LITTLE WILLIE LITTLEFIELD
Born 16 September 1931, El Campo, Wharton County, Texas
Singer / pianist Willie Littlefield was born in El Campo, 70 miles southwest of Houston. The piano became his chief focus at a very early age. Influenced by the boogie woogie master Albert Ammons, Willie displayed a piano-playing talent that can only be described as prodigious. The arrival of puberty also gifted Willie with a consummate vocal ability. By the time he was 14 he was beginning to build a reputation around Houston as "the boy wonder". It was only a matter of time before Willie's voice and piano would be heard on 78rpm shellac. In late 1948, local entrepreneur Eddie Henry recorded eight songs with Littlefield, six of which were released on Henry's own label, Eddie's (among them "Little Willie's Boogie", "My Best Wishes" and "Boogie Woogie Playgirl"). But Willie's recording career took off in earnest when he was signed to the Bihari's Modern label in 1949. The Bihari brothers (Jules and Saul) were actively seeking a singer-pianist to rival Amos Milburn and they recorded Willie in Houston before taking him to Los Angeles. That recording of "It's Midnight" was Willie's first release on Modern (July 1949) and proved to be his biggest hit, spending 13 weeks on the R&B charts and peaking at # 3. A second success followed in November 1949 when "Farewell" reached # 5.
Around this time Fats Domino was starting his recording career and it is alleged that he copied Willie's piano triplet style. Willie himself is modest about this : "I think we were both influenced by Amos Milburn." Littlefield does indeed sound uncannily like Milburn, both in his piano playing and his singing. Like Milburn, he recorded a mix of slow blues and up-tempo boogies, including quite a few instrumentals. The phrasing on the slow numbers clearly shows the influence of Charles Brown, another of Willie's early heroes.
Across five sessions between July and December 1949 Willie recorded in excess of 20 masters for Modern. Many of these recordings stayed in the vaults for several decades. The Biharis worked hard to get another hit with Littlefield, but after "Farewell" only "I've Been Lost" charted briefly at # 10 in August 1951. Still, at this time Willie's touring schedule was at its peak.
On completion of his contract with Modern in the autumn of 1951, Willie moved across town to the L.A. office of the King subsidiary Federal Records. Fourteen high-quality tracks were recorded in 1952-53 (including two duets with Little Esther), under the supervision of Ralph Bass. Unfortunately they met with surprisingly little commercial succes. The best known of the Federal sides is undoubtedly the original version of the Leiber-Stoller composition "Kansas City", which was released under the title "K.C. Lovin'". Littlefield claims that he wrote the song and sold it to Leiber and Stoller in a moment of weakness. They in turn claim to have written it themselves. Federal reissued Willie's version in 1959 (with overdubs), after Wilbert Harrison had scored a # 1 hit with "Kansas City".
After the Federal period there followed a gap in Willie's recording career until he settled in the San Francisco Bay area and signed for the Oakland- based Rhythm label, owned by Don Barksdale. The first release on Rhythm was "Baby Shame", which was covered by Clyde Stacy, who had a minor hit in Canada with the song. The second single, "Ruby Ruby", was his best seller for years, a local hit, but not a national one. The five Rhythm 45s from 1957-1958 have been assembled on the CD "Rhythm ... And Blues! 50s Blues And R&B From Rhythm Records Of San Francisco" (Westside WESA 815, 1999), along with 15 tracks by other artists.
Willie continued to work at supper clubs (using San Jose as his primary base), but little was heard from him until the late '70s, when he began to mount a comeback at various festivals and on the European circuit. While overseas, he met a Dutch woman (Tonny), married her, and settled in the Netherlands (Leusden, to be exact), where he has been living since 1981. I've seen him perform on several occasions. Live he is even better than on record. In fact his gigs were amongst the most memorable I have seen.
During the period 1980-1997 he recorded 10 albums for several European record companies, especially Martin van Olderen's Oldie Blues label from Amsterdam. He toured all over Europe and also in Canada, the USA and Australia. Being on the road for more than 50 years, Willie stopped touring in 2000, but still played occasional concerts, like the International Boogie Woogie Festival in Noordwijk in 2005, the last time I saw him. After five years of retirement, Willie decided to make a worldwide comeback, starting in January 2006. "I went fishing for five years - now I know every herring in Holland by name - it got boring. I feel great and I want to be back with my audience", Little Willie declares on his official website (which is no longer being updated). However, during a festival in Norway in September 2011, he became seriously ill and hasn't performed since. Happily, he is on the mend now.
More info : http://bluesnexus.com/bio.php?id=179
Recommended CD's :
Acknowledgements : Paul Harris, Ray Topping, Tony Rounce, Jan Athmer
Dik, July 2012
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