Tragic stories have always been a part of music history, and have played out in almost as many varieties as there are performers who’ve lived them. But one of the most most poignant types of tragedies is when a performer throws away his opportunity, and that would be the case with R&B pioneer Little Willie John. Although he is remembered by many as one of the most influential early performers in R&B, a short career tied to the disappointing circumstances of his final days probably cost him the kind of lasting fame enjoyed by contemporaries like James Brown and Sam Cooke.
William Edward John, born in Arkansas but raised in Detroit, first got a taste for performing by being part of a family gospel singing group. But as he grew up his voice developed into a strong and vibrant instrument, one that would land him a solo recording contract while still in his teens.
It happened pretty fast for Little Willie John. For a few years beginning in the mid-1950s, he would churn out a number of startling performances with songs like “All Around the World,” “Need Your Love So Bad,” and “Talk To Me, Talk To Me.” He also had a best-seller with “Fever,” which would inspire Peggy Lee’s later classic.
But even though he was greatly admired for his talent, things didn’t continue to go smoothly for Little Willie John. He was always touchy about his small stature — barely over five feet — and was also possessed of a violent temper that flared even higher when he was drinking. Add in the fact that he often carried a gun and knife, and it was a deadly combination. In 1964 he was sent to the Washington State penitentiary for stabbing a man, and he never left — he grew ill and died in 1968, just 30 years old.