Fever: Little Willie John — A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul
Despite his bantam build and sawed-off stature (5 feet 4 inches and about 125 pounds), Little Willie John was a giant among entertainers. His tenor voice had a trumpet-like brilliance, apparent on such hits as “Fever,” “All Around the World” (aka “Grits Ain’t Groceries”), “Talk to Me, Talk to Me,” and “Leave My Kitten Alone.” He was on top of the world in the ’50s and early ’60s, but tragedy struck when he was convicted of manslaughter and later imprisoned. He died at age 30 under mysterious circumstances at the Washington State Penitentiary hospital in 1968.
Although he has largely receded from memory, a new authorized biography, Fever: Little Willie John — A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul, by Detroit News music writer Susan Whitall, with Kevin John, Little Willie’s son, and a foreword by Stevie Wonder (Titan Books, $25.99), will likely revive interest in the singer who, although born in Arkansas, grew up in Detroit.
We spoke recently with Whitall, who is also the author of Women of Motown.
What made Little Willie John’s voice so remarkable?
His son Keith said something that was really on target. He said that he had such feeling in his voice. And that’s not something you can set your mind to do. It’s either there or not. It just permeates his voice. … He had a very attractive kind of effervescence. Also, he enunciated so well, very much like his idol, Frank [Sinatra].
He drove female fans crazy. You described the stage after one appearance as looking like a fight in a lingerie department. He must have had tremendous charisma.
He did, because he was always such a happy guy, the life of the party. He was also immaculately dressed. [Four Tops lead singer] Levi Stubbs said, ‘We were all so clean,’ as they liked to say then — clean, barbered, and very tight. Their clothing was just-so. Little Willie was box-fresh, always.
In his trademark silk suits…
Right, that he had custom-made at Harry Kosin’s [in downtown Detroit].
You write about the competition between Willie and another fellow Detroiter, Jackie Wilson. Was that a friendly rivalry, or was it more intense than that?
It was friendly, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t intense. They were friends, but they took it very seriously on stage. You brought your best game, and may the best man win. But afterward, they would all go out and have a drink. But he irritated Jackie; he irritated everybody because he was so mischievous. He would do things like knock someone’s hat off and run off with it. He was constantly doing that with Jackie.
It’s hard to believe that Wilson, who usually tore up the stage, was virtually ignored after following Willie one night.
That particular gig was at the Graystone Ballroom on Woodward. But I’m careful to note that on another occasion, Jackie wiped him off the stage. It was a pretty even competition between those guys.
Peggy Lee had a hit with “Fever,” but Little Willie recorded it before her, in 1956. How would you compare their versions?
His is a much more dangerous, sensual version. Hers is kind of hoked-up with those corny extra lyrics she wrote about Pocahontas and Captain Smith.
Willie was convicted of manslaughter for stabbing a much bigger guy at an after-hours joint. But no one saw him knife the man, and everyone present seemed to be plastered.
Exactly. And they kept changing their stories. One person had himself committed to an insane asylum so he wouldn’t have to testify. The prosecutor told me that it was the biggest circus of a trial he ever presided over.
And Willie said he didn’t stab him.
Right, and his idiot lawyer didn’t go through with an appeal. The appeal languished and was denied because he supposedly couldn’t find Willie to get money to file it properly.
In May of 1968, Willie died in the prison hospital, apparently of a heart attack. Someone in the book speculated he was probably in a fight.
It was actually the prosecutor. He thinks it was death by prison guard, as he called it. He thinks that Willie probably mouthed off once too often. He was a mouthy guy and certainly didn’t have the size or strength to defend himself. He did have epilepsy and probably wasn’t being treated for that, but he didn’t have a history of heart problems. He had fluid in his lungs, which can be the result of a beating.
Do you have a favorite Little Willie song?
I have a few. He does a great version of “Flamingo,” which was a big hit for Duke Ellington in the early ’40s. I love “Talk to Me” because I’m a sucker for late-’50s romantic ballads.
Little Willie’s widow, Darlynn, is still living in Detroit. Did she ever remarry?
No, she didn’t. Willie was kind of a hard act to follow.
— George Bulanda
South Oakland County
The beauty of black-and-white photographs is often in their contrast. But the juxtaposition of pictures of the past with images of the present offers a sort of contrast that can be irresistible. That’s the appeal of South Oakland County (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99), a new release by Paul Vachon in Arcadia’s “Then and Now” series. The book pairs vintage scenes of Farmington, Pontiac, Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, Ferndale, and other communities with present-day panoramas. In a state that occasionally strains its neck looking backward, South Oakland County comes as a pleasant affirmation that much of our built landscape is the same today as it was yesterday, with local facades (such as Farmington’s Civic Theatre) unchanged and aging like wine. The book reminds readers that places can improve, grow, and inspire new stories (such as Royal Oak’s Shrine of the Little Flower Church and its adjacent prayer garden). With commentary and historical anecdotes supplementing the modern photos, Vachon helps the area tell a story of its own.
— Martin Michalek
South of Superior
(Riverhead Books, $25.95) is a first novel from Ellen Airgood, a Michigan writer who runs a diner in the small Upper Peninsula town of Grand Marais. This story is also a tale of what comes next after the loss of someone who anchored your life. In Airgood’s tale, the protagonist, Madeline Stone, chooses the unknown over the known, moving 500 miles north to live with strangers who have a vague connection to her own past.
Elly Peterson, “Mother” of the Moderates
In the 1960s and ’70s, Elly Peterson was one of the best-known figures in Michigan politics. The first woman to chair the Michigan Republican Party, she ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1964. A supporter of the failed Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, she shocked the state GOP when she backed James Blanchard over conservative Dick Headlee for governor in 1982. Peterson, who died in 2008 at the age of 94, is the focus of a new book, Elly Peterson, “Mother” of the Moderates (University of Michigan Press, $29.95).
We recently spoke with the book’s author, Sara Fitzgerald, a U-M graduate and former Washington Post editor.
Why a book on Elly Peterson?
She was kind of a hero in my childhood. I saw her speak [on television] at the Republican National Convention in 1964. I was struck by the novelty of seeing a female politician on the national stage — and proud that she came from my home state.
In 2003, the non-partisan Michigan Political History Society ranked her as “the greatest state party chair of the previous 50 years.” What made her so effective?
Charisma. She was sensitive to keeping people motivated. She had a kind of inspirational leadership. And she knew how to organize.
One of the shockers in the book was that, when she was chosen GOP chair, millionaire and major GOP backer Max Fisher told her that, because she was a woman, she would be paid $6,000 less than her predecessors.
The feminine consciousness was something that awakened slowly in women of that generation. If you wanted to be successful in that man’s world, you had to work really hard and not complain.
She was a friend of Gov. George and Lenore Romney, although they later clashed. What do you think she would have thought of Mitt Romney?
I think she would have been disappointed.
And Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin?
She clearly paved the way for women in the Republican Party, but it’s fair to say Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin would not be her kind of candidate. The whole notion of becoming a moderate Republican is becoming an endangered species.
How did you research your book and how long did it take?
I started in 2005. It would be a total of six years. I actually met her back when she was living in a [North Carolina] condo complex with my parents in the early ’90s. We [later] started a correspondence. She also gave more than 25 boxes of her papers to [U-M’s] Bentley Library, so I went back to Ann Arbor for some of my research.
Did she read parts of the book before she died?
When I finished a chapter, I would send it to her. She [told me] I was giving memories back to her.
People in Michigan may be interested, but it doesn’t seem like made-for-TV movie material.
No! I would describe it as a labor of love. I dedicated it to my mother and the women of the Greatest Generation she and Ellie were a part of.
I hope [readers] will feel inspired and appreciate some of the values she represented. She felt it was important to try to bring as many people as you could into the [Republican] tent. She would be much more supportive of a climate in which people can talk about differences and agree to disagree.
— Eve Silberman
Once Upon a River
(Norton, $25.95), by Bonnie Jo Campbell. A teenage girl who loses the people she loves and trusts and is left with those who should protect her but don’t, takes to the river in her grandfather’s boat and lives as a child of the water and woods.
Along the way, she learns that the current of the river that ran beside her childhood home is more dependable than many characters who flow in and out of her early years.
In the young Margo Crane, Campbell creates a character whose understanding of life is as instinctive as a woodland creature. Her watchful and quiet, almost silent, ways allow her to interpret signs and symbols that other humans are too busy, noisy, or acquisitive to see.
Campbell’s novel is plainly worded, a style that suits a story of a woman who counts days by the cycle of the moon. Throughout the book, however, Campbell offers several simply worded but keen observations on life choices and what constitutes successful living.
When Crane leaves home at 16, she gets by on instincts and survival tactics taught to her by her beloved grandfather. Guiding her through a maze of affection and bodily harm is her childlike admiration of Annie Oakley. Like her hero, Crane is a sharpshooter — a skill that serves her well as she sleeps under the stars and lives off the land.
Campbell’s riverbank odyssey tracks its heroine to womanhood and an understanding of the differences between a man named Smoke and her own brittle mother.
— Rebecca Powers
Have We Possibly Met Before? And Other Stories
Susanna Piontek was a successful broadcast editor and short-story author in Germany before marrying and moving to West Bloomfield Township four years ago.
Have We Possibly Met Before? And Other Stories (Culicidae Press, $18), her first collection of short stories to be published here, makes it clear why she has a growing following in Europe. Most of the 17 stories in her American book are exquisite portraits in miniature, tales often laced with delightful black humor and surprise endings of a sort familiar to anyone who is fond of the O. Henry style of fiction. Most of their themes are the ordinary stuff of daily life: love and loneliness, greed and sorrow, sexuality, betrayal, child obesity, deceit, even murder as misplaced revenge. While Piontek’s fiction often leaves the reader open-mouthed at their conclusion, the events in them are all easily imaginable. A woman who deceives her lover in an effort to persuade him to leave his wife, while, at the same time, his wife is deceiving him. The haunting murder of a small girl’s pet guinea pig and what it says about the cruelty of children and within families. The title story, which is the most haunting and most European of the collection, recalls the horror that has shaped and defined so much of the modern age. Piontek’s own life could easily serve as fodder for one of her stories — albeit one with a happier ending. She met her husband and translator, distinguished Wayne State University Professor Guy Stern, when he spoke in Germany seven years ago, and it was “love at first conversation.”
— Jack Lessenberry
The Sin-Eater: A Breviary
(Paraclete Press, $22.99), a fifth book of poems by Milford-based writer and funeral director Thomas Lynch, is due for release this month. Lynch describes his newest collection of 24 poems, each 24 lines, as episodes in the unlikely ministry of a man who eats the sins of the dead for his daily bread and takes unto himself the punishment due them.
Vaporous and sore at heart, Argyle stood in his doorway looking out at nothing. The wind blew through him as if he wasn’t. As if he were, himself, a door ajar
through which one had to go to get nowhere and wanting to go nowhere, there he stood — a spectacle of shortfall and desire.
Those who have followed the career of Lynch will be interested to know that the book includes photographs and a watercolor by the author’s sons Michael and Sean, respectively.
In the preface, Lynch writes engagingly about his own family, the characters who populate his personal history, and their religious legacy.
On publishing poetry, Lynch quotes Don Marquis, telling Hour Detroit that the literary effort “is like casting rose petals into the Grand Canyon and hoping for an echo.”
— Rebecca Powers