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Cultural Percussionist

Little Willie John Day

William EdwardLittle WillieJohn (November 15, 1937 – May 26, 1968) was an American R&B singer who performed in the 1950s and early 1960s. He is best known for his successes on the record charts, with songs such as “All Around the World” (1955), “Need Your Love So Bad” (1956), “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” (1958), “Leave My Kitten Alone” (1960), “Sleep” (1960), and “Fever” (1956). An important figure in R&B music of the 1950s, John was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. John was born in Cullendale, Arkansas, United States, one of ten children born to Lillie (née Robinson) and Mertis John. Many sources erroneously give his middle name as Edgar. His family moved to Detroit, Michigan, when he was four, so that his father could find factory work. In the late 1940s, the eldest children, including Willie, formed a gospel singing group. Willie also performed in talent shows, which brought him to the notice of Johnny Otis and, later, the musician and producer Henry Glover. 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” for his short stature. He was the brother of the singer Mable John, who recorded for Motown and Stax and was member of The Raelettes, the vocal quartette backing Ray Charles; his son Keith John is a backing vocalist for Stevie Wonder.

His first recording, a version of Titus Turner‘s “All Around the World“, was a hit, reaching number 5 on the Billboard R&B chart. 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 number 24, R&B number 1), was made famous in a cover version recorded by Peggy Lee in 1958, but John’s version sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc. Another song, “Talk to Me, Talk to Me“, recorded in 1958, reached number 5 on the R&B chart and number 20 on the Pop chart. It also sold over one million copies. A few years later it was a hit once again in a cover version by Sunny & the Sunglows. John also recorded “I’m Shakin'”, by Rudy Toombs, “Suffering with the Blues”, and “Sleep” (1960, Pop number 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), recorded by The Beatles in 1964 and intended for their Beatles for Sale album. However, the track was not released until 1995.

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