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'Fever': A tribute to Little Willie John

RENEE MINUS WHITE Fashion & Beauty Editor | 1/25/2012, 6:21 p.m.
"Fever: Little Willie John: A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul" (Titan...
'Fever': A tribute to Little Willie John

"Fever: Little Willie John: A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul" (Titan Books), penned by Susan Whitall with Keith John, son of the famed soul singer, is a well-written biography of one of the greatest R&B singers to come out of Detroit. Marvin Gaye's favorite blues singer, William Edward John was also loved by B.B. King, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and was best friends with Levi Stubbs and Jerry Butler. He was the inspiration for a generation of musicians.

Stevie Wonder wrote the foreword to the book. "My mother told me, "If you call yourself 'Little' Stevie Wonder, you'd better be as good as Little Willie John," he wrote.

"Little Willie John is a soul singer's soul singer," stated Marvin Gaye. This story brings back such sweet memories.

"Talk to Me," one of the hits John performed when he played the Apollo Theater with groups like the Chantels and Little Anthony and the Imperials, among other great entertainers, was everyone's favorite song.

From the wings backstage, performers came out of their dressing rooms to watch John as he captivated his audiences and held them in the palm of his hand. Women cried, screamed, threw garments on stage and even tried to come up on stage with him. He use to set the mood with soft, sexy talk and before you knew it, he was into the song-"Talk to Me," "Fever" and many of his other hits.

John was a kind gentleman. Born in Arkansas in 1937, John found his soulful voice in the church halls and nightclubs of Detroit. A notable R&B chart success in his day, his songs are now better known through their covers. For instance, you have definitely heard Peggy Lee's version of "Fever," "Need Your Love So Bad" by Fleetwood Mac and "Leave My Kitten Alone" by the Beatles.

John's 30-year life was dynamic. His soulful sound left an indelible mark in R&B music history. With the help of his eldest son, Kevin, and with access to the John family archives, author Whitall interviewed some of the biggest names in the music industry, such as Lois Harris Powell of the Chantels.

Marty Schein, who was a Westchester youngster at the time, reminisced about how his father would bring him and his sister to 125th Street in Harlem via the Metro North Railroad. He remembered John's electrifying act on stage at the Apollo Theater.

Through various sources, Whitall has produced an excellent, unprecedented account of John's life and how he started his show business career in Detroit. Her story engages readers about his upbringing and family life with his brothers, as well as important relationships with folks like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Sugar Ray Robinson and others in the entertainment industry.

The soaring heights of John's career are matched only by the tragic events of his death. Charged with a violent crime in the late 1960s, he was incarcerated in Walla Walla, Wash., where he died under mysterious circumstances.

Whitall is a Detroit-based music journalist who has also written "Women of Motown." She was one of a handful of women on staff at Creem magazine in the mid 1970s, the rock journal immortalized in Cameron Crowe's film "Almost Famous." In the late '70s, she became one of the first women to edit a national rock magazine when she became its top editor.

Since the 1980s, she has been a feature writer for the Detroit News. Whitall writes about pop culture, music and radio. She often returns to stories about the R&B and soul music that came from the Motor City.

Keith John is the younger of John's two sons. A gifted singer, songwriter and producer, he is a longtime vocalist with Stevie Wonder. He appeared in the Spike Lee movie "School Daze," singing the Stevie Wonder composition, "I Can Only Be Me." With his brother Kevin John, they recorded for RCA records as a duo produced by Bunny Sigler and, later, Stevie Wonder. When his father was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Keith sang his father's signature song, "Fever," accompanied by Stevie Wonder.

"Fever" is available at Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe, 2319 Frederick Douglass Blvd. in Harlem.