Little Willie John
Little Willie John
John circa 1955
|Birth name||William Edward John|
|Born||November 15, 1937|
Cullendale, Arkansas, U.S.
|Origin||Detroit, Michigan, U.S.|
|Died||May 26, 1968 (aged 30)|
Walla Walla, Washington, U.S.
William Edward "Little Willie" John (November 15, 1937 – May 26, 1968) was an American R&B singer who performed in the 1950s and early 1960s. He is best known for his successes on the record charts, with songs such as "All Around the World" (1955), "Need Your Love So Bad" (1956), "Talk to Me, Talk to Me" (1958), "Leave My Kitten Alone" (1960), "Sleep" (1960), and his number-one R&B hit "Fever" (1956). An important figure in R&B music of the 1950s, he faded into obscurity in the 1960s and died while serving a prison sentence for manslaughter. John was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
John was born in Cullendale, Arkansas on November 15, 1937. He was one of ten children born to Lillie (née Robinson) and Mertis John. Many sources erroneously give his middle name as Edgar. His family moved to Detroit, Michigan, when he was four, so that his father could find factory work. In the late 1940s, the eldest children, including Willie, formed a gospel singing group. Willie also performed in talent shows, which brought him to the notice of Johnny Otis and, later, the musician and producer Henry Glover. After seeing him sing with the Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams orchestra, Glover signed him to a recording contract with King Records in 1955. He was nicknamed "Little Willie" for his short stature.
John's first recording, a version of Titus Turner's "All Around the World", was a hit, reaching number 5 on the Billboard R&B chart. He followed up with a string of R&B hits, including the original version of "Need Your Love So Bad", co-written with his elder brother Mertis John Jr. One of his biggest hits, "Fever" (1956) (Pop number 24, R&B number 1), sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc. A famous cover version was recorded by Peggy Lee in 1958. Another song, "Talk to Me, Talk to Me", recorded in 1958, reached number 5 on the R&B chart and number 20 on the Pop chart. It also sold over one million copies. A few years later it was a hit once again in a cover version by Sunny & the Sunglows. On December 23, 1959, John also recorded "I'm Shakin'", by Rudy Toombs, "Suffering with the Blues", and "Sleep" (1960, Pop number 13). In all, John made the Billboard Hot 100 a total of fourteen times. A cover version of "Need Your Love So Bad" by Fleetwood Mac was also a hit in Europe. Another of his songs to be covered was "Leave My Kitten Alone" (1959), recorded by The Beatles in 1964 and intended for their Beatles for Sale album. However, the track was not released until 1995.
John performed for the famed Cavalcade of Jazz concert produced by Leon Hefflin Sr. held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on August 3, 1958. The other headliners were Ernie Freeman and his Band, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, The Clark Kids and Bo Rhambo. Sammy Davis Jr. was there to crown the winner of the Miss Cavalcade of Jazz beauty contest. The event featured the top four prominent disc jockey of Los Angeles.
John was involved in the civil rights fight against segregation. He performed a benefit concert for the NAACP in 1964, telling Jet magazine: "As entertainers, we can no longer sit and wait for the Sammy Davis' and Harry Belafonte's to raise all of the money."
John was also known for his short temper and propensity to abuse alcohol. He was arrested multiple times for charges that include narcotics, swindling, and grand larceny. John was dropped by his record company, King Records, in 1963. In 1965, he was convicted of manslaughter for the 1964 stabbing of Kendall Roundtree in Seattle. He was sent to Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. John appealed the conviction and was released on probation while the case was reconsidered, during which time he recorded what was intended to be his comeback album. Due to contractual disputes and the decline of his appeal, it was not released until 2008 (as Nineteen Sixty Six).
John died at Washington State Penitentiary on May 26, 1968. Despite counterclaims (Rolling Stone reported that the death occurred after John had checked into the prison hospital with pneumonia), the cause of death stated on his death certificate was a heart attack. His interment was in Detroit Memorial Park East, in Warren, Michigan.
John was survived by his wife Darlynn (née Bonner), whom he married on May 25, 1957; two children, William Kevin John (b. February 3, 1958) and Darryl Keith John (b. January 25, 1960); his mother; five brothers; three sisters. One of his sisters was Mable John, who recorded for Motown and Stax and was member of The Raelettes, the vocal quartette backing Ray Charles. His son Keith John is a backing vocalist for Stevie Wonder.
Legacy and honors
James Brown, who early in his career had opened shows for John, recorded a tribute album, Thinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things.
The guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band, mentioned John in the song "Somewhere Down the Crazy River", on his 1987 self-titled album. John was also mentioned in Tom Russell's "Blue Wing" and Mark Lanegan's "Like Little Willie John", from his 2004 album Bubblegum. The Swedish singer songwriter Peter LeMarc recorded a song entitled "Little Willie John" in 1991.
In June 2016, Little Willie John was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.
|Year||Titles (A-side, B-side)
Both sides are from same album except where indicated
|U.S. R&B||U.S. Pop||Album|
|1955||"All Around the World"
b/w "Don't Leave Me Dear" (from Mister Little Willie John)
|1956||"Need Your Love So Bad"||King 4841|
|"Home At Last"||Mister Little Willie John|
|"Are You Ever Coming Back"
b/w "I'm Stickin' with You Baby" (from Fever)
|"Letter from My Darling"|
|"Do Something for Me"
b/w "My Nerves"
|"Will the Sun Shine Tomorrow"
b/w "A Little Bit of Loving"
|King 5003||Mister Little Willie John|
|1957||"Love, Life and Money"
b/w "You Got to Get Up Early in the Morning" (from Mister Little Willie John)
|"I've Got to Go Cry"
b/w "Look What You've Done to Me" (from Mister Little Willie John)
b/w "If I Thought You Needed Me" (from Talk to Me)
b/w "Uh Uh Baby (No No Baby)" (from Talk to Me)
|"Person to Person"
b/w "Until You Do"
|King 5091||Talk to Me|
|1958||"Talk to Me, Talk to Me"
b/w "Spasms" (from Mister Little Willie John)
|"You're a Sweetheart"
b/w "Let's Rock While the Rockin's Good"
|King 5142||Mister Little Willie John|
|"Tell It Like It Is"
b/w "Don't Be Ashamed to Call My Name"
|King 5147||Talk to Me|
|"Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me"
b/w "All My Love Belongs to You"
|King 5154||Mister Little Willie John|
b/w "I'll Carry Your Love Wherever I Go" (from Talk to Me)
|King 5170||In Action|
|1959||"Made for Me"
b/w "No More in Life" (from Talk to Me)
|"Leave My Kitten Alone"
b/w "Let Nobody Love You"
|""Let Them Talk"
b/w "Right There"
b/w "My Love Is"
|King 5318||Sure Things|
|"A Cottage for Sale"
b/w "I'm Shakin'"
|"Heartbreak (It's Hurtin' Me)"
b/w "Do You Love Me" (from In Action)
b/w "There's a Difference"
b/w "You Hurt Me"
|"Leave My Kitten Alone"
b/w "I'll Never Go Back on My Word"
A-side chart reentry
|King 5452||In Action|
|"The Very Thought of You"
b/w "I'm Sorry"
|King 5458||Sure Things|
|"Flamingo" /||King 5503||The Sweet, the Hot, the Teen-Age Beat|
|"(I've Got) Spring Fever"|
|"Take My Love (I Want to Give It All to You)" /||King 5516|
|"Now You Know"|
|"Need Your Love So Bad"
b/w "Drive Me Home" (from Talk to Me)
|"There Is Someone in This World for Me"
b/w "Autumn Leaves" (from The Sweet, the Hot, the Teen-Age Beat)
|King 5577||Talk to Me|
|1962||"Fever" (with added strings)
b/w "Bo-Da-Ley Didd-Ley" (non-album track)
|"The Masquerade Is Over"
b/w "Katanga" (non-album track)
|King 5602||Little Willie John at a Recording Session|
|"Until Again My Love"
b/w "Mister Glenn"
|"Every Beat of My Heart"
b/w "I Wish I Could Cry" (from Little Willie John at a Recording Session)
|King 5641||The Sweet, the Hot, the Teen-Age Beat|
|"She Thinks I Still Care"
b/w "Come Back to Me"
|King 5667||Non-album tracks|
|"Big Blue Diamonds"
b/w "Doll Face"
|King 5681||Little Willie John at a Recording Session|
|"Without a Friend"
b/w "Half a Love"
|1963||"Heaven All Around Me"
b/w "Don't Play with Love"
|"My Baby's in Love with Another Guy"
b/w "Come On Sugar" (non-album track)
|"Let Them Talk"
b/w "Talk to Me" (from Talk to Me)
|King 5799||In Action|
b/w "Inside Information" (non-album track)
|King 5818||The Sweet, the Hot, the Teen-Age Beat|
|"Person to Person"
b/w "I'm Shakin'" (from Sure Things)
|King 5823||Talk to Me|
|1964||"My Love Will Never Change"
b/w "Bill Bailey" (from Little Willie John at a Recording Session)
|King 5850||Non-album track|
|"It Only Hurts a Little While"
b/w "Rock Love" (from The Sweet, the Hot, the Teen-Age Beat)
|King 5870||In Action|
|"All Around the World"
b/w "All My Love Belongs to You" (from Mister Little Willie John)
|"Do Something for Me"
b/w "Don't You Know I'm in Love" (non-album track)
|1965||"Talk to Me, Talk to Me"
b/w "Take My Love (I Want to Give It All to You)" (from The Sweet, the Hot, the Teen-Age Beat)
|King 6003||Talk to Me|
b/w "Let Them Talk" (from In Action)
|1970||"All Around the World"
b/w "Need Your Love So Bad"
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- [permanent dead link].
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- Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins. p. 103. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
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- "Rudy Toombs Biography". IMBD. Retrieved 2006-11-01.
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- "Little Willie John Singing For Integration". Jet. 20 (12): 61. July 13, 1961.
- "Singer Little Willie John Nabbed For Swindle". Jet. 15 (5): 57. December 4, 1958.
- "Little Willie John Charged In D. C. Grand Larceny". Jet. 15 (12): 50. January 22, 1959.
- "Nab Little Willie John On Narcotics Charge". Jet. 20 (9): 62. June 22, 1961.
- "Little Willie John Stabs 240-Lb, Man To Death". Jet: 58. November 5, 1964.
- Whitall, Susan (2011). Fever: Little Willie John: A Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul. Titan Books (US, CA). pp. 162-170. ISBN 978-0-85768-796-8.
- Clarke, John (2008) "Little Willie John – Nineteen Sixty Six". The Times, November 22, 2008.
- "Little Willie John Dies in Prison". Rolling Stone, no. 13, July 6, 1968.
- "Little Willie John". Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
- Wolk, Douglas (2004). James Brown's Live at the Apollo. A&C Black. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-8264-1572-1.
- Pena, Shirley (August 8, 2012). "Fever: an Interview with Kevin John (son of Little Willie John)". The LA Beat.
- "Inductees". National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 2019-10-20.
- "Michigan Rock and Roll Legends - LITTLE WILLIE JOHN". Michiganrockandrolllegends.com. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
- Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942–2004. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research. p. 228. ISBN 0-89820-115-2.
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