In 1964, soul pioneer Little Willie John shot a guy who was coming on to his lady. Willie died in jail four years later, to the grief of all who knew and admired him, and that included main disciple James Brown.
For a few months in early 1966, however, Willie was out on parole while his (eventually unsuccessful) appeal made its way through the system, and he cut an album's worth of material for Capitol with David Axelrod and HB Barnum. The comeback was stillborn: Willie made his terminal trip to prison just as his previous label blocked the album's release.
This CD debuts the master takes and an entire set of alternate bonus tracks, all solid examples of the best professional, big-budget soul of the most desirable vintage. He tips his hat to the late great Johnny Ace with a cover of "Never Let Me Go" (the outtake here might be the definitive rendition), and in "If I Loved You" — one of those lush Eisenhower-era ballads — you can tell how much James Brown's strange crooning obsession stemmed from his love for Willie.
Axelrod's hand is most obvious in the handful of tracks aiming for the "Capitol sound" (vocal choirs, strings, up-front vibes, electric piano), like "Welcome to the Club," where Willie's Detroit vocals sail over a loungy West Coast–cool arrangement fit for a Rat Packer. The CD-cover homage to Freddie Hubbard's Blue Note albums is an apt setting for this recovered jewel of a record.