This has been described recently by its producer, David Axelrod, as “one of the best albums that I ever did”. And in spite of its sub-zero fidelity reproduction, a previous (and dubious) issue of some of its contents has had fans of mid 60s soul going into apoplexies about its brilliance – apoplexies tempered with regret that the audio sounded like it had been cut in a bucket with a 20 tog duvet glued to the top..
Well, Little Willie John fans can discard those forthwith as Kent is very proud to add “Nineteen Sixty Six”, featuring Willie’s complete Capitol sessions, to its catalogue. Those who love Willie’s great King sides and have wondered about how he would have coped with the arrival of soul music need wonder no more – these 12 selections (plus a generous helping of stereo mixes and alternate takes) show that he would have done just fine as a premier league soul man. Produced by Axelrod, arranged by H B Barnum and featuring many of the usual West Coast sessioneers such as Arthur Wright, Earl Palmer, Jim Horn and Carol Kaye (not to mention Barnum’s sister Billie, of the Apollas, leading the backing vocalists), this set would have been all that Willie would have needed to get his career back on track if the US judicial system had not decreed that he should be returned to prison, to serve the sentence that had been imposed upon him for stabbing a man in 1964.
There are at least three cuts on this set – ‘Country Girl’, ‘Someone’ and ‘Early In The Morning’, which are already firing up the nation’s Northern Soul collectors and dancers. Other true delights include Willie’s sublime version of the similarly-tragic Johnny Ace’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ and a thrill-a-second version of Lil Green’s sensual 40s blues ‘In The Dark’.
In beautiful sound, and mastered from recent transfers of the original Capitol master tapes, “Nineteen Sixty Six” represents the creative apex of a man who never got the chance to try to better it. Little more than two years after these sides were cut, William Edgar John died in Wall Walla Prison in Washington State, a victim of pneumonia.
Willie may have gone, but his legacy will be with us always. Buried in a vault for long-forgotten ‘legal reasons’ more than 40 years ago, it’s great to give some of the best-ever recordings by someone who – for my money – is the greatest singer of all time, the kind of ‘homecoming’ that they have long deserved.
By Tony Rounce