Little Willie John
Little Willie John
Perhaps the most overlooked R&B and soul pioneer, singer Little Willie John was a stellar performer and strong force in the history of music. Nicknamed “Little” for his height and age, the barely five-foot-tall John had his first huge hit at the age of 18. With his wide-ranging and emotionally rich voice, John recorded a string of hits between 1953 and 1962 that not only transformed him into a star but provided the material for many artists who covered his songs. The most notable of these tunes was “Fever,” first recorded by John in 1956 and since covered by Peggy Lee, the McCoys, Rita Coolidge, and Madonna. Although he received far less recognition, John is often held in the esteemed company of James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Clyde McPhatter.
Born in Cullendale, Arkansas, on November 15, 1937, and raised in Detroit, Michigan, John began his singing career in a church choir like many of his contemporaries. His family formed a gospel quintet, The United Four, in which he sang, but he would soon step out on his own. He was only 14 years old when he was first discovered at a talent contest in Detroit sponsored by Johnny Otis. However, King Records’ Syd Nathan, who was in the audience that night, signed another talent contest performer, Hank Ballard, instead. In the years following, John, who was barely into his teenage years, sang with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and recorded for Savoy Records. When he was 16, he recorded a Christmas album, but it went unnoticed. His sister Mabel was also a recording artist on the Stax label and a vocalist in Ray Charles’ Raelettes, but her career would pale next to that of her brother.
Bandleader Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams met John and took him on tour with his orchestra for a year. But John liked to live big, and Williams had no patience to discipline the rebellious singer. When the tour was in New York City, Williams fired John, but he would soon be discovered by King Records’ Henry Glover. When King Records finally signed John in 1955, he didn’t disappoint. He scored a hit with his debut recording, a cover of Titus Turner’s “All Around the World,” recorded on June 27, 1955. The hit, a unique blues version wholly unlike Turner’s comical rendition of the tune, hit number six on the R&B charts. John followed up with “Need Your Love So Bad,” another hit further establishing his stardom.
In an attempt to repeat the success of his first hit, he released “I’m Sticking With You Baby,” but it wasn’t until 1956 that he recorded his most popular hit “Fever,” co-written with Eddie Cooley and recorded on March 1 in Cincinnati. The single reached number one on the R&B charts and became a huge pop crossover hit. John is known as the first person to record the tune, which would become an R&B standard. Most of the artists who covered the song had bigger hits, especially Peggy Lee, whose cover in 1958 propelled her to stardom and reached number eight on the pop charts, shadowing John’s version, which only reached the top 30.
To promote “Fever,” John performed on tour with his own revue, featuring James Brown and his Famous Flames as the opening act. John followed up his chart success with a string of R&B hits, including “Talk To Me, Talk To Me,” recorded in New York City on January 4, 1958, which reached number five on the R&B charts and number 20 on the pop charts. “Sleep,” a unique cover of an old song made popular in 1924 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, also scored in the top 20 on the pop charts. The ballad “Let Them Talk,” and “Heartbreak,” which was inspired by James Brown, also charted, but not as well. John continued to record his intimate, emotional vocals on charters “Suffering With the Blues,” and “Need Your Love So Bad,” helping to etch his slot in music history. In 1959 he hit both the R&B and pop charts with “Leave My Kitten Alone,” which was written by John and Titus Turner, and later recorded by the Beatles on a BBC radio show.
John, unlike many other African-American artists, crossed over to the pop charts regularly. But although John saw great success in his professional career, having earned a total of 14 hit singles on both the R&B and pop charts, his personal life was quite turbulent.
Born William Edward John on November 15, 1937, in Cullendale, AK; died May 26, 1968 in Walla Walla, WA.
Won talent contest sponsored by Johnny Otis, sang with Count Basie, 1951; signed with King Records, recorded first hit “All Around the World,” 1955; recorded famous soul hit “Fever,” 1956; recorded biggest hit “Sleep,” 1960; convicted of manslaughter and sent to a Washington prison, 1966; died of a heart attack in prison, 1968.
Awards: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1996.
After the release of “Take My Love,” his last recording to chart, the lack of attention began to affect him and his behavior worsened. He was an alcoholic with a penchant for violence, and it was not uncommon for him to carry a knife. At the height of his fame, he brought a gun with him to perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
In 1964, at an after-show party in a private home in Seattle, Washington, John got into a fight with exconvict Kevin Roundtree over stealing a chair from one of the women John was with. Roundtree hit John, and in response John fatally stabbed him. Two years later, in May of 1966, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 8 to 20 years in the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla. He was admitted to the prison on July 6, 1966, and two years into his term, on May 26, 1968, he died. The cause of John’s death is uncertain—the press were told it was pneumonia, his death certificate says he died of a heart attack.
John gained prominence at a young age and died young too, but not completely without recognition. Soul singer James Brown, who also recorded for King Records, dedicated an album to John entitled Thinking of Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things. Little Willie John was also featured as one of the primary artists in Rhino Records’ King reissues series. Although still relatively unknown to mainstream listeners, the music industry has acknowledged his stature as a primary influence on soul music. In 1996, John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Fever, King, 1956.
The Sweet, The Hot, The Teenage Beat, King, 1961.
Come On and Join Little Willie John, King, 1962.
These are My Favorite Songs, King, 1964.
Little Willie Sings All Originals, King, 1966.
Free At Last, Bluesway, 1970.
Grits and Soul, Charly, 1985.
Mister Little Willie John, King, 1987.
Little Willie John Sings All Originals, Deluxe, 1988.
Sure Things, King, 1990.
Fever: The Best of Little Willie John, Rhino, 1993.
All 15 of His Chart Hits 1953-1962, King, 1996.
Greatest Hits, King, 1996.
Romanowski, Patricia, ed., The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1995.
“Little Willie John,” All-Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 15, 1999).
“Little Willie John,” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, http://www.rockhall.com (February 15, 1999).
“Little Willie John,” Tom Simon’s Rock and Roll Page, http://www.crl.com/~tsimon/lwjohn.htm (February 15, 1999).
"Little Willie John." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/little-willie-john
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