Little Willie John of Cullendale gave us “Fever.”
The song has been re-recorded by dozens, but few can match the original “Fever,” recorded March 1, 1956.
John was born Nov. 15, 1937. He had just turned 18 a few months before when he cut “Fever” in Cincinnati with producer Henry Glover of Hot Springs.
Glover signed John to King Records in June 1955 when John was only 17. Glover produced country, R&B and rock hits — from Grandpa Jones to Hank Ballard — and wrote such songs as “Drown in My Own Tears” and “California Sun.” He encountered John in New York City after John was dumped by the Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams orchestra for bad behavior. Glover, who died in 1991, said first he heard John sing at 5 o’clock, and was so impressed, they were in the studio by 8 o’clock.
John covered “All Around the World” the same day the original Titus Turner version was released. The teen-ager’s debut hit R&B’s top five. Follow-ups charted at Nos. 5 and 6 — including one written by his brother Mertis — even before the crossover smash “Fever.”
Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, John kept charting, but weakening sales and increasing alcoholism caused him to be dropped by King in fall 1963. He hit the club circuit without a recording contract.
In August 1964, John was arrested in his Miami hometown for attacking a man with a broken bottle. That same month, the Beatles cut several versions of club favorites for their rushed “Beatles For Sale” sessions. One had been a 1959 R&B and pop charter for John. But “Leave My Kitten Alone,” co-written by John, was ultimately left off the Beatles’ album.
Later that year, at a Seattle after-hours party attended by John, his valet and accompanying ladies, a man apparently took a chair from one of the women. The aptly nicknamed Little Willie John confronted the man, who punched him out. John rose with a knife and stabbed the man, killing him.
John, then 26, was charged with murder. He posted $10,000 bond and continued touring, returning for trial in 1965. Convicted of manslaughter, he began serving eight to 20 years at Walla Walla State Penitentiary on July 6, 1966. Less than a year passed before he died inside the maximum security facility — as he predicted he would to St. Clair Pinkney, James Brown’s musical director.
Following John’s May 26, 1968, death, one-time opening act Brown recorded a tribute album, “Thinking of Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things.” Brown had since signed with John’s former label and become its biggest artist.
In the rock world, Phillips County native Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson of The Band have acknowledged John’s influence — and also recorded some of their first big sessions under Henry Glover. Robertson said John “opened up a door to something for me.” Robertson coordinated “The Color of Money” film soundtrack, and asked British rocker Robert Palmer to cover John’s overlooked 1963 rhumba, “My Baby’s in Love With Another Guy.” The Blasters covered another obscure single, 1960’s “I’m Shakin’.”
John remains a musician’s musician even as his name has faded, and his songs have become standards. John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
• “Leave My Kitten Alone”
• “All Around the World”
• “I’m Shakin’”
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