The Very Best of Little Willie John

John, Little Willie

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Big Things from Small Packages

In the mid-1950s, just as James Brown and Jackie Wilson were getting started, Little Willie John came along and defined what a soul singer could do. He swerved into sweetness, shouted with earthshaking feeling, transformed phrases like "Talk to Me" into desperate cries for help. The diminutive Arkansas native had the nuance of a jazz singer and the emotional focus of a blues belter, traits that made him a key connecting point between musical worlds that were at that time isolated from each other. He showed everybody who followed how to draw on different realms, as James Brown acknowledged later, explaining why he was moved to record a tribute a month after John died in prison in 1968, while serving time on a murder charge. "Willie John was a singer that could take you places," Brown said in Gerri Hirshey's 1984 book Nowhere to Run. "I did not want this fact to be lost to man."

John's recordings have not been lost. But they haven't exactly been enthusiastically rediscovered, either—even his most famous song, "Fever," is best known for recordings by Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley, which are both virtual note-for-note copies of John's still-definitive original. But it's the other singles that remain John's best legacy: The bended-knee plea "Need Your Love So Bad," the rough "Suffering with the Blues," and "Leave My Kitten Alone" are the work of a singer who always got himself immersed in the emotional netherworld of a song. One reason to seek this Collectables set over the Rhino anthology Fever is "A Cottage for Sale," a dreamy ballad that presents John as a master of perfectly timed persuasion.

Genre: R&B
Released: 2001, Collectables
Key Tracks: "A Cottage for Sale," "Fever," "Need Your Love So Bad," "Leave My Kitten Alone."
Next Stop: James Brown: Messing with the Blues
After That: Wynonie Harris: The Best of
Book Page: 400

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