inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #0 of 99: Ed Ward (captward) Wed 6 Jul 11 06:10
    
Please welcome our next guest here at Inkwell, Susan Whitall. 
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #1 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #2 of 99: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #3 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #4 of 99: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #5 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #6 of 99: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #7 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #8 of 99: 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...
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #9 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #10 of 99: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #11 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #12 of 99: 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.  
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #13 of 99: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #14 of 99: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #15 of 99: 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!
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #16 of 99: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #17 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #18 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #19 of 99: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #20 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #21 of 99: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #22 of 99: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #23 of 99: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #24 of 99: 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...
  
inkwell.vue.412 : Susan Whitall: Fever! July 7-21
permalink #25 of 99: 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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