Born William Edward John in Camden, Arkansas, on 15 November 1937, he grew up in a Detroit household with four brothers and two sisters.
An early musical influence was his mother, who played gospel piano. Willie’s father worked the night shift at the Dodge car factory, and when he was nine, young Willie began slipping out of his bedroom window to sing on street corners – and got a thrashing when his father found out.
At 11, Willie got his first real singing job at the Book-Cadillac hotel and three years later obtained a series of prestigious one-nighters with Count Basie.
In 1951 he entered a talent contest hosted by Johnny Otis at Detroit’s Paradise Theatre. Willie impressed Otis, who recommended him to Syd Nathan of King Records.
During the late Fifties and early Sixties, James Brown, Hank Ballard and Willie John formed the backbone of the King label, where Willie racked up a dozen Top Twenty R&B hits and as many as 14 nationally popular best-sellers.
His debut disc, produced by Henry Glover, covered Titus Turner’s bouncy rocker, All Around The World. It outsold the original, reaching #6 on the R&B chart in 1955, and propelled the fiery teenager into the big league.
Co-penned by John and Otis Blackwell (an early songwriter for Elvis), Fever was the song which took Little Willie John into the pop charts in 1956.
Two years later, Peggy Lee re-recorded the song to devastating effect, making it a classic.
In the wake of his first big hits, Willie married a chorus girl whom he met on-stage at the Apollo Theatre. By 1958 they had two children and his family travelled with him on tours across the USA.
Willie remained in the pop charts between 1958 and 1961. Talk To Me, Talk To Me, hit the Top Twenty in 1958. Willie’s treatment echoed Sam Cooke’s You Send Me, but his expressive voice was more reminiscent of the Texan blues shouters he often resembled on hard rockers like I’m Shakin’, Let‘s Rock While The Rockin’s Good and Leave My Kitten Alone.
Other hits, including You’re A Sweetheart, Tell It Like It Is (another soul anthem from the pen of Titus Turner), Let Them Talk and Heartbreak, were superseded by Sleep, his biggest pop hit which reached #13 in 1960.
He became a long-lasting influence on James Brown, but off-stage Little Willie was a disaster.
Sadly, the abusive drunk soon found himself behind bars for manslaughter after killing a man in a railway tavern during a drunken brawl and he died of pneumonia in Washington State Penitentiary on 26 May 1968. He was 31.