The career of R&B great Little Willie John (born William Edward John) was like a shooting star, burning brightly for a short time as it shot across the cosmos before coming crashing down to earth, ignobly, far too soon. John is best-known for his signature tune "Fever," which has since been recorded by nearly 100 artists, including Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and even Elvis Presley...although none of them owned the Otis Blackwell composition the way the small singer with the large voice from Detroit owned it.
Like many blues and R&B singers of the era, John began singing gospel music as a teenager, in his case as part of the group the United Five with his siblings, including older sister Mable John, who has also forged a significant career in soul on her own. John joined saxophonist Paul Williams' band at the age of 17, touring and recording with the R&B combo before striking out on his own and auditioning for King Records A&R man Henry Glover, who quickly signed the talented young singer to a label deal and rushed him into the studio to record his first hit single, 1955's "All Around The World." John was only 18 years old when he tasted his first chart success.
Little Willie John's Complete Hit Singles
The marriage between Little Willie John and King Records proved to be quite fruitful, the singer scoring an impressive string of R&B and pop chart hits between 1955 and 1961. John's Complete Hit Singles A's & B's is a wonderful two-disc collection that includes all sixteen of the singer's single releases for King, 32 songs in total, and seldom has so much power and emotion been poured into the grooves of a 7-inch, 45rpm slab o' wax. Beginning with "All Around The World," a song penned by Atlanta bluesman Titus Turner, Little Willie John announced his arrival to the world with a stellar, swinging reading of the words which infused the song with soul and personality, driving it to number five on the R&B chart.
The B-side of "All Around The World" was no slouch, either, the John co-write "Don't Leave Me Dear" a heartbroken torch song with a bluesy strolling rhythm and mournful blasts of saxophone. John earned his second hit single in 1956 with the melancholy "Need Your Love So Bad," a lonesome blues tune written by his older brother Mertis that showcases the singer's enormous voice. The single's B-side, "Home At Last," also hit big, charting at number six R&B on the strength of John's emotional vocal turn, some fine tinkling piano playing in the background for added texture, and scraps of taut, tasteful fretwork from an uncredited guitarist.
Of all his many hits, Little Willie will always be remembered for 1956's "Fever," his third single becoming his first R&B number one, also rising to #24 on the pop charts. A red-hot flamethrower with a sly rhythm and an effective mix of blues and jazz instrumentation, it's John's powerful, sultry vocals that propel the song over the top. Curiously, the singer didn't like the song and didn't want to record it, finally persuaded to do so by Glover and King Records owner Syd Nathan. Two years later, singer Peggy Lee would wax her own version, adding a few lyrics that have now become a standard part of the song. Lee pushed the song to #8 on the pop chart, and her and John both sold over a million copies of the popular tune. Other women have had mixed luck with "Fever," Madonna and Beyonce both recording their own versions of the song.
The flip-side of "Fever" enjoyed modest R&B chart success as well, "Letter From My Darling" more in John's comfort zone, an old-school rhythm & blues song of romantic turmoil that places an emphasis on the blues side of the R&B equation. John's trembling voice is particularly effective, infusing the song with the requisite amount of lonely anguish. The last of John's three R&B hits in 1956, "Do Something For Me," is in a similar vein, a sparse arrangement punctuated by elegant guitar licks taking a backseat to John's pleading, tortured vocals.
Leave My Kitten Alone
Although John didn't release any singles during 1957, he came roaring back with "Talk To Me, Talk To Me" in 1958, the song styled in the manner of the era's pop-oriented vocal groups like the Platters. John scored his biggest hit yet, rising to number five R&B and hitting #20 on the pop chart with the song. Although John is best-known as a soul-shouter, he wasn't afraid to apply his great voice to material like the swinging B-side "Let's Rock While The Rockin's Good," a sax-driven romp with jump 'n' jive rhythms and girl-group backing vocals. "Leave My Kitten Alone," co-written by John and Titus Turner, is an early blues-leaning rocker with a locomotive soundtrack and clever lyrics spiced up with rapid drumbeats and honkin' sax. It would be John's last hit of the 1950s.
John continued his roll well into the early 1960s, the lushly-orchestrated "Let Them Talk" bridging the decades, becoming an R&B hit in late 1959 while inching onto the pop chart a year later. The song represented a future direction for John as he veered further into pop and rock during the decade, charting more frequently on the pop than the R&B charts. Still, songs like the overlooked B-side "I'm Shakin'," an energetic sequel, of sorts, to "Fever," or the jazzy "Heartbreak (It's Hurtin' Me)" proved that John hadn't lost his R&B chops. The singer's last hit was "Take My Love (I Want To Give It All To You)," a raucous up-tempo barn-burner written by brother Mertis that took John back up to #5 R&B and #87 on the pop chart. Sadly, John's promising career came to an end when a fight at a Seattle after-hours club in 1964 led to a manslaughter conviction, the singer tragically dying in prison in 1968 at only 30 years old.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
At his peak, Little Willie John rivaled singers like Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson – those who are considered the forefathers of 1960s-era soul music – both on the charts and on stage. John's influence on the evolution of blues, R&B, and soul is inestimable, his career tragically derailed before its time. As John's Complete Hit Singles A's & B's proves, however, the singer could hold his own with any other singer. This two-disc set, with informative, well-researched liner notes by writer Bill Dahl, is the only introduction you need to John's enormous talents. (Real Gone Music, released April 17, 2012)