He scored a number of hits in the late 50s and early 60s, but when you hear the name Little Willie John, only one song should come to mind, and that’s “Fever” (unless you’re an obsessive Beatles fan, in which case it’s acceptable to think of “Leave My Kitten Alone,” a track the band covered and inexplicably left off of their fourth album to languish in the vaults for 30 years . . . . but I digress).
Named for his diminutive stature, Little Willie John hailed from Detroit and, like many of his contemporaries, grew up singing gospel. In 1955, at the age of 17, his debut single reached #5 on the R&B Chart. The following year, he reluctantly recorded a song he reportedly disliked called “Fever.”
He was smart to reconsider — the single sold over a million copies and went to #1 on the R&B Chart and climbed into the Top 30 on the Pop Chart. John had a couple more high-charting hits, but nothing as memorable as “Fever.”
The success of the song isn’t too surprising considering one of its writers, Otis Blackwell, also penned “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up” for Elvis Presley, as well as “Great Balls Of Fire” for Jerry Lee Lewis. (1956 and 1957 were extremely good years for Blackwell.)
Peggy Lee covered “Fever” in 1958, changing two of the verses — she apparently thought her audience might find them too suggestive — and turning it into her signature song. Hers is now the most well-known version, even after hundreds of other artists have put their own personal spin on it, some singing her rewrite, and some singing John’s original.
Unfortunately for Little Willie John, a small anger management issue and a fervent liking for liquor caused his record label to drop him in the early 60s. A few years later, just as he was attempting a comeback, John found himself convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a term at Washington State Penitentiary. He died there in 1968 — another cautionary tale in the book of rock & roll. (Little Willie John’s cause of death was officially listed as a heart attack, but unofficially it may have been pneumonia, asphyxiation, or a beating administered by either prison guards or fellow inmates . . . zoinks!)
I know you’re burning up, so just sit right down, relax, open your ears real wide and say, “Give it to me straight, Doctor. I can take it!”
Here’s Elvis in 1960 with his exact copy of Peggy Lee’s arrangement:
Before we say goodbye to Little Willie John: