Little Willie John was an artist who was and is, woefully under appreciated in the UK. If known to the UK record buyer at all it's as the man who sang the original version of "Fever". Indeed, when playing the much more famous Peggy Lee version of the song or one of the many later covers - Presley did one of them - its often introduced as Little Willie John's "Fever".
His main period of success was from the mid `50's to the early `60's, though he continued recording through to 1966 when he was convicted for manslaughter after a knifing incident. He later died from a heart attack in prison in `68. During the 50's very little black R&B got issued in the UK even if such records were making big waves in the US R&B charts and sometimes getting into the US national charts. James Brown was another artist to suffer from lack of promotion over here but his big breakthrough came later with "Papa's got a brand new bag" by which time his singles were getting UK airplay (and the climate was much readier to accept R&B).
This album concentrates on the hits, from his very first single, the Titus Turner written, "All around the World" in 1955, which song was later to become better known when renamed as "Grits ain't Groceries" and recorded by Little Milton, to "Take my love (I want to give it all to you)" in 1961. It's interesting to hear the evolution of "All around the world" from the Little Willie version to Little Milton's cut; the former is a jump blues with attention catching stop time phrases whereas the latter has the sharp horn riffing that you'd associate with mature soul music. Other tracks in the set vary from excellent soul ballads - "Need your love so bad", "Talk to me, talk to me" (which has some resemblance to "You send me), "Let them talk" are all great examples, with vocals not unlike Sam Cooke but a touch more rawness - to great thumpers like "Leave my Kitten Alone". An specialty of Little Willie's was the impassioned slow blues with dramatic backing often including string flourishes not unlike the sort of thing Bobby Bland was producing in Houston, though, given the close timing, it's not that easy to spot who started this approach first. "Heartbreak" and "Take my love (I want to give it all to you)" are great examples on this set.
There's an argument that Little Willie was as good as the far, far better known, Sam Cooke and the more mannered Ray Charles. Certainly his contribution to early soul music was immense - James Brown, who'd opened shows for him, recorded a tribute album. Fleetwood Mac covered his "Need your love so bad". And he did manage to get a gold disc for a million sales of the single, "Fever" even if its Peggy Lee's version that gets played.