The first recording of Fever was by the legendary Detroit singer Little Willie John in 1956. It topped the R&B chart and made No.24 on the Billboard Hot 100. It is still considered the classic version of the song but not the best known. Peggy Lee recorded Fever two years later in 1958 and it became her signature song. It was written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell, who used the pseudonym John Davenport (His stepfather’s name) as he was contracted elsewhere. (Blackwell wrote or co-wrote some very famous songs including Don’t Be Cruel, All Shook Up and Great Balls Of Fire). Although Lee’s version reached No.8 in the US, the charts were so unreliable in the fifties that Little Willie John’s version allegedly outsold Peggy Lee’s version by 2-1.
Peggy Lee had already been recording for over fifteen years when she recorded Fever and went on to make more than fifty studio albums. Lee was herself an all-round entertainer as many were in those days and as a lyricist rewrote some of the lyrics to the song. It’s unclear who suggested making the song just drums and bass as the Little Willie John’s version featured guitar and sax but his rendition certainly inspired the sassy attitude that made the song so appealing to the public and performers alike. Fever has been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Sinatra, Ray Charles, James Brown, The McCoys, The Kingsmen, Shirley Manson, Madonna, Elvis Presley and many more.
In these two live versions below the first from the late sixties is with Jack Sperling on drums and Max Bennett on bass. The second is from The Andy Williams show in 1965 with kettle drums, fire…and dancers! Oh how they danced.
The third version is the original Little Willie John version from 1956.
Peggy Lee whose real name was Norma Deloris Egström died from complications of diabetes and a heart attack aged 81 in 2002.
Little Willie John, jailed for manslaughter after a brawl where a man was stabbed to death, died in prison in 1968 at the age of 30 in suspicious circumstances.