Ed Ward (captward) Wed 6 Jul 11 06:10
Please welcome our next guest here at Inkwell, Susan Whitall.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 6 Jul 11 06:13
Susan Whitall is an award-winning journalist for the Detroit News, and author of a previous book, "Women of Motown" (1998) A Philadelphia native, she was 10 when her family moved to Detroit. She graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. in English. After a brief stint as an exchange student at the University of London, she joined Creem Magazine as a writer and editor in 1975 and stayed there until 1983, when she went to work at the News. Her essays on R&B and Motown have appeared in many album packages, including the Spinners' "Chrome Collection" and various Motown packages.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 6 Jul 11 06:17
Leading the discussion will be me, Ed Ward, rock and roll historian for Fresh Air with Terry Gross over the past 24 years, and so-called West Coast Editor of Creem magazine from 1971 until 1977, which means I toiled under Susan's cruel editorial whip. (Actually, getting paid was the problem, not the editors). I first discovered Little Willie John when John Goddard at Village Music in Mill Valley, California bought a warehouse full of King Records albums. John was playing the Talk To Me album in the store, and I didn't have a chance. I took one home with me that afternoon and played the hell out of it. My first question, though, is, with all the musical stories in Detroit, what led you to this one in particular?
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Wed 6 Jul 11 11:40
Oh! Was the Creem pay that late when I was there? It did come eventually... Willie's story appealed to me because first of all, nobody had written a book about him -- that is, nobody had gotten a publisher to take such a book on, anyway, I do know of at least one guy who was shopping a Willie John biography around just before I did. Also, Willie was too important an artist to be so thoroughly forgotten, and it's such a dramatic story -- from a project in Detroit, suddenly he's in New York making hit records at 17, having James Brown open for him at the Apollo...then there was that tragically quick decline, a murder in Seattle that he takes the fall for, rightly or wrongly, and death in prison at 30.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 6 Jul 11 11:46
Plus, as you make clear, he was part of that bridge between old-school rhythm-and-blues and soul. He didn't have a voice for R&B, really, so he, along with Ray Charles, the Tanner brothers from the "5" Royales, to some extent Smokey Robinson, and a few others, helped bring soul into being. And you're right: he's almost forgotten these days. Where (like with a YouTube video) would you have someone start with him. Someone who'd never heard LWJ and wonders why we're talking about him here, what song would you pick for that?
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Wed 6 Jul 11 11:56
The first portal for most music fans would be his bluesy side --plug in "Need Your Love So Bad," or "Suffering with the Blues" into youtube. Then again, I'm surprised how many people take to "My Love Is" and other more offbeat selections of his.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 6 Jul 11 11:58
My way in was "Talk to Me," as I said above. I even bought it although the cover was so ridiculous. As were many King covers, come to think of it. Is there a particular CD you'd recommend?
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Wed 6 Jul 11 12:04
There was a great Rhino best of which I hear is out of print...any of the King best ofs is a good start for casual fans. Fans will want the Ace "King Sessions" series, but it's a little frustrating because they aren't complete. There needs to be a box set comprising everything.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Wed 6 Jul 11 12:07
That "Talk to Me" album cover...Willie's son Kevin told me he always asked why they didn't use their mother as the model. She was pretty enough, an Apollo Theater showgirl...
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Wed 6 Jul 11 12:09
Willie's sons would say to check out the "1966" David Axelrod/HB Barnum sessions that Ace put out in 2008. It's the album Willie recorded in 1966, that was shelved after King Records rattled their swords and said nope, you are still a King artist.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 6 Jul 11 12:43
I need to listen to that again. As I remember, I was way disappointed in it, and Axelrod seemed to be the reason. Meanwhile, the state that King Recods is in is disgraceful, to say the least: owned by some people in Nashville who don't seem to have a clue what they're doing -- although they're leasing stuff to Ace in the UK, as you said, and they do a pretty good job. Here, for those of you listening at home is "Need Your Love So Bad" <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Syxgc2665w4> and "Suffering With the Blues" <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqY1gpfvL_0> and "Talk To Me" <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLvsnL9Hpeg> Now you can see what we're talking about here.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Wed 6 Jul 11 14:27
I'm a bigger fan of his King stuff too...Willie's son Kevin doesn't agree with me, but to my ear some of the Axelrod arrangements border on '60s cheese jazz... I know it was perceived as the classy Capitol treatment, but I think that opinion does a disservice to King's producers.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Wed 6 Jul 11 14:28
And I think Ace has stepped up more because it's a British label, and for the last few years the market for Willie's recordings has been bigger in Europe (and Japan) than in the U.S. The true fans overseas never gave upon Willie, and there are new ones all the time.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 6 Jul 11 15:42
Well, in all areas, the Brits have shamed us in terms of preserving our musical heritage. (Well, maybe the Germans or the French have outstripped them vis a vis jazz). Rockin' Roger Armstrong is, hands down, the most knowledgeable guy about *all* branches of American popular music I've ever met. I gave him a big sermon about King Records once and I can tell that he listened. They don't do box sets -- I think they understand things about their core customers that I don't -- but you might approach him about rationalizing the Wilile John catalog. As for Axelrod, didn't he do one of those "love zodiac" albums in the '60s? If so, 'nuff said. Since you've been lucky enough to know some of the pre-Motown prehistory of the Detroit soul scene, why don't you give the people a short rundown on what was going on there while Berry Gordy was still trying to figure out whether or not to go into the family insurance biz.
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 7 Jul 11 07:01
Also like to remind folks that this discussion's open to the public. If you have a question or a comment, just e-mail it to inkwell at well dot com and we'll put it right up.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 7 Jul 11 07:27
Hi Susan. Welcome to the Well. I've got a question that is totally off subject, but once upon a time, Ed Ward promised me that he would bring you here and you could answer my question. I was living outside of Detroit in Ann Arbor during the 70's. There was a tune that got a lot of airplay at that time. The hook was something like this: "Don't slap me on the back, put your hand in my pocket and call me your brother." I loved the tune and for the life of me I can't remember who did it or the title. You are my only hope!
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Thu 7 Jul 11 07:52
hi susan--i enjoyed the book a lot. Although i was familiar with LWJ's larger hits--all around the world, fever, kitten, shaking, probably some others--i knew nothing about the singer or how he fit into the larger history of pop/r&b/soul music. This question comes from my ignorance of how the music business actually works--but are LWJ's family and estate still compensated from any profits generated by LWJ's recordings? When ACE UK reissues a bunch of King recordings--do the family and estate benefit? What about when the music is played on the radio? Used on a soundtrack? Today, in 2011, who, if anyone, is collecting the money that LWJ's music generates?
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Thu 7 Jul 11 07:56
Another question i had, was how important was LWJ's sister, Mable, to the genesis and writing of this book? I didn't know anything about her until I read your oral history of motown female singers and her story seems pretty interesting, too--her relationship with the Gordy's before Motown, then being at Motown at the very beginning, raelette, at stax records for a while.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Thu 7 Jul 11 08:18
Hi David, That sounds like a hippie anthem of the day, I tended to be more into R&B, both popular and obscure...I'll ask some of my Trans-Love friends if they know. Ed, yeah I really wanted people to understand how vibrant a music scene there was in Detroit, pre-Motown. Motown didn't just spring out of nowhere because Berry Gordy Jr. had a good idea while stapling upholstery in Mercurys, on the assembly line. The gospel, rock and R&B scenes were all going strong, there were dozens of recording studios here in the '50s, and even more small labels. Some of the major labels that had Detroit offices on Alexandrine back then were Chess and Atlantic, they were signing a lot of talent out of Detroit. Johnny Otis used to brag about how many acts he discovered at talent shows he ran at the Fox -- he claimed he "found" Jackie Wilson, Willie and Hank Ballard at the Fox, all on the same night, but...it appears it might have been over a few nights.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Thu 7 Jul 11 08:23
pdl, To answer the easy part of your question first, Mable was very important, as far as the research etc. for the book. I of course knew her first, of all the John family, and her stories about her brother were intriguing, especially in terms of the competition between Willie and Berry Gordy. Gordy never did convince Willie to record any of his songs. That might be because Willie had a hard enough time convincing his producers to let him use his own material, once he'd done the songs they wanted. I would call Mable, or Willie's older brother Mertis, when I wanted to fact-check something they might remember. They're especially good on recalling old addresses where they lived, details about their parents of course... As far as the money flowing to the family -- Willie's widow didn't get much throughout the late '60s and in the '70s, when she was trying to raise their two boys and really could have used it. She told me that the biggest check she got from Willie's music was when the Beatles' version of "Leave My Kitten Alone" finally was released, on that Anthology album I believe, in the '90s. From what I understand from the family, the money stream is a little more regular from the American releases than from those abroad... Where the family benefits the most of course, are from the songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. So any use of "Need Your Love So Bad" and "Leave My Kitten Alone," for two, the money does trickle back.
Virtual Sea Monkey (karish) Thu 7 Jul 11 08:37
What a character he was! It's so sad that this couldn't have been a memoir.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Thu 7 Jul 11 08:38
i gotta say--one of the things that I loved about fever, the oral history, the movies standing in the shadows of motown, and slutsky's bass book is the glimpse they all provide into the vibrant music scene that existed in detroit through the late sixties. What is the overall, broad outline of detroit as a hotbed of musical acitivity? Was anything going on before the rise of industry and the migration of southern african americans to the factories? What was still going on by the end of the late 60s? What about today? There's this scene in standing when they are listing all the jazz clubs that were around in the late 50s/early 60s and it is a long list and the names of the places were so great and evocative.
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 7 Jul 11 08:44
Well, as to jazz, I have one word for you: Jones As in Elvin, Thad, Hank.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Thu 7 Jul 11 09:16
Well the '20s were an interesting time in terms of jazz, that was of course the time of the first Great Migration though, and Detroit drew reams of Southern whites as well, so it's not pre-industry. There were both sweet and hot jazz bands here that were as good as anything in New York or Chicago, and echoing Motown later on, some of the groups were integrated. Benny Goodman said he drove all the way in from New York to hear Bix Beiderbecke play in the orchestra at the Graystone Ballroom. Bix was here for about two years. McKinney's Cotton Pickers were a famous jazz group as well, they recorded for RCA, and there are still McKinneys performing as jazz musicians around Detroit today. I highly recommend Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert's "Before Motown" history of Detroit jazz, published by the University of Michigan Press. Lars pored over old Michigan Chronicles to get information on all the old jazz clubs. I was able to find out a lot about some of the places Willie played, like Lee's Sensation Club. Detroit clubs had the best names.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Thu 7 Jul 11 09:18
I would give anything to have been old enough in the '50s, to have hung out on the jazz scene in Detroit. The Jones brothers, Kenny Burrell (Kenny played on some of Willie John's records), Miles Davis lived here for a while, while trying to kick heroin. He'd go sit in at the Blue Bird Inn with no fanfare. I'm lucky I've been able to see Hank Jones play the Detroit Jazz Festival so often...
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 7 Jul 11 09:26
Right. Burrell's session career would come as a revelation to a lot of people; I kept seeing him pop up on Atlantic sessions, too. And, although people never think of him, John Lee Hooker was Detroit-based. So was Fortune Records, still the great unreleased treasure trove. What do you know about them?
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