Book Review: Fever-Little Willie John:a Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul, written by Susan Whitall

Little Willie John. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Among the numerous bios recently written about (and by) music artists, there is one that stands out from the rest: “Fever-Little Willie John: a Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,” written by Susan Whitall (in collaboration with Kevin John).  This extraordinary bio chronicles the rise and fall of the charismatic, iconic soul singer.

Kevin John is the eldest of Little Willie John’s two talented and charming sons, the other being noted singer Keith John, the longtime backing vocalist for Stevie Wonder (who has written the foreword to the bio), as well as a featured vocalist in the Spike Lee films “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing.”

Kevin John has stated that he’s wanted to see a bio written on his father for the past 20 years. Said Kevin: “This is something that we wanted to do for my father.  Listening to his music has always been therapeutic to me.  When my brother and I were growing up we listened to it, but I was the one who listened to it most of the time, because for me it was a connection.  I’ve been told I look just like my dad. Keith acts just like him. But for me, it’s understanding the person, his personality. Not the persona, but who he really was.”

However, Kevin John says that there was a good reason it was not written sooner: their mother. Kevin says that to this day she cannot even listen to their father’s music, and did not wish to relive the memories.  Observes Kevin: “We were raised by a single mother after all this tragedy.   We  could be bitter, really bad people, but that’s just not how my mom was.”

Adorable Kevin (left) and Keith John, as small children, posing with their parents when the family lived in Miami, Florida in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Kevin John.

Fortunately, the brothers finally succeeded in convincing their mother.  Says Kevin: “It was only after my brother and I talked to her this time that we convinced her that this would be a good time to do it.”

Kevin states that this intimate, emotional bio has taken approximately six years to complete, and that Susan Whitall, was the perfect choice as author.  One need only read but a few chapters from this fascinating book to agree with Kevin John’s assessment.

Kevin John: “Years ago, Susan wrote a story about my dad in the paper, and I was interested, because here’s a person writing something about my dad, and people had forgotten about him.  I called her to thank her for the article that she’d written.

I then met her some years ago at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We were visiting there and she happened to be there that weekend, and the Funk Brothers were there. So somebody introduced us and I asked her-when I found out who she was and I made the connection-‘What do you think about writing a story about my father’s life and his music?’ She was ecstatic!

Once we talked about that, we had a few more phone calls, and I actually invited her over to our house. My wife and I sat down and we talked to her. We told her that if we’re going to do this, the person that writes this has to have sensitivity where they can talk about all the things that happened, both negative and positive, but they have to do it in a classy way. They can’t focus on the negative. That was very important for us.”

Released in June of 2011, the bio has been well-received by fans and critics alike, and there is talk of possibly even bringing their father’s story to the big screen.  As to the question of who would portray their father, Kevin said: “If the person has to sing, it has to be Keith. No one sounds like our dad like my brother does. Even if Keith doesn’t play him, the voice-overs need to be him.”

However, Kevin is also mulling over the possibility of Larenz Tate, who portrayed Frankie Lymon in “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” as a possibility. Says Kevin: “he’s got the body built, and he’s a good actor. But I think to pull the singing off, it’s got to be Keith.”

To that possibility, brother Keith is ready: “If the opportunity presented itself, I would jump in head first!”

Publication Date: June 21, 2011

The jacket cover to the bio Fever-Little Willie John:a Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul. Photo courtesy of Kevin John.

Book description: “Little Willie John lived for a fleeting 30 years, but his dynamic and daring sound left an indelible mark on the history of music. His deep blues, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll and swinging ballads inspired a generation of musicians, forming the basis for what we now know as soul music.

Born in Arkansas in 1937, William Edward John found his voice in the church halls, rec centers and nightclubs of Detroit, a fertile proving ground that produced the likes of Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. One voice rose above the rest in those formative years of the 1950s, and Little Willie John went on to have 15 hit singles in the American rhythm & blues chart, with considerable cross-over success in pop. Some of his songs might be best known by their cover versions (“Fever” by Peggy Lee, “Need Your Love So Bad” by Fleetwood Mac and “Leave My Kitten Alone” by The Beatles) but Little Willie John’s original recording of these and other songs are widely considered to be definitive, and it is this sound that is credited with ushering in a new age in American music as the 1950s turned into the 60s and rock ‘n’ roll took its place in popular culture.

The soaring heights of Little Willie John’s career are matched only by the tragic events of his death, cutting short a life so full of promise. Charged with a violent crime in the late 1960s, an abbreviated trial saw Willie convicted and incarcerated in Walla Walla Washington, where he died under mysterious circumstances in 1968.

In this, the first official biography of one of the most important figures in rhythm & blues history, author Susan Whitall, with the help of Little Willie John’s eldest son Kevin John, has interviewed some of the biggest names in the music industry and delved into the personal archive of the John family to produce an unprecedented account of the man who invented soul music.”

“Little Willie John is the soul singer’s soul singer.” – Marvin Gaye

“My mother told me, if you call yourself ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder you’d better be as good as Little Willie John.” – Stevie Wonder

“Willie John was one of the most brilliant singers you would ever want to come across, bar none. There are things that were great, there are things that were good. Willie John was past great.” – Sam Moore

“Little Willie John did not know how to sing wrong, know what I mean?”– Dion

“Little Willie John was a soul singer before anyone thought to call it that.” – James Brown


Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Peña began her career as a music journalist almost twenty years 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 Peña has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them: Goldmine, American Songwriter, Classic Drummer Magazine 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 Peña loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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7 Responses to Book Review: Fever-Little Willie John:a Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul, written by Susan Whitall

  1. Karen Carty says:

    I loved reading this book. Like so many others, I had no idea of the impact that Little Willie John had on the music industry and how so many music icons had so much respect for his work. I’m grateful to the John brothers, as well as their mother, for bringing this story to the forefront!

    • Shirley Pena Shirley Pena says:

      Me too, Karen! This is easily one of THE BEST bios I have read in ages!

    • K. John says:

      Thank you, Karen Carty for writing your review.

      You and John have really been supportive of our project and our family, even attending multiple book events!


      K. John 🙂

      • Deborah ringer says:

        Hi keith just thinking about the past remember me ??? Deborah feltham from co durham England we met when you were doing drifters tribute and I came to visit you in London ! Be great to catch up, I am on Facebook as Deborah ringer living Hunwick co durham England.xx

        • Shirley Pena Shirley Pena says:

          Hello Deborah,

          I don’t know Keith, but I do know his brother Kevin.
          I’ll be happy to forward you message here to Keith
          via his brother!

  2. Cathy John says:

    This book gave me a window into the world of Little Willie John.
    Thank you Shirley Pena for giving this great read exposure it well deserves!

    • Shirley Pena Shirley Pena says:

      Cathy, this is seriously a WONDERFUL bio, an absolute must-read! This morning I updated this review with a lovely photo that Kevin John generously has shared: a photo of him and his brother Keith as adorable small children, posing with their proud parents when the family was living in Miami, Florida! Please check it out!

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