Fever: an Interview with Kevin John (son of Little Willie John)

Little Willie John in 1955. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Kevin, it’s a real pleasure and an honor to be talking with you today! First off, let’s dive right into this exciting new bio on your father (Fever-Little Willie John: a Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul). I was totally intrigued with its revelations about your father’s life and death, especially the shady, conflicting reports about the circumstances that surrounded his death in prison at Walla, Walla Washington. Can you tell our readers more?

The death certificate stated the cause of death as “massive myocardial infarction”  yet the telegram that my mother received stated that my father died of pneumonia!  This of course was very confusing. There was never an explanation as to why two different causes of death were given.

So even today, all these years later, the exact circumstances of your father’s death continue to be a mystery, right?

That is correct. (Author) Susan Whitall spoke to the prosecuting attorney and he suggested that my father probably met with some foul play while in prison.  In his words, it was likely, “death by prison guard.”  It’s been suggested that my father had pneumonia as a result of being severely beaten.  We may never know what really happened.

We really feel that my father’s legal representation was grossly ineffective.  We believe that given the facts and lack of tangle evidence, and the fact that the man that died was probably twice the size of my father, it should have been case of self defense!  My father should never have been convicted of manslaughter!  In view of the fact that he was defending himself against a man who was a career criminal, my father should have received probation.

Today, a person can “stand their ground” if they feel their life is being threatened; everyone should have the right to defend themselves.  I don’t believe that today, my father would have been found guilty of any crime in connection with Mr. Roundtree’s death,  especially, with the scrutiny that this case would receive today.  Remember, we are talking about the mid 1960’s … this was Seattle and the civil rights movement had not become mature.  Later in the decade, Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated! Things were just beginning to change.

The book does a splendid job of fully explaining just how vitally important, influential and ground-breaking your father’s music really was/is.  Do you agree?

ABSOLUTELY!!!  I think that my father was one of the most influential vocalists of his era.  He was a major influence on greats such as Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Jeffrey Osborne and George Benson, just to name a few.  In fact, Lamont Dozier (Holland/Dozier/Holland) once said that Little Willie John was one of the individuals that caused him to want to be in show business.

Little Willie John was a huge influence on many of the vocalists that came after him.  More than forty years later, artists that remember him talk about that influence: Sam Moore, Aaron Neville, Jeffrey Osborne and many others. World renowned Jazz, R&B, and Pop artist George Benson said of Little Willie John: “He was a great inspiration, a great influence. The way that I approach singing today, is largely influenced by Little Willie John.”

Some of his songs were covered by The Beatles, Sting, BB King, Robert Palmer, and George Benson.  “FEVER” the song that originated with Little Willie John, was cover by Elvis, Tom Jones, Peggy Lee and scores of others.

Of the many aspects that this book reveals about your father’s music, which do you appreciate the most, and why?

HIS LIFE!  Susan Whitall, did a masterful job of painting a portrait of Willie John as a person. Little Willie John was an incredible artist, vocalist, and performer. Susan showed that he was also a loving, husband, father, brother and son. Susan introduced the readers of our book to “William Edward John”: the alter-ego of Little Willie John.  The world knew Little Willie John, but to my brother Keith and I, he was just dad.

Of the book’s revelations concerning your father as a person, which do you, as   the son of Little Willie John, think is the most important for our readers to know?   

As I mentioned before, it provided insight on the person. He was kind, loving and very generous. Yes, generous almost to a fault.

Which of the book’s revelations do you think will prove to be the most surprising for its readers, and why?

This is an interesting question.  There were not any “surprises” as you might think of.  What was surprising was that so many of his contemporaries really expressed such affection for my dad!  Here are a few examples: when we interviewed Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops (shortly before his death) Levi frequently said: “Boy he could sing” and “I just  loved him.”  A few months back, I spoke to Norman Thrasher (formerly of the Midnighters) and Norman spoke very fondly of my dad and recounted experiences of when they were on the road together.

Finally, just s few weeks ago, I spoke to Grady Gaines of the “Upsetters” (band that played behind Little Richard, Sam Cooke, James Brown and Little Willie John) and he told me that he remembered fondly working with my dad. He also told me that he remembered seeing me at the Apollo Theater in NY with my mom and dad.  He said that my dad was so proud of me. I was very young; this was more than fifty years ago. He told me: “Your dad and I were good friends!” We interview Gardy for the book. He remembered meeting me: a young child more than fifty years ago. The reason he remembered had nothing to do about me; it was that I was the son of LWJ. People love my father! 

Did the book manage to uncover any secrets about your father that you’d especially like current and future generations to know?

Again … no secrets! Just that he was a phenomenal talent. HB Barnum (long time arranger and musical director form Aretha Franklin) once said: “In bad voice, LWJ could out sing anyone.”

Could you tell our readers about the interesting choices that were made in both  the book’s publisher and distributor? I found that quite unique!

Well, Titan Books in the publisher, located in the UK. The music of LWJ to this day is well received by fans in the UK and through Europe. It’s kind of ironic that LWJ’s book and his final recordings would be released by a publisher and record company based in the UK (London).  The distributor of Titan books in the United States is Random House books.  This is a nice “one-two” punch!  Titan has a big presence in the UK, and Random House is of course huge in the U.S., so we get the best of both worlds! This arrangement works out nice, and we are happy that Titan had the vision to take on our project.

Where can folks buy this book, what is its list price and is there a particular outlet that you would recommend?

Amazon.com!  Amazon has carried the book from the beginning, and  for less than the SRP. There are other on-line book sellers that carry the book.  Please check local bookstores in your area.  The suggested retail price is 25.99 (Hardcover).  It is also available in Kindle, Nook and other e-reader formats.

In your opinion, what particular quality/qualities about your father’s voice  and vocal delivery helped to elevate him above his musical peers in the 1950s, and continue to make him such an essential and influential artist even today?

Hmm … he had a unique voice quality! When listening to LWJ you always knew it was him! His distinctive voice quality, his incredible range, the clarity of the notes and the sheer emotion that he displayed was unmistakable.  All of these things made up his unique voice and style. Yet, if I had to say just one thing, I’d say the emotion in his voice set him apart.

What was it about your father’s music that you feel made it so important in paving the way to the creation of what became known as “Soul” music?

His style was unique! He didn’t necessarily have the best material … the best songs,  but his voice transcended whatever he was singing.  LWJ could sing R&B (Soul), Jazz, Country & Western, Pop.  He could sing it all, and make any song he sang his!

What was it about your father’s music that you feel made it so essential in helping to usher in a new age in popular music?

LWJ had a fresh, new approach to vocals!  It was something that appealed to singers and listeners alike. When you heard LWJ’s voice you turned toward it and said “Wow!” His voice has that impact on people. It’s no wonder that some of the greatest performers of Blues, R&B and Pop love him so and list him as an influence.

At what age did you and your brother first become aware of your father’s amazing music, and how has it affected the two of you as singers/performers?

Kevin and Keith John. Photo courtesy of Kevin John.

We knew the music and we knew it was good from a very early age!  When Keith and I were very young, my dad would pull us up on the stage and would relinquish it to Keith and I for us to sing; we loved it! It wasn’t until much later, after the death of our father, that we begun to understand the impact that dad had on the music industry.  While we were aware of the music, we didn’t know that impact until he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall or Fame. WOW, I believe that’s when it hit home.  To this day Keith is still traveling and performing.

Stevie Wonder inducts Little Willie John into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996

Little Willie John’s family accept his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Award in 1996

What particular things, in pertinence to your father’s musical legacy, do you and your brother want to see accomplished?

Kevin John views the picture of his father Little Willie John at The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Photo courtesy of Kevin John.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction was amazing!  The book has been eye-opening as we see the response.  However, we’d like to see a film of some sort. Perhaps a major motion picture, like “Ray”, or perhaps a documentary.  It would also be nice to see a musical.  We envision a show (musical) that would have James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John in performance.  They often appeared in the same show together.

Now I’d really like to see an UNSUNG show (TV One) episode about Little Willie John. When you consider all that he accomplished in his short life and career, yet to this generation, Little Willie John has been limited to a footnote in the annals of popular music.  UNSUNG could reintroduce LWJ to a new generation of music listeners.

How would you like future generations to remember your father as an artist and as a man?

Little Willie John was a singer’s singer! If you call yourself a singer, male of female, listen to his voice and his approach to music.  He sang with such emotion in his voice. His voice is unmistakable!  He loved his family, his music, and his fans!

Little Willie John : All Around The World ( 1955 )

Little Willie John belts out a song in the studio in the mid 1950s. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

 

Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Pena began her career as a music journalist over a decade ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes:the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Pena has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them:Goldmine, American Songwriter, the Fresno Examiner, The Blacklisted Journalist and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Pena loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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5 Responses to Fever: an Interview with Kevin John (son of Little Willie John)

  1. K. John says:

    Shirley,

    Really enjoyed doing the interview … I am getting excellent feedback on the FB page.

    Hopefully, many of those who liked the interview will come here and write about it!

    Thanks again!

  2. Shirley Pena Shirley Pena says:

    Kevin,
    I meant what I said:it was a genuine pleasure and an honor to interview you!
    I welcome everyone who enjoyed reading our interview to come here and leave their comments! 🙂

  3. Nashelle Simpson says:

    I enjoyed the interview. I listen to his music and I read about him and I feel sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to meet my cousin. But he will forever live in me through his music and his legacy will always live on. His voice and his music is refreshing and like comfort to my soul. Little Willie John’s music is a breath of fresh air. Because Kevin and Keith were able to tell his story and share it with fans and family is an honor and we appreciate them as well as Little Willie John. I appreciate his music, his voice and his passion for what he did best…sing from his soul as well as his heart. Thank you Kevin for sharing the story of one of the greatest vocalist and musician of all time….My cousin Little Willie John….he deserve that and so much more <3!

    Nashelle Simpson

    • K. John says:

      Hello Nashelle,

      Thanks for commenting on the review. I think that Shirley Pena did a wonderful job on BOTH the book review AND the Interview!

      I thank Shirley and the LA BEAT for their support!

      K. John.

  4. Brian Ckark says:

    I first heard Little Willie John on the radio singing SLEEP. First a little background…I live here in the BAHAMAS and had listened to the radio constantly in the 1950 s and 1960 s when I first heard him sing SLEEP, SLEEP. [ I was a white kid that ENJOYED RYTHM and BLUES, still do]. Then in the 1960 s heard him sing TALK TO ME, TALK TO ME.. The arrangement, the voice, all come together on that song. When I heard those two songs by LITTLE WILLIE JOHN on the radio…I said THIS KID IS GREAT, Great music, Great Talent. Sorry to read what happened to him. -Brian Clark, BAHAMAS.

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