Nov 7, 2022 - News

Podcast to celebrate two of Detroit's underrated soul music legends

Little Willie John portrait

Little Willie John studio portrait. Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns

A local developer with a creative streak is developing a podcast about two underappreciated siblings whose musical talents serve as a foundation for American soul music.

Why it matters: The podcast is an effort to recognize the contributions of Little Willie and Mable John against the backdrop of mid-20th century Detroit, where Black families migrated en masse for a better life.

  • Little Willie John started as a Detroit talent show superstar and sang hits like "Fever," which Peggy Lee famously covered.
  • Mable John was Motown's first female solo artist and worked with Ray Charles and other luminaries.

What's happening: Real estate developer Andrew Colom, who doubles as a filmmaker, has teamed with film producer Melissa Adeyemo and Riley Jones, a lawyer, classical singer and Little Willie John superfan, to create the podcast.

What they're saying: "One of the big things for us in telling his story is ensuring that we don't lose our history, we don't lose the people who helped found parts of our culture," Adeyemo tells Axios.

  • "Anything that will get Willie out there and in people's consciousness is a great thing to me", Susan Whitall, co-author of the biography, tells Axios. "It's such a great Detroit story."

Flashback: Little Willie John was a teenage talent show phenom, recording his first hit in 1955 after his family moved to Detroit in the early 1940s. Known for his full voice and style, he influenced everyone from the Beatles to James Brown.

  • "Jackie Wilson had more range and Sam Cooke more purity, but no one had a voice like Little Willie John," an essay timed with his 1996 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction reads.

The bottom line: The podcast not only aims to recognize the John siblings but to show how public investment in education, the arts and affordable housing remain critical for Black families to thrive and pursue their dreams.

  • "Soul music is about taking tragedy and making something beautiful out of it, and that is what we're going to do with the podcast," Colom says.
Andrew Colom at a residential property named after Little Willie John
Andrew Colom at a property his company, Century Partners, developed in the North End neighborhood named after Little Willie John. Photo: Joe Guillen/Axios.

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