William Edgar "Little Willie" John was a rhythm and blues vocalist and songwriter who wrote the original version of “Fever” at age eighteen.
He was born on November 15, 1937 in Cullendale, Arkansas. He was one of ten children. His father was a logger and his mother played guitar and sang gospel songs. His sister Mable recorded as a Raelette for Ray Charles. In 1942, the Johns moved to Detroit. The eldest children, including Willie, formed a gospel quintet in the late 1940's. Willie gained notice singing at solo amateur shows.
He was signed to King Records in June, 1955 and during the late 1950's and early 1960's, he recorded several hits. But increasing alcoholism and weakening sales caused King Records to drop him in the fall of 1963. He moved to Florida and hit the club circuit without a recording contract, although King continued to issue his material from its vaults.
Willie was popular in the Pacific Northwest due to his years of touring through Portland, Olympia, and Seattle. When he came back to Seattle in October, 1964- he’d recently skipped bail in Miami after assaulting a man with a broken bottle. His Friday night performance at The Magic Inn on 6th and Union was a drunken mess.
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Local musician Little Bill Engelhart recalled that Willie was already “way drunk” when he took the stage the next night as well. He was so inebriated that Engelhart wisely passed on an offer to go out and party with him after the gig. Willie carried on though, heading out with his chauffer to have a few drinks at the famous Birdland Dance Hall at 2203 East Madison Street.
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Once there, he jumped on stage to sing a few tunes with the house band, and eventually left to party with a couple local women. In the early hours of Sunday, October 18th, their festivities moved to an after-hours party at a house a few blocks away at 918 23rd Avenue.
At some point a brawl erupted and Willie was punched in the mouth by a six-foot, two-hundred pound ex-con named Kenneth Roundtree. Willie, who was only five-foot-four, stabbed and killed him with a knife. The twenty-six year old was arrested and charged with manslaughter (based on how physically out matched he had been). He posted $10,000 bond and continued touring, returning for trial in January, 1965. He was found guilty and appealed the verdict for 18 months. On July 6, 1966 he was sentenced to making license plates for 8-to-20 years at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary.
During his incarceration Willie reportedly got into a few more fights, was abused by guards, made some new buddies, wrote songs, and even performed a number of times for his fellow inmates. Among the notables who made the pilgrimage to Eastern Washington to see their old friend and try to cheer him up, were James Brown and Aretha Franklin. R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
After reporting to the infirmary with pneumonia and then being locked into a Maximum Security isolation room, Willie died on May 26, 1968. He was 30. His official cause of death was, “heart attack.” Others suspected he’d been beaten, and some have stated he died from neglect.