‘Little Willie John’ bio classy, controversial

“Fever: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,” written by Kevin John and Susan Whitall, chronicles the rise and fall of the charismatic soul singer who spent several years as a Philadelphia resident and once graced the stage of the historic Uptown Theater.--SUBMITTED PHOTO

A fascinating book with a Philadelphia connection is currently causing a stir on social media and in the world at large.

“Fever: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,” written by Kevin John and Susan Whitall, chronicles the rise and fall of the charismatic soul singer who spent several years as a Philadelphia resident and once graced the stage of the historic Uptown Theater. As was often the case during John’s era, his earthy rendition of “Fever” reached a much wider audience as a cover by pop diva Peggy Lee.  

“This is something that we wanted to do for my father,” said Kevin John, the elder of Little Willie John’s two bright and talented sons. Both Kevin and his brother, Keith, who are extremely close, were born in Philly and attended George Washington Carver Elementary School. Kevin recalls being about eight years old when the family moved to Detroit, but the book, which features a foreword by Motown icon Stevie Wonder, is filled with nostalgic references to the City of Brotherly Love.    

“I wanted to do this 20 years ago, but my mother, she did not want to relive, rehash the memories, and it was only after my brother and I talking to her this time that we convinced her that this would be a good time to do it,” Kevin explained during my recent interview with the John brothers.

“It’s always been therapeutic for me. To this day, my mom can’t listen to my dad’s music, and when my brother and I were growing up we listened to it, but I was the one who listened to it most of the time because for me it was a connection. It was very therapeutic for me.”

Kevin states that the emotionally-charged project took about six years to complete, and that Susan Whitall, also a Philadelphia native, was the perfect choice as his co-author.

“Years ago, she wrote a story about my dad in the paper, and I was kind of interested because here’s a person writing something about my dad, and people had forgotten about him,” he said. “So I called her to thank her for the article that she’d written, and then I met her some years ago at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We were visiting there and she happened to be there that weekend, and (celebrated Motown studio musicians) the Funk Brothers were there. So somebody introduced us and I asked her — especially when I found out who she was, and I made the connection, ‘What do you think about writing a story about my father’s life and his music?’ And she was ecstatic!

“Once we talked about that, we had a few more phone calls, and I actually invited her over to our house. My wife and I sat down and we talked to her. I don’t want to say we vetted her, but we talked to her, and we told her that if we’re going to do this, the person that writes this has to have a sensitivity where they can talk about all the things that happened — negative and positive — but they have to do it in a classy way. They can’t focus on the negative. That was very important for us.”

Kevin believes that the captivating yet candid biography will go a long way in dispelling the misconceptions about his father and stated, “People often say — and they quote this as if it’s in the Bible — they say, ‘He was little, he was short, he had a Napoleon complex, he was always on edge.’ And if you talked to anybody who we interviewed that knew him, like Norman Thrasher, like the late Levi Stubbs, who we spent the whole afternoon at his house interviewing him, he told (us) he was a fun-loving person. In fact, that was probably his downfall.

“He got along with people very well. He was a prankster, but he got along with people. I’ve been told I look just like my dad. Keith acts just like him. But for me, it’s just understanding the person, his personality. Not the persona — not the person onstage, but who he really was.”

From early indications, “Fever,” which was released in June, is being very well received, although commercial success would appear to be a mere by-product of telling Little Willie John’s compelling story. “My goal was not so much that it was going to be a bestseller, though that’s always a nice thing,” Kevin said. “My goal was that people would find out the truth about my dad, and we’re flabbergasted by the response that we’re getting.”

Depending on the success of “Fever,” the John brothers have considered the possibility of bringing their father’s story to the big screen. The obvious question? Who could possibly play the talented and intriguing Little Willie John? 

“If the person has to sing, it has to be Keith,” big brother Kevin said without hesitation. “Nobody sounds like my dad like my brother. So even if he doesn’t play him, the voiceovers need to be him.”

However, Kevin mentioned Larenz Tate, who portrayed Frankie Lymon in “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” as a possibility stating, “He’s got the body build — he’s short, and he’s a good actor. But I think to pull the singing off, it’s got to be Keith.”

The engaging Keith John, who was responsible for eliciting the foreword from Stevie Wonder, was a longtime backing vocalist for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, as well as a featured vocalist in the Spike Lee films “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing.” “If the opportunity presented itself, I would jump in head first!” said Keith. “The thing that I want people to know about my father is how he had a gift — he used his gift to make people happy, and that all of his peers, even if they didn’t love it, they respected his gift, and he inspired them.” In conclusion, Kevin added, “I would like for them to remember that he was one of the innovators.”


Contact entertainment reporter Kimberly C. Roberts at (215) 893-5753 or kroberts@phillytrib.com.

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