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- Posted on Jul 1st 2011 2:00PM by James Sullivan
Although he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, the consummate showman is not well remembered today. That's largely because of his premature ending: He died at age 30 in 1968 in a Northwest prison, after serving time on a manslaughter conviction. In 'Fever -- Little Willie John: A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,' longtime Detroit-based rock critic Susan Whitall tells the previously untold story of the diminutive man who set the bar absurdly high for Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and so many others. The following is an exclusive excerpt.
With the Upsetters behind him, Willie could not be stopped. Jerry "the Iceman" Butler witnessed the act many times. With his group, the Impressions, he had already been on the bottom of several bills under Willie. Butler was in awe of him, although he was only two years younger. "We had grown up listening to Little Willie John as a star," Butler said. "So to work with him, wow! That's Little Willie John! It was kind of the relationship the rookie has to the star quarterback. Here we are, five guys out of Chicago, Illinois, never been anywhere in particular, all of a sudden we're sharing a stage with one of our idols, one of the guys that we grew up listening to." Butler watched and learned. "He was a little guy, but he was a big guy, in the sense that he was small physically but his stature, in terms of the industry and in terms of command of the stage and knowing how to perform, he was a giant."
"Jackie Wilson was getting started as a solo artist," Butler said. "Little Willie John had seniority. But it wasn't even about that, it was about this ego thing between these two guys who were both from Detroit, both tremendous performers. 'I want to be the star tonight,' kind of thing."
The opening acts had all performed and left the stage, only Willie and Jackie were still to go on. After some additional haranguing back and forth, the promoter stepped in and insisted that somebody had to go out there and play. The audience was getting even drunker and rowdier than usual. Butler observed Willie change gears. He instantly calmed down and oozed a mischievous confidence. Sure, he'd go onstage before Jackie, he said. "Let Jackie Wilson follow me if he can."
The Upsetters hit the stage and Willie came out on fire, his luminous voice filling up every corner of the old hall with the cry, "Heartbreak, it's hurting me." "These cats had a groove going," Butler marveled, describing the Upsetters. "Their attitude, and Willie's, was, 'I'm going to make that stage so hot that Jackie won't be able to get on.' So that's what he did. He went out there and he heartached them, he sang 'Talk to Me' and fell down to his knees and was looking into ladies' eyes, holding and caressing them, and the big-bosomed ladies ran up there and want to cuddle him, he was so little and cute. Well! The show was over. It was time to go home!" After Willie walked off, the stage looked as if there'd been a fight in a lingerie store. Stockings, purses and even panties lay in piles, thrown up by women driven out of their minds by the sound of a male voice expressing such romantic fervor. Jackie came out and sang, but it just didn't matter anymore, nobody was really listening. To Butler, Willie was a combination of natural ability and a ferocious work ethic. "Willie was par excellence, he was studied. It wasn't by accident that he did what he did. He practiced and rehearsed it and got it down to a valuable science."