Little Willie John (Born 15/11/1937, Died 26/05/1968)
He's never received the accolades given to the likes of Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter or James Brown, but Little Willie John ranks as one of R&B's most influential performers. For a while he really did stand tall in the R&B world of the 1950s, bringing an intensity to his vocal performances that few, if any, could match. He also achieved a fair degree of popular appeal, and had a number of million sellers (and a couple of pop hits) including 'Fever' and 'Talk To Me'. His muscular but quite high timbre and enormous technical and emotional range belied his early 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 develop. Everyone from Cooke, McPhatter and Brown to Jackie Wilson B.B. King and Al Green has acknowledged his debt to this most overlooked of rock and soul pioneers.
Born William Edward John, he moved with his family to Detroit when a youngster and, typical of the times, gained early singing experience with a gospel quintet (The United Four). By 1951, he was already featuring in local amateur shows on his own and when he was 16 he'd already cut his first record, a Christmas track that disappeared without trace.
His debut recording, an original reworking of Titus Turner's 'All Around The World' from 1955, set the pattern for a remarkable string of hits. Turner's original was really a novelty item, but Willie turned it into a street wise bluesy ballad - he was always capable of putting his own stamp on everything he did and was to prove that conclusively over the next six or seven years. His versions of 'Need Your Love So Bad', 'Suffering With The Blues', 'Fever', 'Let Them Talk', and his last, 'Sleep', from 1961 all meant that other versions tended to suffer by comparison. His version of 'Fever' was copied note for note by Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley, both of whom had bigger hits with it; John's version, however, remains definitive. His second hit, 'Need Your Love So Bad', contains one of the most intimate, vocals ever caught on tape - he sounds truly desolate and you believe every word of the lyric.
John had a volatile temper, fuelled by a taste for liquor and an insecurity regarding his slight height (5 ft 4 in) - he was known to pack a gun and knife. In October 1964, he was working a weekend engagement in Seattle and he went to a private "after hours" party where, not untypically, he ended up in a brawl. Willie ended up knifing his adversary in the mêlée and was charged with murder. His confidence was such that he carried on working his club dates pending his trial and when he did come to court a reduced charge of manslaughter was accepted on the basis that Willie had responded to an initial attack from a bigger and stronger man. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, he was sentenced to 8 - 20 years imprisonment in the penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Nevertheless, Little Willie John remains unknown to many, even those with a real passion for R&B - and he's not really received the respect his talent deserves.