The Little Willie John renaissance continues, with Ace’s third and final volume of Willie’s King recordings. Our release of “Heaven All Around Me” means that virtually every master that Willie cut during his sadly truncated career is now available on either Ace or Kent.
Our recent Kent release of Willie’s complete Capitol recordings (“Nineteen-Sixty-Six”, CDKEND 305) was an across-the-board success with both long time devotees and more recent ‘recruits’ to the Willie John cause. Forty one years after his unfortunate death, it looks as though the magnitude of Willie’s talent is gaining recognition. In particular, Willie’s fairly recent rediscovery by the UK’s New Breed R&B fans has led to tracks like ‘Until Again My Love’ and ‘Don’t Play With Love’ – both of which feature on this CD – being played extensively on that scene along with earlier LWJ favourites like ‘I’m Shakin’ and ‘Spasms’. The value of the original 45s is rising to reflect their new-found popularity.
Apart from the four instrumentals cut at his sessions on which did not appear, “Heaven All Around Me” collects every side cut by Willie between 1961 to 1963, when he recorded his final King session. Not every one is an out-and-out masterpiece, but Willie never delivered a substandard performance, even when the material was not inspired. The majority of the tracks here are, however, quite sensational – and all of them show that Willie John was primed and ready for the forthcoming explosion of soul music that he missed due to his incarceration in prison.
In particular you should note Willie’s riveting version of Tin Pan Alley standard ‘The Masquerade Is Over’, a powerhouse performance that shows he could turn even the most MOR of songs into an expression of soul at its deepest. ‘My Baby’s In Love With Another Guy’ is another masterpiece demonstrating Willie’s ability to turn trite into torrid. For me, this is where R&B disappears over the horizon, and soul begins. Willie’s versions of country standards ‘Big Blue Diamonds’ and ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ show, too, how at home he would have been in Muscle Shoals or Memphis during the Golden Era of southern soul, had he lived.
The CD booklet offers a wealth of unpublished photographs and a label shot for almost every featured track. The notes tell the sad story of Willie’s final years in some detail, and give considerable insight into the personal complexities of the man behind the voice. Along with our previous LWJ CDs, it’s a fitting final tribute to this totally unique talent.
By Tony Rounce