There are few things soul fans love more than a debate on who invented their favourite genre. Names such as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles are frequently cited, and it’s true that both those greats have plenty of musical credentials to back up their citations. For me, the singer who did most to inform the transition of R&B to soul was the incredible Little Willie John.
Of all the great solo singers who moved R&B towards the new soul genre during the 1950s, native Detroiter Willie was the only one to arrive with his talent fully formed. Sam had started out as a vocal disciple of his Soul Stirrers predecessor R.H. Harris, while Ray borrowed the cocktail blues vocal style of Charles Brown and Nat King Cole until he finally found his own unique voice, after signing with Atlantic in 1952. Willie’s impassioned wail was all his own, and in evidence from the moment he announced his talent with his debut King single, ‘All Around The World (Grits Ain’t Groceries)’ in late 1955. For me, only Johnny Tanner of Willie’s King label mates the “5” Royales did as much to usher in the soul era with his own fiery and committed style.
Willie recorded for King for most of his tragically brief career, which ended with his incarceration in 1965 and his death in prison three years later. He racked up a fair few hits, including the original versions of such American classics as ‘Fever’, ‘Talk To Me’ and ‘I Need Your Love So Bad’. Proof of his vocal genius can be found on three Ace CDs which between them embrace more than 90% of his King recordings. The material he was asked to record in his eight years with King wasn’t always worthy of his talent, but he never gave less than 100% soulfulness whether he was singing an intense ballad like ‘Suffering With The Blues’, a country classic such as ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ or a corny standard of the calibre of ‘The Masquerade Is Over’.
In 1965, Willie also cut a stellar series of recordings with David Axelrod and H.B. Barnum for proposed release on Capitol. All of these are available on a Kent CD which shows that he could – and should – have taken his place alongside all the other 60s soul greats, had the American penal system not dictated otherwise. There is no such thing as a bad Little Willie John record but if you’re unfamiliar with his oeuvre and prefer a mid-60s sound to that of the mid-late 50s, “Nineteen Sixty Six” might be a good starting point for any Willie newbie.
As far as I’m concerned, if soul music’s invention has to be credited to just one person, it should be Little Willie John.
By Tony Rounce