Sept. 14 2011 12:00 AM

Michigan author, journalist Susan Whitall tells the tragic tale of '50s and early '60s singer Little Willie John


In a city that has always been defined
by its music, the Detroit rhythm and blues singer, Little Willie John,
was a larger than life chart topper in the 1950s and early 60s. 

His tragic death in prison at age 31
made him a music legend, but one that was mostly forgotten except by
music insiders until now.  

Detroit writer and 1974 Michigan State
University graduate Susan Whitall, who in her new book “Fever: Little
Willie John: A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,”
makes the legend of Willie John come to life. It also shows Whitall to
be an accomplished historian and music ethnomusicologist.

But don’t let the word “historian” scare
you away. This authorized biography is as fast paced, enchanting and
gritty as Willie John’s own life and his meteoric climb to the top of
the music charts. His electrifying performances of “Fever” and “Need
Your Love So Bad” helped define rock, rhythm and blues and soul for the
generations to come. 

Whitall, who also penned “Women of
Motown: An Oral History,” has spent a lifetime writing about the people
we listen to, first as a writer and editor of the seminal music
magazine Creem, where she worked under the tutelage of legendary rock
critic Lester Bangs, then as a writer for The Detroit News.

In “Fever” Whitall does more than tell
the story of Willie John whose performances music critic Dave Marsh
calls “erotic.” She takes you to the streets of Detroit in the 1950s
when the area surrounding Sixth and Dequindre was alive with music and
nightlife. It tells how Willie John, one of the original bad boys of
early rock, would move onto the national stage where his singing would
elicit not only screams, but panties and garters tossed on stage —
along with hotel room keys tucked in his pocket.

Whitall has melded meticulous library
and archive research with scores of interview sessions with friends,
family and m usicians who knew and played with Willie John. She relates
B.B. King’s observation about the influence Willie John had on women:

“Girls was crazy about him because he
could sing, and he had that something about him. So a lot of us wanted
to be near him so we could get the girls.”

Admirably Whitall doesn’t duck the tough
parts of Willie John’s life and career. Like many musicians he would
end up in a personal train wreck, leading him to prison and death. 

In the book Whitall recounts how she
heard the music of Little Willie John as a young girl growing up in
Philadelphia. (In the more eclectic musical milieu of Philadelphia,
Willie John’s songs were likely to be heard in the top 40 rotation.
Willie John would perform “Fever” on American Bandstand in 1958.)

“I know I heard it as a kid — I just didn’t know who it was,” Whitall recalled. 

She said his music percolated within her over the years.

“When I was coming up in Creem writers
like Nick Tosches would throw him (Willie John) into his writing, and
anyone worth his salt knew who he was,” Whitall said.

It would be nearly two decades later
when Whitall was writing about music for The Detroit News that the pot
would begin to boil for her.

She said it happened after she had
mentioned Little Willie John in one of her news stories and Kevin John,
Willie’s son, called to thank her for remembering his father. 

But it wasn’t until several years later
at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame event that Kevin, who was also there,
would ask her if she had ever thought about writing a book about Willie
John — she agreed. 

She and Kevin interviewed the family
early on. She began intently researching the specific area of Detroit
where Willie John grew up and began his music career.

“I wanted to give people an overall feel
to the sights and sounds of that area and put people in that world,”
she said. “I listened to people over and over to find out what he ate,
what he did and about the physical layout of the area.”

Probably one of the most famous covers
of a Little Willie John song was “Fever” by Peggy Lee in 1958, the same
year it charted for Willie John.

Whitall always had in the back of her
mind when she was writing “Fever” that she would be under scrutiny from
her contemporary music writers, mainly her friends who worked at Creem.

“I knew I would be swimming with the big fish and guys who will kick your ass if you get it wrong,” she said.

“If you are going to write it (a music biography) you have to show respect and be rigorous — it really does deserve that.”

As an example, when she repeats a
long-told story about Bob Dylan hearing Willie John sing in Detroit she
is careful to point out the several inconsistencies in Dylan’s story. A
lesser biographer would have repeated the story without reservation.
She doesn’t say it didn’t happen, but Whitall makes it clear it’s
unlikely it happened as he told it. 

Whitall said the book isn’t just about
Willie John or his music. It’s about the times, racial relations and
Detroit, which are woven into the book.

"I knew I had to engage all the senses (of the reader) and I really wanted to do that.”

This past weekend at a Book Festival in
Ann Arbor where Whitall was on a panel discussion on the counter
culture she said, “Detroit has always been counter culture.”

“We have always been counter culture by just being where
we are. This is where the stories are-this is where the history is,”
she said.

In her new biography of Little Willie
John, Whitall has added immensely to that Motor City history. The book
includes a foreword by Stevie Wonder, an affirmation by David Marsh and
three sections of photographs; now if Chrysler would just do one of
their ads with “Fever” in the background that would complete the circle.