May 26, 1968 – Little Willie John was born William Edward John on November 15, 1937 in Cullendale, Arkansas, one of ten children; many sources erroneously give his middle name as Edgar. His family moved to Detroit, Michigan when he was four, so that his father could pursue factory work.
In the late 1940s, the eldest children, including Willie, formed a gospel singing group, and Willie also performed in talent shows, which brought him to the notice of Johnny Otis and, later, musician and producer Henry Glover. He sang with Count Basie at age 14 and won a talent contest. In 1955, had his first moderate hit with “All Around the World” which reached #5 on the R&B Chart, and #6 on the Pop Chart. 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” John for his short stature.
He followed up with a string of R&B hits, including the original version of “Need Your Love So Bad“, written by his elder brother Mertis John Jr. One of his biggest hits, “Fever” (1956) (Pop #24), was more famously covered by Peggy Lee in 1958. However, John’s version alone sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
Another song, “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” recorded in 1958, reached #5 in the R&B chart and #20 in the Pop chart, and also sold over one million. A few years later it was a hit once again by Sunny & the Sunglows. He also recorded “I’m Shakin'” by Rudy Toombs, “Suffering With The Blues”, and “Sleep” (1960) (Pop #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). The Beatles recorded a version in 1964, intended for their Beatles for Sale album, but it went unreleased until 1995.
John had a volatile temper, fueled by a taste for liquor and an insecurity regarding his slight height (5 feet 4 inches). He was known to pack a gun and knife; in 1964, he stabbed a man and was sent to the Washington State penitentiary. He appealed his conviction and was released while the case was reconsidered, during which time he recorded what was intended to be his comeback album. Because of contractual wrangling and the decline of his appeal, it was not released until 2008 (as Nineteen Sixty Six).
Back in prison, Little Willie John died on May 26, 1968 at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington. Despite counterclaims (Rolling Stone reported that the death occurred after John had checked into the prison hospital with pneumonia), the official cause of death was listed in his death certificate as a heart attack. Rumor also says he was strangled. He was 30 years old.
James Brown recorded a tribute album to John that year, and his material has been recorded by scores of artists from the Beatles to Fleetwood Mac to the Blasters. Nevertheless, Little Willie John remains a stranger to most listeners and has never received the respect his talent deserved.
He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. He never received the accolades given to the likes of Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, and James Brown, but Little Willie John ranks as one of R&B’s most influential performers. His muscular high timbre and enormous technical and emotional range belied his young age (his first hit came when he was 18), but his mid-’50s work for Syd Nathan’s King label would play a great part in the way soul music would sound. Everyone from Cooke, McPhatter, and Brown to Jackie Wilson, B.B. King, and Al Green has acknowledged their indebtedness to this most overlooked of rock and soul pioneers.