Little Willie John was one of the greatest R&B singers of the Fifties and Sixties. His muscular, full-throated tenor belied his short stature. His impassioned, gospel-style vocals were a precursor to the soul music that emerged in black music in the late Fifties and beyond. Indeed, John’s fervent vocals on such songs as “Need Your Love So Bad,” “Talk to Me, Talk to Me,” “All Around the World,” and “Take My Love (I Want to Give It All to You)” – each a Top Five R&B hit – rank among the best examples of soul singing on record. His signature number was “Fever,” a smoldering, bluesy song that has become a pop-soul standard. “Fever” topped the R&B chart for five weeks in 1956. It was also carried onto the pop chart in faithful versions by Peggy Lee (who took “Fever” to #2), the McCoys (#7) and Rita Coolidge (#76). Madonna covered it in 1992 on her Erotica album.
Born William Edward John in 1937, Little Willie John was only 14 when he sang with Count Basie and won a talent contest sponsored by R&B great Johnny Otis. After recording for the Prize and Rama labels, John signed with King Records at age 18 and had his first hit, “All Around the World,” in 1955. Sixteen more R&B hits followed over the next half-dozen years. One of them, “Leave My Kitten Alone,” was later cut by the Beatles. Musical talent ran in the family, as his sister, Mabel John, was one of singer Ray Charles’ backup singers, the Raeletts, and also had a sizable R&B hit of her own, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” in 1966.
That was the year in which John was convicted of manslaughter and sent to Washington State Prison for a fatal knifing incident following a show in Seattle. As tempestuous as he was talented, Little Willie John died in prison of a heart attack two years later. Shortly thereafter, King Records labelmate and fellow soul titan James Brown recorded a tribute album, Thinking of Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things.