Little Willie John was one of the pioneers of soul and R&B music, and had a string of hit records on King Records from 1955 to 1961. Unfortunately, he also had a short temper and a love of alcohol. In 1961, he was involved in a fatal knifing incident which led to his incarceration in a Walla Walla, Washington state prison. John died there in 1968 at age 30. If he didn’t have those issues, he would probably be much better remembered today.
Fortunately, Real Gone Music has released a two-disc set, Complete Hit Singles A’s and B’s that should earn John a whole new set of fans. Despite his short career, he managed to score 16 hit singles in six years, including his original version of “Fever,” which was later a huge hit for Peggy Lee. But the version here, which sold over a million copies for John, is equally as powerful as Lee’s version.
Other hits here include “All Around the World,” “Need Your Love So Bad”, which was later covered by Fleetwood Mac, “Talk to Me, Talk to Me,” “I’m Shakin'”, “Sleep,” and “Home at Last.” Another very enjoyable number, “Leave My Kitten Alone,” was later covered by The Beatles.
But among the 32 songs on the recording, some of the best are among the b-sides, where John crosses the line between R&B and rock and roll. Favorites here include “Spasms,” “Let’s Rock While the Rockin’s Good,” and “Do You Love Me,” which was recorded with Little Richard’s band, The Upsetters, according to Amazon.com.
The hits and many of the b-sides still sound great to my ears, but among 32 songs, a couple have to fall a bit short. “Cottage For Sale,” for instance, sounds overly sentimental and over the top to me, as does “Letter From My Darling.”
Nevertheless, Real Gone Music has done lovers of early soul, R&B, and rock and roll a great favor by releasing this collection. The enclosed booklet gives us extensive notes by Bill Dahl, as well as photos from the King Records archive.
The whole collection makes me ponder again the waste of such talent and early death due to his alcohol abuse and imprisonment, which is so common among brilliant artists and performers. Nevertheless, we can be thankful for the gift of this collection of wonderful a- and b-sides.