Black and white promo photo of Little Willie John

Little Willie John

Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

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 Number Two), the McCoys (Number Seven) and Rita Coolidge (Number 76). Madonnacovered it in 1992 on her Erotica album.

Little Willie John was born William Edward John on November 15, 1937, in Camden, Arkansas. His family moved to Detroit in 1942. In 1951, he took part in a talent contest sponsored by R&B great Johnny Otis. Otis was so impressed that he contacted Syd Nathan at King Records and suggested he sign Little Willie John. Nathan ignored him and signed Hank Ballard instead. Throughout the Fifties, John made brief appearances with Duke Ellington and Count Basie and toured extensively with tenor saxophonist Paul Williams. John also made some recordings for the Prize and Rama labels. Then, in 1955, John auditioned for Henry Glover, the head of King’s New York office. Glover signed him on the spot, and John scored his first hit, “All Around the World,” that year. 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.

John, who had a propensity to abuse alcohol, was dropped by his record company in 1963. In 1966, he was convicted of manslaughter and sent to Washington State Penitentiary for a fatal knifing incident following a show in Seattle. He appealed his conviction and was briefly released while the case was reconsidered. During that period, he recorded what was intended to be his comeback album. However, that album, Nineteen Sixty Six, was not released until 2008.

John’s appeal was denied, and he returned to prison, where he died from a heart attack on May 26, 1968. Little Willie John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.