The Story and Music of Little Willie John

Introduction to Little Willie John

William Edward John (famous as “Little Willie” because he was small and childlike, even in adulthood) was an African-American R&B singer, whose career was active in 50s music throughout the 60s music scene.  He was known for hits such as “Need Your Love So Bad” and “Fever”, among others.  Originating from Arkansas, he was singing in a gospel group.  His talents were soon discovered, and he recorded for his first label King Records in 1955.  Little Willie’s achieved his first hit, “All around the World.”  He gained considerable successes through his subsequent singles, some of which even sold over a million copies and were awarded gold discs.  However, his alcoholism and his irascible attitude had taken his career and health for the worst turn.  Little Willie eventually died at the age of 30, probably of a heart attack, in 1968.  Because of the contributions in his short career, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. 

Who was Little Willie John?

American rock n’ roll and R& singer Little Willie John was born William Edward John on November 15, 1937 in Cullendal, Arkansas. At the age of four, his family relocated to Detroit, Michigan where his father continued working as a factory worker. Along with John’s elder siblings (he was one of ten children), they formed a gospel singing group in the late 1940’s. Also during that that time, he started joining talent shows as well. John caught the attention of Johnny Otis, and later Henry Glover (musician and producer) who led him to the recording business. They helped John get a record deal with King Records in 1955. For John was barely five-foot-tall, he was given with the stage name “Little Willie John.”

Little Willie John with his biggest hit “Fever”

John first entered the national spotlight with his debut single “All Around The World,” a Titus Turner original. The song became a hit, reaching #5 on the R&B chart in 1955. In 1956 alone, he released five singles:  “Do Something for Me,” “Home At Last,” “Letter From My Darling,” “Need Your Love So Bad” and “Fever.” Only one those five singles became a big hit. “Fever”  topped the R&B chart while it was #24 on pop chart. Also, it was John’s first entry to the pop chart as well, selling over one million copies and earning a gold disc award. Two years after, “Fever” was quickly re-recorded by Peggy Lee – her version became more famous than John’s. Not long thereafter, it was once again a hit, but this time for Sunny & the Sunglows. Further hits followed between 1958 and 1962, these included: “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” (#5 R&B, #20 pop), “Leave My Kitten Alone” (#13 R&B, #20 pop), “Heartbreak” (#6 R&B, #38 pop)  and “Sleep” (#10 R&B, #13 pop).

Little Willie John’s later years

In 1963, Little Willie John was abandoned by King Records due to his short-tempered demeanor and alcohol abuse. In 1966, he was caught in a convicted of manslaughter after a show in Seattle. After appealing his conviction, he was freed while the case was being reviewed.          . However, the said album was released in 2008 with the title Nineteen Sixty Six.

On May 26, 1968 at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington, Little Willie John was reportedly claimed by a heart attack. He was only 30 years old at the time of his death.