Little Willie John – Complete Hit Singles (review)

Little Willie John – Complete Hit Singles – A’s & B’s (Real Gone Music) review

He made some of the eeriest rhythm and blues of the 1950’s

When you think R&B pioneers, the names Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Jackie Wilson all come to mind – yet Little Willie John was just as influential.  The problem is,  it’s a lot harder to find his music. Real Gone Records has just compiled The Complete Hit Singles – A’s & B’s, helping to remedy that problem, and shed light on an underrappreciated artist.

Although Little Willie John was never a household name like his contemporaries, he was no less talented.  In fact, in many ways, he outclassed any other singer of his time.  While Cooke was best at smooth ballads and Wilson at hyped-up dance numbers, John was arguably more versatile – tackling gritty blues numbers just as easy as tender ballads.  The Complete Hit Singles marks the first time that all of John’s hits and their respective b-sides are assembled in one place.

Many of these tracks are making their debut on CD.   Some of his finest moments come from some odd places.  The original version of “Fever” (later a schmaltzy hit for Peggy Lee), with it’s low honking sax and loping pace, is one of the most sinister-sounding songs of the mid Fifties.  It may essentially be about love, but the fever he’s talking about seems to involve something darker – like a love song from hell.

The singer hit the mark with his first three singles – the stop/start “All Around the World,” (later re-titled “Grits Ain’t Groceries” by Little Milton), “Need Your Love So Bad,”  which features a crying blues guitar (and covered by an early version of Fleetwood Mac), and the aforementioned “Fever.”  The b-sides of these records have a deeper, more bluesy feel – especially “Don’t Leave Me Dear” where he sings “I’m home in bed / with my thoughts on you.”

But John wasn’t just grit – “Talk to Me Talk to Me” showed he could handle more polished pop, and still deliver a passionate performance.  It ended up crossing over to the pop charts for a Top Twenty hit.  The song’s flip side, “Spasms,” must’ve sounded downright scandalous in the day, with John screaming the chorus.  In fact, the singer would revisit these body reaction songs time and again – “Fever,” “Spasms,” “My Nerves,” and especially “I’m Shakin’.”  That last song, with its odd time signature and  stripped-down accompaniment, gives lots of room for John to show off his tremendous pipes, and is another eerie triumph (although, it was relegated to the b-side of the obvious stab at commercialism, “A Cottage For Sale”).

Another example of how some of his best material was left for the “B” (or “non hit” side) is “Do You Love Me.” The flip of “Heartbreak (It’s Hurtin’ Me),” it’s a frenetic rocker, where John is joined by Little Richard’s Upsetters (Richard had recently joined the ministry and had sworn off rock n’ roll, so they were out of work).

The last single on the set showed that John was still at the top of his game – the “A” side, “Now You Know,” featured some of the singer’s finest pleading, while the “B” side, “Take My Love (I Want to Give it All to You),” was a juiced-up blues rocker, not unlike Freddy King’s “Hideaway,” who was on the same record label as John.

In 1964, the singer got into an argument with a man who was harassing his girlfriend – the altercation led to him stabbing the man to death.  John would spend the rest of his life in prison, dying of pneumonia at the criminally young age of 30.  The Complete Hit Singles gives us a chance to hear just how talented Little Willie John truly was.  –Tony Peters