JAMES BROWN: He thought of Litttle Willie John.
The tribute album is a time-honored way to pay homage to established musicians. Not to question motives, but it is also a commercially viable method to expose new artists to the public with familiar material, a category that has really gotten legs in recent years.
That’s what makes the tribute album James Brown recorded for Arkansan Little Willie John seem so special.
Born in Cullendale (Ouachita County) on Nov. 15, 1937, Willie John’s career and life were brief, filled with both brilliance and misery. Just over 5 feet tall, Willie John started recording in the mid-1950s, when he was still a teen-ager, under the tutelage of Hot Springs native Henry Glover. In 1956, John recorded the definitive version of “Fever” and his career exploded.
Through the late 1950s and early ’60s, Little Willie John hit both the R&B and pop charts. But stalled sales and increasing alcoholism and trouble-making caused John to be dropped from the King label in September 1963. The Cincinnati record label famously had little patience for artistic whim — and had plenty of R&B performers.
Big-spending John hit the club circuit to pay the bills; his behavior worsened, and about a year later he killed a man in Seattle. Convicted of manslaughter, John died in prison, having served less than two years of his 8-to-20 sentence.
James Brown met Little Willie John at Brown’s first gig at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Soon, Brown was opening for John, who was an Apollo headliner. Brown was signed to Federal, a subsidiary of Willie John’s King label. When Brown and his band were called to record, it was the first time any of them had been out of the South.
Although Brown subsequently hit with “Please, Please, Please,” his next nine follow-ups went nowhere. Brown refined his act in 1956-57 while opening for John. Here, Brown developed his onstage routines of carrying a suitcase and having a member of his entourage console him with a towel and, later, a robe. The robe bit was taken from wrestler Gorgeous George.
Brown’s stage antics also were derived at an early age from Arkansan Louis Jordan, who incorporated comedy and tight dance routines with hot R&B. Brown said Jordan’s song “Caldonia” “started me out as a performer way back.” Headlining balladeer John, four years younger than Brown, accused Brown of using gimmicks to reach the top.
By the time Brown was appearing on TV’s “American Bandstand” and becoming known for songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” John was in prison. In his autobiography, Brown says he campaigned to get John out on parole, but John violated his parole by leaving town and was put back behind bars. “I think it broke him,” Brown wrote. When Brown and some band members visited John later that year, he was brought out in a wheelchair.
Brown’s album “Thinking of Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things” came out in 1968, the year John died. It’s a true tribute album in that Brown didn’t have to record it. Music was changing, Brown did not owe his career to John, and their styles of music weren’t that similar.
The album is hard to find today; it seems few are thinking of Little Willie John.
There’s more about James Brown’s tribute to Willie John on this week’s “Arkansongs,” heard Fridays at 6:40 a.m and 6:20 p.m. on KUAR-FM, 89.1, in Little Rock. E-mail: email@example.com