Here’s a clip of R&B wunderkind Little Willie John Performing his 1960 hit “Need Your Love So Bad”. The song became an R&B revival and blues-rock standard, famously covered by the Peter Green-fronted incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, who recorded their version in 1968.
Little Willie John is an unappreciated titan of rhythm & blues, counting James Brown as a fan among many other of his fellow musicians of the era. His name is derived from his 5’4″ height, yet his voice is a towering siren of heartfelt proto-soul and blues, touching on pop balladry too. Beginning his career while still in his teens , John was always the bridesmaid never the bride when it came to fame, despite a string of hits, many of them crossover hits to the pop charts, from 1953 to 1962. His superlative version of the song ‘Fever’ in 1956, which Peggy Lee recorded two years later and making her a star, set the stage for the kind of smouldering sexuality for which many singers would strive with less success. Although credited for being one of the pioneers of soul music, Sam Cooke gave the credit to Little Willie John, and the evidence is pretty compelling. His material has been covered by artists across the musical spectrum, and through the decades. Yet, he is unknown among many music fans, at least when compared to many of his contemporaries.
Despite his relative success as a singer, John was purportedly very insecure, largely because of his slight stature and his temper was his downfall. In 1964, he was engaged in a fight with an ex-convict while out with his wife. When his assailant hit him, he countered by stabbing him to death. John was convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to time in a Washington State prison, starting his sentence in May, 1966. He died in prison in 1968 of pneumonia.
For me, the thing that strikes me about his voice is how rich it is, how big it is, and from someone his age. Maybe that seems like a cliché, that someone that short could have the voice of a guy twelve feet tall, or at least sounding like it. It’s of no surprise to me that even if he didn’t gain the fame of singers that worked within the same musical idiom as he, he had an impact on those singers, and the songs (particularly ‘Fever’, which has also been covered by Madonna…) survive.
For more music and biographical information, check out the Little Willie John MySpace page.