Today a blues performer may play delta blues, Chicago blues, soul, blues-rock and R&B among other forms of music but back in the day most performers didn’t genre hop too much. So the variety that we can hear on a blues artists record today, that can cover all of those tastes, wasn’t really available many years ago. If you’re like me you probably like all those genres just mentioned. I particularly enjoy early R&B. So it is probably no surprise then that I would like some of the performers that specialised in predominantly R&B, and little blues. One of the best of those early R&B performers was Little Willie John.
Little Willie John, was perhaps the most overlooked of the great R&B artists, due to the fact that he passed away at the age of 30. He wasn’t with us very long. Nicknamed “Little” for his height and age, the barely five-foot-tall John, a small man with a huge, extremely expressive voice, had his first big record at the age of 18. He had a very strong influence on the singers that followed and his passionate vocals were a lead up to the soul music that emerged in the sixties. He never received the same amount of credit but Little Willie John has to be included in the group that includes Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and James Brown.
He was born William Edward John in Cullendale, Arkansas, on November 15, 1937. His family moved to Detroit when he was a child. Like many from that time, John began his singing career in a church choir. His family also formed a gospel quintet called The United Four. He sang in his family’s group for a time but he would soon make his own way. Musical talent ran in the family. Mabel John, his sister, was one of Ray Charles’ backup singers, the Raelettes. She had a hit for Stax Records called, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” in 1966. John’s son, Keith, was long time background singer with Stevie Wonder.
At the age of 14 he won a talent contest in Detroit sponsored by Johnny Otis. However, Hank Ballard was the only performer signed to a record contract that night. John also sang with Count Basie and Duke Ellington in his early teenage years. When he was 16, he recorded a Christmas album, but it was unsuccessful.
He got a break when Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams took John on tour with his orchestra. However, John was a little out of control. Williams had no patience for that side of his singer and he fired John. The buzz that John had created would soon lead to his discovery by King Records’ Henry Glover. When King Records finally signed John in 1955, he didn’t disappoint and quickly had a hit with his debut recording, a cover of Titus Turner’s “All Around the World” (also known as “Grits Ain’t Groceries), that hit number six on the R&B charts. “Need Your Love So Bad,” was another song that charted for the young singer. Before he turned 18, he’d already had 3 R&B top 10’s. From 1956 to 1961, Little Willie John had fourteen hits each on the R&B charts and on the pop charts.
It wasn’t until 1956 that he recorded his most popular hit, “Fever,” co-written with Eddie Cooley. “Fever” was recorded on March 1 in Cincinnati. John was the first person to record the tune, which went #1 on the R&B charts and garnered significant airplay on pop radio as well. To promote “Fever”, John performed on tour with his own revue, featuring James Brown and his Famous Flames as the opening act. “Fever“ would become one of the most covered tunes of all time. Most of the artists who covered the song had bigger hits, especially Peggy Lee, whose cover in 1958 made her a star and used John’s familiar arrangement. Other artists that covered the song were as varied as the McCoys, Rita Coolidge and Madonna who covered it in 1992 on her Erotica album.
Then 6 months later, Sufferin’ With The Blues was released, and was another huge success and foreshadowed the advent of soul music. Through 1958 and 1959 he had a string of hits, such as; “Talk To Me, Talk To Me”, “You Hurt Me” and “I’m Shakin”.
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 and intended for their “Beatles For Sale” album, but it went unreleased until 1995. A cover version of “I Need Your Love So Bad” by Fleetwood Mac was also a big hit in Europe. John, unlike many other African-American artists, crossed over to the pop charts regularly.
John saw great success in his professional career, but his personal life was a mess. After the release of “Take My Love,” his last hit, the lack of attention began to affect him and his behaviour worsened. He was an alcoholic with a taste for violence, and it was not uncommon for him to carry a knife or a gun. By the end of 1962, his releases would go nowhere, mainly because his label was saddling him with subpar material. His alcoholism was becoming a problem, and when he left King Records in 1963, his life went downhill from there.
In 1964, at a party in Seattle after one of his shows, John got into a fight that would change his life with an ex-convict over something as trivial as the man stealing a chair from one of the women John was with. During the scuffle, John fatally stabbed the man. Two years later, in May of 1966, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to up to 20 years in the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla. He appealed his conviction and was released while the case was reconsidered. He recorded what was intended to be his comeback album during this time, but it was not released until 2008 (as Nineteen Sixty Six). Ultimately his appeal failed, and he was admitted to the prison on July 6, 1966. He never walked out of jail. Two years into his term, Little Willie John died May 26, 1968 at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington. The cause of John’s death is uncertain. The official cause is listed as a heart attack, though some report he died of pneumonia or asphyxiation.
John became a star at a very young and he died young too. He left a legacy though and his music was one of the primary influences of all the great R&B and soul singers that followed. To understand the importance of Little Willie John you need to remember that James Brown and his Famous Flames once opened for John in 1956 and 1957. The ‘Godfather of Soul’ regarded Little Willie John as one of his role models. Shortly after John passed away, Brown recorded a tribute album, “Thinking of Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things.” He also said: “Please do not forget the man I was opening for in 1956 and 1957”.
Although still relatively unknown to most people, is there anyone out there who doesn’t know the song “Fever?” In 1996, John was inducted by Stevie Wonder into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his place in music history was secured.