‚s emotive 1956 version that Lee and the scores of others who have recorded "Fever" in the subsequent half-century invariably attempt to emulate, and just as invariably fail.
No, the other versions usually aren‚t that bad – the McCoys, Rita Coolidge (1973) and Madonna (1992) among scads of others have covered it; the song rarely fails in even the most inept hands. But they just don‚t pack the full passion and sense of immediacy of John‚s -- a few degrees shy of a real "Fever." Not bad for a south Arkansas boy who had just turned 18 a few months before.
However, when John recorded the original "Fever" in Cincinnati on March 1, 1956 (It was released as a single in April), he already had a chart history.
Born Nov. 15, 1937, in Cullendale, he and his family moved to Detroit when young William Edgar John was in grade school. His father got a job at the Chrysler plant; and the family had a gospel quintet, the United Four, and by the time he was a young teen, diminutive Willie John – carrying the sorbiquet "Little" since his early Arkansas days -- and his big voice was becoming known on the amateur show circuit that was in its prime. More influential ears heard John‚s pipes – Johnny Otis unsuccessfully attempted to get the 14-year-old signed to King Records. Four years later, however, it was King‚s Henry Glover who signed him to a recording contract in June 1955.
Although King Records was based out of the Cincinnati hometown of its asthmatic, Coke bottle-lensed "Chief," Syd Nathan, the man who "was" King‚s New York office was Hot Springs-born Henry Glover. Glover, who produced a multitude of country, R&B and, later, rock artists – from Grandpa Jones to Hank Ballard -- and was a hit songwriter, musician and was also one of the most successful (and one of the first black) A&R men in the business.
John had found himself in New York City after he was dumped by the orchestra of Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams, with whom he had toured for about a year – John‚s wild and stubborn streak in evidence not for the last time, and surely not the first.
"I heard Willie John at 5 o‚clock," Glover, who died in 1991, has said of that day, "and I was so impressed with him that at 8 o‚clock I had musicians in the studio and I recorded him." On June 27, 1955, novelty blues singer/songwriter Titus Turner released what would become one of his best-known songs, "All Around the World," also known as "Grits Ain‚t Groceries," on the Wing label.
The same day, in his first session, 17 year-old Willie John cut his version of the song -- with a backing band of King kings "Champion" Jack Dupree, Calvin Shields, Ivan Rolle, Mickey Baker and Willis Jackson – that nicked the R&B top five R&B by autumn, leaving the record company flat-footed and rushing their new hitmaker back into the studio, where he solidified his record with another top ten R&B hit, "Need Your Love So Bad," written by Willie‚s brother, Mertis.
By the following spring, when "Fever" was waxed and John had achieved crossover status, he was also quite nearly a literal interpretation of an overnight success. He hit the road with his own band with opening act James Brown and the Famous Flames. Sister Mable, seven years‚ Willie‚s senior and was touring with Etta James when James called up John and shamed him into asking his older sister to join the tour in a legendary story.
Although without a hit, John coasted on his considerable momentum through 1957, then in January 1958 waxed the top 5 R&B/top 20 Pop hit "Talk to Me, Talk to Me," while other platters like the Glover-penned "Spasms" and "I‚m Shakin‚" went tragically overlooked. In June 1959, he cut "Leave My Kitten Alone" –co-written with John and the aforementioned Titus Turner – which hit #13 on the R&B chart and #60 on Pop in mid-1959. "Kitten" was covered by Mercury Records‚ Johnny Preston in 1961, so King reissued John‚s version and the rerelease repeated its success on the Pop chart. Little Willie John‚s chart success was more consistent and great on the R&B scale, but he crossed over to Pop regularly: "Sleep" hit #13 pop and "Heartbreak (It‚s Hurtin‚ Me") hit #38 in 1960. Even when King – Henry Glover produced nearly every Willie John session -- covered him in the cloak of crooner, Little Willie with the big voice awakens the most anemic of material ("A Cottage For Sale," "The Very Thought of You") and the schmaltziest of arrangements ("Sleep"). "Take My Love (I Want To Give It All To You) also hit the R&B top 5 in the summer of 1961 – the latter also written by brother Mertis -- but by September 1963, the chart ride was over.
King released John, apparently a result as much from his increasing alcoholism as lack of sales, but continued releasing Little Willie John tracks from the vaults. John hit the club circuit without a new recording contract.
Whatever his personal ills, it seems surprising in retrospect that King would dump such a talented moneymaker, especially considering owner Nathan‚s well-known tight-fistedness, or that another label didn‚t nab Little Willie. Also, in retrospect, it is just as unsurprising that trouble would erupt with volatile John.
In August 1964, he was arrested for attacking a man with a broken bottle in Miami, where he then lived. That same month across the Atlantic, John Lennon and the Beatles cut several versions of their club favorite, "Leave My Kitten Alone," while hurridly recording their LP *Beatles For Sale.* The sessions was squeezed in between U.S. and British tours of that frenzied year for the Fab Four. Being the band‚s second album of the year, the lads dug back into their pre-Fab set lists from the clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg. They added overdubs to the fifth and final take of "Kitten."
John left town for a string of club dates. He never came back to Miami. John and the band had finished a night of a weekend engagement at the Magic Inn in Seattle and was at an after-hours joint at a private residence with his valet and accompanying ladies. A nearby man apparently snatched a chair from one of the women. John, echoing the sentiments of "Leave My Kitten Alone," confronted the man, one Kevin Roundtree, a 6-foot, 200-pound aptly-named ex-convict, who punched him out.
John rose with a knife, which he plunged into Roundtree‚s chest, killing him. Little Willie John, 26, was charged with murder. John posted the $10,000 bond and continued his club tour. This time, he came back for trial, held in Seattle in January 1965.
A jury gave John a lesser charge of 8 to 20 years at Walla Walla State Penitentiary for manslaughter. John attempted appeals, but ultimately he entered prison on July 6, 1966. He died in the maximum security facility – as he predicted he would to St. Clair Pinckey, James Brown music director – after serving less than two years of his sentence. The Beatles‚ version of "Leave My Kitten Alone" (which would have provided John royalties at a critical juncture) was not included on the *Beatles For Sale* album. But after his death, onetime opening act James Brown, who had since signed to King himself and become its top artist, released an album called *Thinking About Little Willie John And A Few Nice Things.*
Robbie Robertson, main guitarist and songwriter for The Band – which, as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, also recorded under Henry Glover on the Roulette label -- Robbie Robertson said Little Willie John "opened up a door to something for me." In Robertson‚s minor 1987 hit "Somewhere Down the Crazy River," the narrator is "lying in the back seat listening to Little Willie John" in an abandoned 1959 Chevy, singing "You give me the shivers, chills and fever/I‚ve been spellbound, somewhere down the crazy river," at the close. Robertson also asked Robert Palmer (The British singer, not the late Little Rock-born music author) to sing John‚s 1963 single "My Baby‚s In Love With Another Guy," another overlooked, uncharting John gem, for the soundtrack of the Martin Scorcese (Tom Cruise/Paul Newman) movie *The Color of Money,* which Robertson
coordinated The same decade, Dave Alvin and the Blasters made "I‚m Shakin‚" a signature tune.
But despite "Fever," which is associated with Peggy Lee, "All Around the World," which is associated with a host of latter-day Chicago-style blues singers including Little Milton, and "I‚m Shakin,‚" which is associated with the Blasters (on the rare times it is associated), Little Willie John remains shrouded in obscurity; still little, when all Arkansawyer Willie John ever wanted was to be big.
MABLE JOHN sidebar:
Little Willie John‚s older sister, Mabel, was born in Bastrop, Louisiana, Nov. 3, 1930, near the southeastern Arkansas border, and moved to Cullendale when she was three months old. Mable was the first of ten children born to Mertis and Lillie John.
The family moved to Arkansas to work in the paper mill in the mileu of the booming south Arkansas timber industry; the Johns stayed for 12 years and moved to Detroit, in the mileu of the World War II-fueled northern migration of southern blacks to work in manufacturing. Mertis worked for the auto factories of Dodge and Chrysler.
While living in Motown, Mable met the man who would start the label Motown. John worked as an after-school job with the Gordy family‚s Friendship Mutual Insurance Company. She learned the business, and along the way, John – after a year of "grooming" by Barry Gordy Jr. in 1956 went on to try a singing career. Like her brother Willie, "Able" Mable‚s stock rose quickly. In two years, she would open for Billie Holiday for the last two weeks of Holliday‚s performing career in 1959. After working with Etta James at particularly cold week-long gig in Minneapolis, James, who had toured with Mable‚s brother, Little Willie John, by then a nationally-famous R&B singer himself, an angry Etta James reputedly called and demanded little brother put big sister on his tour. Which he did; the siblings even appeared at Harlem‚s Apollo Theatre in April 1960. That August, she became the first female to record on Gordy‚s Tamla label.
Through the first years of the 1960s, more Tamla singles were issued. In early 1963, 13-year-old Stevie Wonder produced Mable‚s remake of her debut A-side, "Who Wouldn‚t Love A Man Like That," written by Gordy.
Feeling Motown‚s push toward pop and polish, bluesy Mable asked to be released from her contract with her friend and mentor Gordy. She found another one in Little Rock-born Al Bell of Stax. Like at Detroit‚s Hitsville USA, Mable John got the star treatment at Memphis‚ Soulsville USA. She wrote with, and was produced by, Issac Hayes and David Porter and recorded with Al Jackson Jr., "Duck" Dunn, Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones (Booker T. & the MGs), as well as with another brother, Raymond (on vocals). Stax released seven Mable John singles between 1966 and 1968, but only her debut, "Your Good Thing (Is About To End)" charted(#6, R&B).
By 1969, when Ray Charles asked her if she knew anyone who could be the lead singer of his Raelettes, she said she didn‚t. Several months later, Charles convinced her she was the woman for the job, a spot she held for 12 years. She was the lead vocalist on the group‚s Top 30 1970 cover of the Joe Tex smash "I Want To (Do Everything For You)" and she recorded a full LP, *Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,* on Charles‚ Tangerine label.
Inexplicably, John never became a star in her own right, except to hardcore fans of Ray Charles and the Stax and Motown labels – of which there are plenty enough – although she occasionally appears at blues festivals and the like today.
Besides, these days, Dr. Mable John is a star in a much more real and meaningful way. At the end of the 1970s, she was onstage in Birmingham, Ala., and felt the call to the ministry. She studied Hebrew and Greek in Israel and earned a doctorate. In more recent years, she has been distributing food, clothes, shoes and toiletries to the needy in Southern California.
HENRY GLOVER sidebar:
Arkansawyer Henry Glover is one of the great, unknown, behind-the-scenes men in the music business whose legacy, begun early in the history of popular music, continues to this day.
Born May 21, 1921, in Hot Springs, Henry‚s father, John Dixon Glover, was a bath house attendant. Radio stations KTHS in Hot Springs and KLRA in Little Rock exposed young Henry to country music and influenced an eclectic taste that transferred to the variety of artists he would produce – from early country artists like Hawkshaw Hawkins, Grandpa Jones, Cowboy Copas, the Delmore Brothers and Moon Mullican to R&B artists like Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, the Charms and Joey Dee & the Starlighters to *The Last Waltz* soundtrack. The 1975 Grammy-winner *The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album* -- which featured Phillips County native Levon Helm and included two songs by Brinkley-born Louis Jordan – was produced by Glover, besides producing such hits as Little Willie John‚s "Fever," Wayne Raney‚s "Why Don‚t You Haul Off and Love Me," and Bill Doggett"s "Honky Tonk." As a musician, he worked with Thelonious Monk, Lucky Millinder and Bull Moose Jackson, among countless others, and briefly had his own label, Glover Records, and was partners with Helm in RCO Records.
In his working life, Glover was primarily an arranger and producer, but might be most recognizable to the public as a songwriter. Many may not know the Glover name, but most know the songs: "I‚ll Drown In My Own Tears," "California Sun," "The Peppermint Twist," "Teardrops On Your Letter," "Blues Stay Away From Me," and many other hits, some under his pseudonym, Henry Bernard.
Growing up in a "very unusual town," Hot Springs, he told John W. Rumble of the Country Music Hall of Fame, "probably had a lot to do with establishing a certain thing in my life."
He died April 7, 1991.
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