Little Willie John was one of the early R&B singers and he had a very strong influence on the soul singers that followed him in the 60's, although he never had a top ten song on the pop charts. His actual name at birth and exact place of birth are reported differently by different sources, but it is known that he was born in Arkansas in 1937. He moved to Detroit as a child.
He sang songs as a young teenager, recording for Savoy Records by the time he was 16 before signing with King Records. From 1956 to 1961, Little Willie John had fourteen hits on the R&B charts and the same number on the pop charts, even though none was a huge hit in pop. Probably the most well-known of these are Fever, Sleep, and Talk To Me, Talk To Me.
In 1958 Peggy Lee covered his song from two years earlier, Fever. Her version was highly successful and placed in the top ten. Perhaps this is when he began to receive more notice. According to some sources the song was co-written by Little Willie John and Eddie Cooley; others say it was written by Brill Building regular Otis Blackwell. His sister Mable was a recording artist herself, for a time with Stax Records and later as a member of Ray Charles' Raelettes.
Little Willie John was outstanding when it came to singing blues ballads, singing with passion if not with a great deal of excitement. He was a charismatic figure, but perhaps this may have led to his downfall as his unstable personality was not suited to handling his notoriety. For a while he was a big attraction at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
He was charged with killing a man with a knife following an argument in Seattle and was jailed for manslaughter in May of 1966. Little Willie John died two years later in the Washington State Prison. The circumstances surrounding his death are somewhat clouded in mystery. Some say it was from a heart attack and/or pneumonia, and others say he may have been asphyxiated.
Fans of Little Willie John will like the Official MySpace Site that has been established in his honor.
Little Willie John was inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
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