As black people, we take our talents and skills seriously. They are God given and as such must be utilized to their fullest.
We also have expectations of these God given talents. That they lead to fame and fortune. Good health and longevity. To the status of # 1. But what happens when that doesn't necessarily happen? Did you make the wrong move? Were those talents truly God given?
In the lives of Little Willie John and Mable John, these are the questions we look to explore in our podcast series - The Siblings of Soul: Mable John and Little Willie John.
Our creative team believes that Little Willie John and his lesser famed sister, Mable John, are the most important sibling singers most people have never heard of and their careers are the foundations of Soul music. They represent the divergent paths of the music industry as a whole.
Little Willie John, a black, Detroit-based child prodigy, is best known for the original recording of the song, Fever. When Little Willie John first released Fever in 1956, the song was an instant hit. It rose to number one on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the Billboard top 100 chart, peaking at number 27.
Little Willie John was a star as early as 15 years old. Like almost all stars, he shone extremely bright and short-lived.
His career was a coup during a period when Black artists were mostly boxed out of mainstream charts and ignored, or barely played on mainstream radio. At the time of the song's release, no Black artist had ever won a Grammy award. This systemic blackout benefited white performers like Elvis Presley, who burst onto the music scene that same year embracing Black music, but facing none of the discrimination and barriers his Black contemporaries had to contend with.
On the other side, we have Mable John. She, like her younger brother Willie, was a talented singer. Raised on gospel music in a church loving family - by all accounts she never achieved true stardom. Hers was a career that did not breakout, but was slow and steady.
Mable was the first female artist of Motown. She worked both as a secretary for the label, as well as a singer. Unlike her brother’s career, Mable’s was full of false starts and never realized hits. After signing with Gordy officially in 1959, Mable recorded a number of songs that never took off. At the same time, the industry shifted - making her romantic blues numbers obsolete. She moved forward to background vocals for Ray Charles and tried again, unsuccessfully, to make a solo career.
It is easy to believe that with industry support, and play time matching the objective enthusiasm of the general public – Fever by Little Willie John was the sixth most played song on jukeboxes in 1956 – that the song’s original artist would be fondly, and primarily, remembered today. Or that a few more years of romantic blues would have allowed Mable John to lock a hit in her career and affectively change her trajectory, making her more of an industry name like her brothers and that of the stars she sang back-up for.
Little Willie John died in prison in 1968 amid suspicious circumstances after being convicted of a crime on shockingly slim evidence, leaving two children and a wife behind. He was just 30 years old. As with Mable, her career moved to one of the supporting cast members and then back home to Gospel.
Little Willie John died having influenced some of the greatest musicians of his generation; his work was a bridge between gospel and soul and laid the foundation for Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll and Hip Hop. It's this work that set the foundations for James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Usher, etc.. What if Biggie or Tupac had died and there was no footage of them? Would you be able to truly reference their impact? Would you be able to see the underpinnings and connections of their work future MCs?
Mable was the support behind so many great artists and visionaries of the era - whether it was her brother, Little Wille John, Berry Gordy, Issac Hayes, or Ray Charles - hers was the voice and mind that helped propel men to stardom all while in pursuit of her own dreams.
For the past two years, with the support of the John family, and with a small and passionate team, we have been developing a narrative television series also named Fever to address this erasure.
His story is a rollercoaster ride of raw talent, hard-work, heartbreak and hope. It is an American story that is as calamitous as it is miraculous. Hers - one of focus, diligence, talent and maybe deeper heartbreak, but still an American story equally important, but often unexplored.
Adding to the urgency – and mystery – of the story is the fact that there is no known performance footage of Little Willie John, meaning that without reconstruction, and with the passing of time, his contribution has been eradicated and could remain so, definitively.
As storytellers in the 21st century with the benefit of seeing the past in a new light, we have the opportunity to resist Little Willie John’s and Mable’s deletion, making sure that while he faced an untimely death and she a death without true exultation, neither will face an untimely death in our hearts and in the annals of history. We owe it to them and to their families, and quite frankly to the Black community in this country to share their story.
Mable and Willie John’s legacy on American music was erased once. Let’s not have it erased again.