School projects can foreshadow lifelong careers.
As a junior, Susan Whitall chose rock music history as a research topic paper. Decades later, the veteran music writer is earning critical praise for Fever, the first biography of Little Willie John — a widely admired Detroit singer whose impact has become less familiar since his 1968 death at age 30.
"My interest fit well with Willie's story," said Whitall, an entertainment and culture writer for The Detroit News since 1983.
The 214-page hardcover book, her second, was published last month in London and the United States. She'll discuss it and sign copies from 7-10 p.m. Friday at in Birmingham, accompanied by her subject's sons — Keith and Kevin John.
Kevin John worked on the project with Whitall, who interviewed the singer's widow, family friends, running buddies, fellow performers and seemingly everyone involved in John's career. She gained access to family archives and photos, as well as to materials from King Records, his Cincinnati label.
"Kevin wanted the complete story to be told for a more dimensional portrait of his dad," the writer explained. "Willie was a complicated little guy."
Colorful, wide-angle saga
Narrative threads stretch beyond entertainment to weave a vivid tapestry of race relations, cultural change, music marketing, a loving family and criminal justice a half-century ago. Supporting characters include Diana Ross, Berry Gordy, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, who contributes a two-page foreword recalling "such a great singer."
The book's full title is Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul. Whitall began the project at the suggestion of Kevin John, the singer's older son, who met her at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. His dad had been inducted nine years earlier.
The trailblazer blended a gospel style with rhythm and blues during a relatively brief run that began as a teen sensation during the mid-1950s. Hits included a 1956 version of Fever, which became Peggy Lee's signature song after she recorded it in 1958.
While his recording and concert career was thriving, John was convicted in 1966 of assault in Seattle, and he died in prison under unclear circumstances two years later.
Deep research mining
With extensive interviews and archival excavating at the Detroit Public Library, Whitall reintroduces an artist whose fame has faded somewhat. She traces a path from Pershing High in Detroit to national prominence and back to Detroit for his celebrity-turnout funeral in 1968 at New Bethel Baptist Church, where Aretha Franklin's father officiated.
Readers learn that James Brown was the opening act when John played New York's legendary Apollo Theater, and that Elvis Presley and the Beatles covered songs after hearing John's versions.
During six years of intermittent research and writing, squeezed in between working at The Detroit News, Whitall occasionally dreamed about the bygone era.
"I imagined calling out, 'Willie, Willie,' " she said. "To become an authority, "you overreport."
Unleashed from column inches
Whitall enjoyed the freedom the book gave her from her day job. "I really liked the treasure hunt part, seeing where each thread was going," she said during a backyard interview.
She traces her own Detroit-area roots to her childhood, when her family moved from Philadelphia to Birmingham. She graduated from , and (Class of '70) schools. She recalls being an "intrepid girl reporter for the Derby Dateline," where she and Lynn Branaka (now Lynn Fremuth of Bloomfield Township) interviewed Mike Smith and Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five before a Detroit show. Whitall treasures the vintage clipping, even without a byline.
From 1976-83, Whitall worked at the pioneering national rock magazine Creem, including four years as top editor. Its second-floor office was in the Birmingham Theater building.
Her earlier book, Women of Motown, was released in 1998.
Looking ahead, the journalist-author is sifting possibilities for book No. 3 – such as "some kind of Creem history or memoir, maybe with others who were there, or another untold story of Detroit music."
She also visits classrooms occasionally to talk about her craft, as she did in 2009 after meeting a class from at a Jay Leno news conference in Auburn Hills.
"I brought along copies of Creem to show these 7-year-olds they can do anything they want," said the veteran writer. "I told them you don't have to leave town to do something you love."
This article's writer and Susan Whitall were colleagues at The Detroit News, where they worked in different newsroom departments more than eight years ago.