My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Sat 9 Jul 11 15:00
susan--did you know blackwell?
mother of my eyelid (frako) Sat 9 Jul 11 16:34
Thanks for that info about LWJ's gravesite, Susan. I could have just found it on findagrave.com too. I love that you included the exact addresses of LWJ's early homes (2120 Monroe, 14503 Dequindre, etc.). That let me look them up on Google Street View, see what the neighborhoods look like now, and imagine what life must have been like during LWJ's early life when Detroit's Eastern Market was active and the place was bustling along Woodward Avenue, Hastings Street, where all the performance venues were. Whom do you consider your most valuable informants in piecing together LWJ's life? Another question: LWJ's findagrave.com entry has a bio by a Chuck Kearns saying, "Rumor also says he was strangled." I don't think you mention this-- how reliable is this rumor? Oh, and my strongest first impression of LWJ was hearing "You Hurt Me" and "My Love Is" while watching John Sayles' film LONE STAR (1996).
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Sun 10 Jul 11 06:40
Findagrave.com isn't always accurate, anyone can type in an entry, and I found some to be wrong when I was putting together my story for the News. I used it as a starting point but would verify where people were. I don't recall seeing Willie on there, maybe it's a more recent entry (since my story). It was the family who told me where he was buried. It's funny you should mention looking up the addresses -- I observed Six and Dequindre, where the project "Cardboard Valley" was located (where Willie and Levi Stubbs grew up), in aerial photographs taken by Detroit Edison over a period of years. The maps are available via a Wayne State University database. You can go in and look at a neighborhood, or street, or house in Detroit in 1949, '52, '54...they did it every few years. I was able to see the pattern of buildings in the project, how it spilled across Dequindre, and also what was next to it. The later maps in the '50s showed when it was razed, too. I also looked up some of Willie's other Detroit houses via the aerial Detroit Edison maps.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Sun 10 Jul 11 06:41
Oh and no, I never knew/met Otis Blackwell. Some of my more reliable informants -- Ernest "EJ" John, Willie's younger brother. Johnnie Bassett, Detroit blues guitarist, who knew Willie early on, as kids, and then at the end of his life. Norman Thrasher of the Midnighters. Willie's widow Darlynn John.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Sun 10 Jul 11 06:47
<53> That is a helluva powerful technique using Detroit Edison aerial photos. You should pass that on to some of your colleagues at the News who cover neighborhoods or urban affairs.
Ari Davidow (ari) Sun 10 Jul 11 09:04
I am just getting into the book now. I get a sense of a Detroit thick with music in those days--not just from the jazz clubs and the like, but the weekly (?) talent shows and the all-night singing jams that Willie would sneak out to. Early on you mention the Davis Rec Center where musicians from out of town would gather and sing after hours with locals, sort of an after-hours vocal jam.... "somebody with a key would let the neighborhood toughs and warblers in, the bottles of wine would come out and everybody would carry on, singing and celebrating the night away." How often did this happen? It seems amazing that there could be a secret after hours party all night with lots of drinking, and somehow, the place doesn't get trashed and everyone has a good time. Can you speak more to locations/events such as this? Were they primarily vocal? The equivalent of someone's hotel room, but happened to be in a Rec Center? What drew the out-of-towners in to such an informal venue? How did they know about it? How regular were events such as this?
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 10 Jul 11 10:59
And one thing I'm curious about is radio. Was this remarkable music scene at all supported by a vigorous black radio presence? Who were the air personalities? And, of course, who owned the stations?
Virtual Sea Monkey (karish) Sun 10 Jul 11 13:52
I'd love to learn more about how people like Count Basie and Johnny Otis were plugged into vibrant local music scenes. I'm sure there were lots of word-of-mouth recommendations. Beyond that, were they content to rely on talent shows to filter prospects for them? Did they or their band members participate in the scenes themselves?
mother of my eyelid (frako) Sun 10 Jul 11 14:22
Yes, I'm very interested in the process of "discovering" talent, which Johnny Otis took credit for in the case of so many great artists. (I learned a great deal about rhythm and blues listening to "The Johnny Otis Show" on KPFA for so many years) I forgot to say thanks for that interactive gravesite source--very helpful for my next trip to Detroit. I'm tempted to visit the Wayne State U. database of those Detroit Edison aerial photos too.
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 10 Jul 11 15:26
Just sayin', but years ago when I interviewed Johnny Otis, his stories checked out to about 74% bullshit. Gotta grant him the creativity with which he crafted them, of course.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Sun 10 Jul 11 15:34
Ed -- well yeah, Norman Thrasher put the kibosh on Johnny's claim that he discovered Willie on the same night as Jackie Wilson and Hank Ballard. That anecdote had hardened into myth, you find it in so many databases, that Johnny Otis discovered Little Willie John in Detroit on the same night...blah blah. As for the Davison Rec Center not getting trashed, in the '50s Detroit was still a crowded city, particularly for blacks, who only had certain neighborhoods where they felt welcome. The places they could go and let loose were in a limited area, mostly on the east side. So the rec centers were revered, and taken care of, the ones they did have in the neighborhoods. But also, acting up was a bit more innocent then than it is today. Teenagers in the neighborhood, especially on the east side, were just happy to have access to a hall like the Davison Rec Center with microphones and a sound system where they could sing and have fun, lubricated by a few bottles. The way it was told to me, someone worked at the Davison and was entrusted with a key. The point wasn't to get drunk and party, back then they had more fun singing than doing just about anything, so trashing the equipment wasn't part of the deal. Sam Cooke was known to the John family from when they played on the same gospel bills, he was friendly with Aretha Franklin's family and had a lot of connections in Detroit, so he would be in the loop about after-parties like this. Jackie Wilson = Mr. North End, no need to ask why he was there, ditto Levi Stubbs. Clyde McPhatter was friendly with Jackie, they had both done time in Billy Ward & the Dominoes' boot camp.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Sun 10 Jul 11 15:37
The scene was absolutely bolstered by a top notch black radio scene. Berry Gordy has always given credit to WCHB especially, and later WJLB for supporting his Motown releases. WCHB always played 'em first. "Frantic" Ernie Durham was a particular friend to Willie and always touted him. Stevie Wonder remembered hearing Frantic Ernie introduce Willie and croon "ooooeeee" over the beginning of the song...WCHB was black-owned, too. A black dentist I believe was the owner... I was just listening to a Frantic Ernie clip online from when he was on a Flint radio station.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Sun 10 Jul 11 15:48
Big bands had "straw bosses" who were the glue that kept everything together. Along with making sure people showed up, rehearsing the band, they got the arrangers to supply things down the pipeline, and made the hotel reservations, among other numerous tasks. They usually had their connections in local communities. Mrs. Hampton ran Lionel's band and Budd Johnson was straw boss for Earl Hines. They repeatedly picked off the local talent in Detroit to replenish their bands. I'm sure the same principle obtained for smaller jazz groups and the same for r&b and rock n' roll as well.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Sun 10 Jul 11 15:53
David -- That's right. And Detroit has always been known as a "feeder" town, as far as singers and musicians. Of all people, Joan Crawford was discovered not in Chicago, but here in Detroit in a little club off Woodward, when one of the Schuberts was in on a talent-scouting trip looking for musical comedy contenders. Joe Hunter and Earl Van Dyke of the Motown band both said that Jackie Gleason and Count Basie both regularly trolled Detroit for musicians; the Count for the black ones, and JG would pick up the white guys. Earl kind of complained about it, as if they were predators taking all the best talent out of the city. (It still happens today, Bettye LaVette told me a few years ago she needed a whole new band, so she was coming back from the East Coast where she now lives, and was going to club-hop and pick up some good players. She has guitarist Brett Lucas and a band from that little trip).
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Sun 10 Jul 11 15:59
p.s. Joan was "dancing" in the club. I actually dropped that little factoid in a column, it had been reported in a recent biography of Crawford, and the beauty of (still) mass market newspapers, an older reader called me up and crisply informed me that she remembered the club where Crawford danced, she often rode the bus past it but wasn't allowed anywhere near it. I looove it when the older readers call in. They are avid readers, they remember everything and love to talk. Actually that's how I got to know Norman Thrasher. He used to read my stories and just call to talk. About the Detroit graveyard source, that source is me ...I did the research, wrote up the bios and drove around with a photographer finding graves and photographing them. We ran out of time with the photog, so the News' interactive (web) designer had to run out and frantically take photos as well, so we had images for everybody. I remember because it was Rob (the web guy) who took the photo of Willie John's grave, because it was all grown over with grass, and some attendants came and cleaned it off for us.
Virtual Sea Monkey (karish) Sun 10 Jul 11 18:19
Happily we don't have to depend on Johnny Otis for all the good stories. Lieber and Stoller were on "Fresh Air" fifteen years ago and they told about the night that Otis put them together with Big Mama Thornton. They all talked for a while, then the two kids drove away for a while and came back with the lyrics of "Hound Dog" written on a paper bag. Willie Mae read through the lyrics the first time, singing them to herself in a high, sweet voice. Mike Stoller interrupted her to say that they had a tougher delivery in mind. She gave him a dirty look that scared the piss out of him, then snarled it out the way we've all heard.
Ari Davidow (ari) Sun 10 Jul 11 19:12
Susan, you don't talk a lot about it in the book, but one of the things that I think I pick up from LWJ's story is that racism played a major role in his death. Years of touring for little money, lots of overt racism, limited horizons, and then a few years of serious change coming up, both in terms of changing musical tastes and the civil rights movement and the disappointments of the Sixties. He would have been dynamite at Stax, but I feel a bit depressed when I try to imagine a scenario where neither violence nor drugs claimed him before he got that second wind.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Sun 10 Jul 11 19:43
I think race played a big role, and I went into it pretty heavily, starting with the patronizing tone Detroit reporters used when interviewing Willie, the whole racial aspect of Peggy Lee's more successful cover of his song...and the tough, dangerous touring in the South that was an everyday thing for Willie and his generation of '50s R&B singers, but shocked the Motown stars when they briefly encountered it on the Motown bus tours. I talk about the segregated radio scene that cost Willie the mainstream success he craved. It's sort of baffling why he would have been relegated to R&B radio stations along with Hank Ballard, when Willie's material was never as funky as "Work With Me, Annie." He was a clean-cut crooner. But, maybe because he was on King, it was "guilt" by association. "Sleep" was his biggest pop hit, in '60 -- all that overdubbing of strings did the trick ... Willie was angry about the way black artists' music had been co-opted by the mainstream music business. I found an interview he did with the Los Angeles Sentinel in which he really laid it out, and snorted at the idea that Bill Haley invented rock 'n' roll in the early '50s. Toward the end, that sort of thing ate him up inside. He knew how good he was, and that the deck had always been stacked against him.
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Sun 10 Jul 11 19:52
karish, I loved Lieber and Stoller's book. So many stories, I wish they'd do part 2. The Phil Spector stuff alone was worth the price of the book.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 11 Jul 11 00:37
Getting Lieber and Stoller together in the same room is, shall we say, not the easiest thing in the world. Or the cheapest. Your mention of this guy Thrasher reminded me of a question I wanted to ask. One of the big Atlantic groups, the Drifters, I believe, came out of a gospel group called the Thrasher Wonders. Is this the same family?
Susan Whitall (bluesyscribe) Mon 11 Jul 11 05:18
I don't think so Ed; Norman is of the Hastings Street Thrashers in Detroit (grin)...but I'll ask him if they are cousins or anything.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 11 Jul 11 05:48
I remember one of the Thrasher Wonders was named Gerhardt, which is pretty unusual for a black guy. Wonder who he was named after?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Mon 11 Jul 11 07:58
Susan, can you put into context for us the music market that Little Willie John was performing in? I grew up in the 50's and 60's in a household where there was a lot of music playing. I first became aware of rock n' roll on the radio in about 1957 with the Platters and Fats Domino. I hadn't heard Little Willie John until a few years ago (that thanks to the age of the internet.) By 1960 I was listening to Symphony Sid on WADO and Jocko Henderson on WWRL in NYC. But by then I caught the rock n' roll deluge on commercial radio and Bandstand. I know about the right side and the left side of the dial. But to have missed a major talent like LWJ really perplexes me.
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 11 Jul 11 13:09
The era when you, David, and I grew up, the music was regional. I wonder if New York wasn't one of the areas where he didn't do well, since I don't remember hearing him, either, and I listened to Jocko and watched his TV show til he got banned. New York was *so* much more about groups back then. Also, King got hit in the payola investigations, and some stations might have backed off all their product out of a need to seem clean when they were taking so much from Morris Levy, among others.
Ari Davidow (ari) Mon 11 Jul 11 14:54
What is the Detroit music scene like today? The ferment that gave us so many pre-soul (and soul) stars such as jackie wilson and Little Willie John, along with the MC5 and Iggy Pop must be gone - what is there now and how different is it?
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