Little Willie John was a powerful and influential figure in rhythm & blues whose impact on other artists often outstripped his public recognition -- Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Al Green are just a few of the artists who've acknowledged how much they learned from John's passionate vocal style. However, bad luck and bad choices marked John's life in and out of the spotlight, and in 1968, he died in prison at the age of 30. James Brown was one of many fans who was devastated by Little Willie John's passing -- Brown and John were labelmates as well as mutual admirers -- and within a few months of John's death, Brown released a tribute album, Thinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things. Though at that time Brown's music was evolving into the lean, wildly percussive funk that would be his trademark through the late '60s and '70s, Thinking About Little Willie John found him easing back into a subdued, jazzy groove that had more to do with his early work for Federal and King than "Mother Popcorn." This set showed that Brown was a master of slow, easy grooves just as much as those driven by hard funk, and anyone who regards Brown as a shouter more than a singer ought to hear these sides, which show where Brown learned a few of his tricks about pushing the upper register. If Brown's vocal style was always rough, on numbers like "Talk to Me, Talk to Me" and "Cottage for Sale" he reveals a shrewd, emotionally effective gift for subtle phrasing that shows he could work with a much broader emotional palette than many have been willing to acknowledge. Brown's organ work isn't quite up to the same level as his singing here, but he sure knows how to make this band groove, and the instrumental tracks are nearly as rewarding as the vocals. A moving tribute to a friend and influential colleague, Thinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things is an atypical James Brown album of the period, but it's a moving bit of late-night groove that allows Brown the space to show off a side of himself he didn't often acknowledge.
Thinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things Review
by Mark Deming
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