Talk To Me
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
“When you hear Usher, you hear things that came from Little Willie John.” – Stevie Wonder
- He would one of the first recipients of songs by a young writer named Berry Gordy.
- He was credited by Sam Cooke, Al Greene, and Stevie Wonder as having a major influence on their styles.
- He was James Brown‘s all-time favorite singer, period.
Let Them Talk
In 1955, King Records signed William Edward John, a diminutive (5’3″) eighteen-year-old singer from Detroit, better known as Little Willie John.
- His voice dripped with heartache and world weariness, his phrasing on a par with Sinatra or Tony Bennett.
Great doesn’t even begin to describe him, astonishing would be more like it. On the blues ballads, his voice dripped with the world weariness and command of Bobby “Blue” Bland. He crunched up-tempo shouters with the fury of Julius Cheeks. Listen at the 1:36 mark of “Tell It like It Is,” and then one track later, singing “Talk To Me, Talk To Me.”
Little Willie John just plain sang his ass off.
Uh, Uh Baby
I found a sixteen-song collection, Uh, Uh Baby, at Emusic.com.
The album’s title is, oddly enough, the name of one of his lesser-known songs. One has to be careful of these obscure collections, very often they are outtakes, early demos, or re-recordings done by an artist after he/she has fallen on hard times and needs to pay off his/her child support/ gender reassignment. Or, very often reissues of R&B artists contain a couple of the hits, and a number of what we call “filler tracks” (Conway Twitty singing “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” comes to mind), but in the case of Mr. John, the non-hits are on a par with his million-sellers.
This sixteen-track sampler gets in some of the greats, and misses a couple.
Here’ are a few standouts. The comments were recorded while listening through the ear buds on the edge of the pain threshold. Should you care to do the same, fair warning, this guy’s voice is extremely intense, like few you’ve ever heard.
1) “Are You Ever Coming Home?”
A tough, uncompromising blues ballad. Reminds me of Little Johnnie Taylor (or the other way around). He uses effortless octave swoops just to connect phrases, and worries two-syllable words for a full eight-count; listen to him tag that last line.
There is no f-cking way this guy can be eighteen.
2) “No More In Life”
A lush, Hammond organ-drenched, late-night torch song.
Oh, Hell yes.
Kind of reminds me of “Since I Fell For You” by Lenny Welch.
Matter of fact, he phrases like Dinah Washington, and sings damn near as well she does.
This is a true masterpiece.
The drums kick into the minor horn line, now the horns (I hear two saxes, tenor and baritone; two trumpets, one ‘bone) against that famous guitar chord and into:
The finger snaps – those regulation “Joey Heatherton in a leopard-skin playsuit” finger snaps, don’t come in on the intro. But…when they do, EVERYTHING stops for a full two measures. The finger snaps roll into that eerie guitar chord. Guitarist Jimmy Nolan (?) plays it four times at the beginning, a modified version of it three times in the bridge, and then on the famous tag at the end of the song.
At :18, he guitar chord leads into:
“Never know how much I love you..”
John’s vocal is absolutely haunting. It never cracks or slides into a note, never goes over the top and, then, because he can, he moans the entire last verse. While he’s moaning, the background singers softly hum the word “Fever,” into a dead stop that resolves with that strange minor 9th chord at the end. This is a perfect record.
My Windows Media Player informs me I have just listened to “Fever” sixteen times.
4) “Talk To Me”
What a beautiful, romantic song.
That really cool rhythm guitar part.
Listen very carefully, there’s strings in the back ground, buried way down in the mix, and that really cool rhythm guitar part. Damn, lots of layers, a pre-Phil-Spector kind of feel.
Love the background singers.
“Heartbreak (It’s Hurtin’ Me) “
The Little Willie John story does not have a happy ending.
The hits came fast and furious.
Too much, too fast.
At eighteen, he was all over the charts, and causing riots at his shows.
By twenty-two he was on his way to becoming a has-been.
He drank too much, blew all his money, and hit the Chitlin’ Circuit.
He began to drink even more, and stories of a murderously short fuse began to surface.
October 18, 1964 – There was an argument in an after-hours club in the Pacific Northwest. What actually happened is still unclear, but Willie John did end up with a manslaughter conviction.
1968 – Little Willie John enters Walla Walla State Penitentiary, where he died of either pneumonia, heart attack, or something else entirely, at the age of thirty.
According to a friend of mine in Nashville, who did time with him, behind the walls he was quite the celebrity, but still had a real baaad attitude.
There’s a great bio recently released, check it out:
Go put on your headphones and listen to genius inside the layers of “Fever.”
Play “Talk To me, Talk To Me. ”
Play it again,
only this time:
Dance to it.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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