Little Willie JOHN – Nineteen Sixty Six (The David Axelrod & HB Barnum Sessions) 1966

Little Willie JOHN – Nineteen Sixty Six (The David Axelrod & HB Barnum Sessions) 1966
2008 Reissue.


One of the great lost albums of the 60s finally gets a worldwide CD premiere! Some of the classiest and best mid 60s soul-blues ever committed to tape has remained unheard until now.
Recorded for Capitol in early 1966 while Little Willie John was awaiting final sentencing for manslaughter, the album was mired in a raft of contractual arguments and was put on ice once it became clear that Willie was going to have to serve a prison term and wouldnt be able to promote it.
This CD contains everything that Willie cut for Capitol and is enhanced by a selection of stereo mixes and alternate versions from the sessions.
Arranged and produced by two music legends, HB Barnum and David Axelrod, it features the cream of the mid-60s L.A. session musician scene and is topped off by one of the greatest soul voices. This is a listening experience that no true soul fan will want to miss. And if you dont believe us, ask Richard Hawley who was enthusing about it during its mastering processas he mastered his own new album in the studio next door!
Though no Little Willie John discs of material recorded after his imprisonment for murder in October 1964 were issued between that time and his death (in jail) in May 1968, he did actually record quite a few tracks for Capitol in February 1966. These recordings (supervised by David Axelrod and H.B. Barnum) were unreleased both at the time and for decades afterward, in part because King Records (John’s previous label) contested Capitol’s right to issue the cuts. This 2008 CD of 20 tracks from the sessions, recorded at a time when he was out on appeal, can thus be considered as a genuine lost Little Willie John album. (And despite the number of songs, there would have only been enough for one LP, since there are two versions of eight of the numbers.) For someone with a murder sentence hanging over him, John sounds remarkably unaffected and at ease, and indeed pretty much the same as he did in his classic King period, albeit a little more mature. Much the same can be said for the arrangements, which update his sound a little into the mid-’60s, but draw considerably from lightly swinging jazz and even a bit of easy listening pop in addition to soul. There are a few remakes of songs he’d cut at King, as well as some standards and R&B-oriented tunes (and, disappointingly, just one original John composition). Would this have reestablished John as a star had he won his appeal and Capitol been allowed to put the material out? Probably not; there aren’t any songs that scream “hit,” and that was still the name of the game in the R&B market. But if it had been somehow marketed as a comeback album, without expectations that it would be a huge seller — in the manner that respectable efforts by R&B and rock veterans were, many times over, in subsequent decades — it would have been well received, as John sings well and the material is sympathetic, if not quite outstanding. For all these reasons, this doesn’t rank among his best work; his best King sides remain the place to start. But for the same reasons, it will be enthusiastically and justifiably welcomed by Little Willie John fans as a significant discovery, at a time when few such substantial unreleased bodies of work from soul’s golden age seemed to remain at large.
By Richie Unterberger, All Music Guide.
While appealing his murder conviction, Willie John recorded 12 different titles in three February 1966 sessions for Capitol Records. Blocked from release by King’s Syd Nathan on a contract technicality, these tracks have sat in the vaults for over 40 years. The material is strong, the band, which included saxist Clifford Scott (of ‘Honky Tonk’ fame, Carol Kaye, Gerald Wiggins, and Earl Palmer, is crisp and fluid throughout, and the charts written by H. B. Barnum are stellar. At age 29, John is a powerful master of his craft- raw, emotive, soulful, moving. A spot-on rendition of Lil Green’s “In The Dark”, a blazing remake of his own “Suffering With the Blues” and a pleading take of Johnny Ace’s “Never Let Me Go” are as strong as the singer’s vintage King material. A couple of tracks include a superfluous vocal chorus, but the extra voices don’t detract from the impact Willie John makes on these, his final recordings. Tony Rounce’s detailed notes and eight alternate takes round out a splendid Ace UK package. Produced by L. A. stalwart David Axelrod, this is, quite simply, one of the best R&B-soul releases of 2008. If you’re an R&B and/or soul fan, you won’t be disappointed!
By Todd Babtista.
William Edgar John, better known as Little Willie John due to his short stature, was born in Arkansas in 1937 and spent his formative years in Detroit with his sister, Dr. Mable John, a former member of Ray Charles’ Raelettes and the first female artist signed by Berry Gordy.  Something of a prodigy, Willie began touring with Paul Williams & His Orchestra when he was just 16.  Two years later he landed a recording contract with King Records in Cincinnati where he produced a long string of hit records including “Fever,” which climbed to #1 on the R&B charts in 1956 and was later covered by Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley. His 1955 recording of “I Need Your Love So Bad” has been cited as one of the first soul songs, along with Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” recorded by Atlantic the previous year.

In 1964, at a time when Willie’s career was beginning to lag, he stabbed a man during a bar brawl and was sent to prison. Two years later, while out on appeal, Capitol Records organized a recording session for him, produced by the legendary team of H.B. Barnum and David Axelrod and backed by their regular session musicians, including bassist Carole Kaye, drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonist Clifford Scott, and guitarist Les Buie (who occasionally worked with James Brown).  The result was this previously unreleased “lost album,” which has been sitting in Capitol’s vaults for years due to contractual issues (Willie was still under contract to King at the time of the session).

Nineteen Sixty Six: The David Axelrod & HB Barnum Sessions kicks off with three tracks drawn from the first recording session held on the evening of February 19, 1966, two of which feature songs previously recorded by Willie. An updated version of “Country Girl” (a.k.a. “Home at Last”), originally released in 1955 by King, opens the set. Following are two  blues songs subjected to Willie’s special soul-infused treatment-”Suffering With The Blues,” which he originally recorded for King in 1956, and  “I Had A Dream” (a.k.a. “Just a Dream”).

The session scheduled five days later took a ninety degree turn. Instead of the R&B/ jump blues combo, the horns were replaced with a ten piece string section, and back-up vocalists were added, including Barnum’s sister Billie.  The producers’ imprint is all over this jazz and pop-oriented session, which bears a closer resemblance to Barnum’s 1960s productions with Frank Sinatra and Axelrod’s early work with Lou Rawls, not to mention some of Willie’s early ‘60s tracks for King, such as “Loving Care.”   The session begins with a great soul cover of Johnny Ace’s 1954 classic “Never Let Me Go.”  Following is perhaps the most incongruous track from this session, a truly inspired soulful rendition of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You” from the musical Carousel, which I didn’t immediately recognize, but now have played multiple times for family and friends (as in “see if you recognize this!”). No doubt the producers hoped to piggyback on the success of Nat King Cole Sings My Fair Lady, released by Capitol two years earlier. Other tracks from this session include the ballad “(I Need) Someone” and a bluesy version of “Welcome to the Club,” which was also popularized by Nat King Cole in a jazz arrangement recorded in 1958. Though this string session sounds oddly retro for a 1966 era R&B/soul singer, it is still very enjoyable and showcases a distinctly different side of Willie as a pop-oriented balladeer.

Later that afternoon the strings were sent home and the band gets its groove back with the smoking blues standard “Early in the Morning,” followed by one of the best tracks on the CD, “In The Dark,” which aptly demonstrates Willies vocal range and flexibility. Willie’s only original song on the album, “Crying in the Dark,” returns again to the blues idiom, and features some great solos by the band.  The session concludes with “You Are My Sunshine,” which once again shows Willie’s ability to completely transform a standard into a powerful demonstration of gospel-tinged soul. The remaining nine bonus tracks include alternate takes and stereo mixes.

Sadly, Little Willie John’s court appeal was overturned shortly after these recording sessions concluded, and he returned to prison. Two years later he died in the Washington state penitentiary in Walla Walla, just five months after a fatal plane crash claimed the life of soul superstar Otis Redding.  Though during his lifetime Willie achieved wide acclaim, he is seldom mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries—Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and James Brown, among others—who were also instrumental in transforming gospel and rhythm and blues music into soul.  However, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Willie’s career, leading to several good retrospective CD compilations as well as an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. At least one biography is also in progress, and Kent may have another project in the works. Perhaps Little Willie John will finally take his rightful place as one of the first soul singers.
By Brenda Nelson-Strauss.
This has been described recently by its producer, David Axelrod, as “one of the best albums that I ever did”. And in spite of its sub-zero fidelity reproduction, a previous (and dubious) issue of some of its contents has had fans of mid 60s soul going into apoplexies about its brilliance – apoplexies tempered with regret that the audio sounded like it had been cut in a bucket with a 20 tog duvet glued to the top..

Well, Little Willie John fans can discard those forthwith as Kent is very proud to add “Nineteen Sixty Six”, featuring Willie’s complete Capitol sessions, to its catalogue. Those who love Willie’s great King sides and have wondered about how he would have coped with the arrival of soul music need wonder no more – these 12 selections (plus a generous helping of stereo mixes and alternate takes) show that he would have done just fine as a premier league soul man. Produced by Axelrod, arranged by H B Barnum and featuring many of the usual West Coast sessioneers such as Arthur Wright, Earl Palmer, Jim Horn and Carol Kaye (not to mention Barnum’s sister Billie, of the Apollas, leading the backing vocalists), this set would have been all that Willie would have needed to get his career back on track if the US judicial system had not decreed that he should be returned to prison, to serve the sentence that had been imposed upon him for stabbing a man in 1964.

There are at least three cuts on this set – ‘Country Girl’, ‘Someone’ and ‘Early In The Morning’, which are already firing up the nation’s Northern Soul collectors and dancers. Other true delights include Willie’s sublime version of the similarly-tragic Johnny Ace’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ and a thrill-a-second version of Lil Green’s sensual 40s blues ‘In The Dark’.

In beautiful sound, and mastered from recent transfers of the original Capitol master tapes, “Nineteen Sixty Six” represents the creative apex of a man who never got the chance to try to better it. Little more than two years after these sides were cut, William Edgar John died in Wall Walla Prison in Washington State, a victim of pneumonia.

Willie may have gone, but his legacy will be with us always. Buried in a vault for long-forgotten ‘legal reasons’ more than 40 years ago, it’s great to give some of the best-ever recordings by someone who – for my money – is the greatest singer of all time, the kind of ‘homecoming’ that they have long deserved.
By Tony Rounce.
William Edgar John- Vocals
Tony Terran- Trumpet
Freddie Hill- Trumpet
Clifford Scott- Tenor Sax
Billie Barnum- Choir, Chorus, Vocal Arrangement
Arthur Wright- Guitar
Dennis Budimir- Guitar
Les Buie- Guitar
Jeff Kaplan- Guitar
Gary Coleman- Percussion, Vibraphone
Jim Horn- Baritone Sax
Tommy Strode- Organ, Piano, Electric Piano
Gerald Wiggins- Organ, Piano, Electric Piano
Carol Kaye- Electric Bass
Jimmy Bond- Bass
Earl Palmer- Drums
01. Country Girl aka Home At Last (Take 8) 4:99
02. Suffering With The Blues (Take 4) 5:33
03. I Had A Dream aka Just A Dream (Take 7) 5:20
04. Never Let Me Go (Take 4) 4:31
05. If I Loved You (Take 2) 5:21
06. (I Need) Someone (Take 12) 3:88
07. Welcome To The Club (Take 8) 6:29
08. Early In The Morning (Take 8) 3:77
09. In The Dark (Take 1) 5:43
10. Crying Over You (Take 2) 5:63
11. You Are My Sunshine (Take 3) 5:08
12. Country Girl aka Home At Last (Alt. Take) 5:16
13. Suffering With The Blues (Alt. Take) 5:34
14. I Had A Dream aka Just A Dream (Alt. Take) 5:20
15. Endless Sleep 4:68
16. Never Let Me Go (Alt. Take)    4:42
17. Welcome To The Club (Alt. Take) 6:31
18. Early In The Morning (Alt. Take) 3:91
19. In The Dark (Alt. Take) 5:44
20. Crying Over You (Alt Take)    5:63

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2 Responses to “Little Willie JOHN – Nineteen Sixty Six (The David Axelrod & HB Barnum Sessions) 1966”

  1. Never heard of or heard this stuff…looking forward to it!

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