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Fever

by

Peggy Lee



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

This tale of passionate love was originally recorded by a singer named Little Willie John. In 1937, he was born William Edgar John in Arkansas. He was one of the first R&B singers, fairly popular in the late '50s and early '60s. Although he was a major influence on Soul singers of the '60s, he remains relatively unknown today. His nickname came from his slight height - he was only 5'4". After stabbing a man to death, he was jailed for manslaughter and died in prison when he was only 30 years old. The cause of his death is disputed - with reasons given ranging from a heart attack, pneumonia, asphyxiation, or as the result of beatings received in prison. His songs have been covered by many artists - The Beatles recorded "Leave My Kitten Alone" for the Beatles for Sale sessions, but never released it (It did appear on their Anthology 1 cd-set). Little Willie John was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
There is some controversy over who wrote this, but according to Otis Blackwell, he wrote it with Eddie Cooley. Otis Blackwell was a singer/songwriter/pianist, but most well-known for his songwriting. Some famous songs he wrote/co-wrote are "Don't Be Cruel," "Great Balls of Fire," and "All Shook Up." Cooley was a songwriting partner on many of his songs, and accordingto Blackwell, they had an agreement that Cooley would split his weekly paycheck as a jeweler with him. They would pen songs together and Blackwell would go to New York City to "hustle" them.
Blackwell had this credited to the name John Davenport (his stepfather) because he was under contract at RCA and was concerned he wouldn't get royalties for it.
Blackwell said in an interview that Little Willie John didn't want to record this at first because he didn't like the finger snapping.
Peggy Lee recorded the most famous version of this song. She was born Norma Deloris Egstrom on May 26, 1920 in Jamestown, North Dakota. Her break came when she was discovered by bandleader Benny Goodman. Lee was a Blues-influenced Jazz singer and also a songwriter, with such hits as the songs from Disney's Lady and the Tramp, in which she also sang and voiced a few characters. A triple-threat of her day, she was also an actress with a role in a remake of The Jazz Singer and was nominated for an Oscar for her role as an alcoholic Blues singer in Pete Kelly's Blues.
Many artists, both male and female, have recorded this. Notable covers include Elvis, Tom Jones and Madonna. (thanks, Crystal - Springfield, MO, for all above)
The trade charts were so distorted in the 1950s that even though Willie John's original version, (which made #24 in the US) trailed Peggy Lee's, it outsold hers by 2 to 1. (thanks, Edward Pearce - Ashford, Kent, England)
Peggy Lee
More Peggy Lee songs
More songs that were adapted from early Blues songs
More songs written by Otis Blackwell
More hit songs originally recorded by other artists

Comments (23):

On December 19th, 1965 "Fever" by the McCoys peaked at #7 (for 2 weeks) on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; it had entered the chart on November 7th and spent 11 weeks on the Top 100...
Was originally recorded by Little Willie John in 1956; his version reached #24 on the Top 100 and on July 21st, 1956 it peaked at #1 (for 5 weeks) on Billboard's R&B Singles chart...
Two other covered versions have charted; Peggy Lee (#8 in 1958) and Rita Coolidge (#76 in 1976)...
R.I.P. Mr. John (1937 - 1968), Ms. Lee (1920 - 2002), and Ms. Coolidge will celebrate her 69th birthday come next May 1st.
- Barry, Sauquoit, NY
@Koen:

Now I'm interested to listen to all of the versions of "Fever" I can find and see how many use the Little Willy John version lyrics vs. the Peggy Lee version lyrics. I did not know that black artists sing the former while white ones sing the latter but it does make sense. And I agree: I think John's version is better.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
When I wrote that Peggy Lee recorded this first, I meant that she recorded it before Madonna. I should've made that clear. Oops.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
Peggy Lee's version peaked at No. 8 in 1958, The McCoy's peaked at No. 7 in 1965. Rita Coolidge charted with it in 1973, peaking at No. 76!!!
- Barry, Sauquoit, NY
The funky, finger-snapping rhythym was provided by guitar virtuoso, Howard Roberts, who was originally scheduled to play his instrument on the track. It was Peggy Lee's idea to ditch the guitar in favor of Roberts' "digital" dexterity. (see also "The twilight Zone" by The Manhattan Transfer).
- John, Dublin, Ireland
The Muppet Show did it too. Animal was the drummer and Rita Moreno was trying to sing. She was great but Animal was getting carried away on the drums....very funny!
- Cathy, Brooklyn, NY
I remember this being lip-synced on American Bandstand WAY back in the day 1958? Something like that. I was around 10 years old and my mother was incensed that the young lady who performed it in a "torch song" manner could display such blatant sensuality on the toob. If she was alive today, she'd be spinning in her grave at about 7000 rpm. She took a rather fim view of overt sensuality. She woulda sh*t a brick if she saw Madonna, Jim Morrison, The entire Canned Heat (in particular Bob Hire) band as well as the Rolling Stones and many others.

Good thing she never explored "explicit blues" as performed in the 40s through 60s Might have her rpm jacked up to Formula I ranges.

My favorite version is by Keely Smith, recorded in 1959 for the movie, "Hey Boy! Hey Girl!"

Kool song, fun to play.
- Ray, Bonneville salt flats, UT
Lester,NY------I DO remember that, in fact, i still have the 45 single.----Great rendition!
- Sam, Hipsville, CA
Yeah, there's a big difference alright between Little Willy John's version and Peggy Lee's. Lee's is a faux-jazz cover version with cutesie lyrics and John's is a really unique r&b arrangement, that STILL sounds ahead of its time. Peggy Lee's trademark, clipped little "feeva" sounds mannered and ridiculous next to John's wailin' delivery. And her college-boy lyrics, ending with the pompous "Farenheit or Centigrade" are insipid compared to the original.
- James, Paris, France
Elvis Presley does a fantastic version of this song too. I love it!
- Amanda, Sydney, Australia
No one remembers that The McCoys (featuring a young Rick Derringer) had a hit with this in the '60s?
- Lester, New York City, NY
Ever since Peggy Lee covered Little Willie John's classic, there are two versions of the lyrics, the original and Peggy's. She included Romeo and Juliet and Captain Smith and Pocahontas (actually - all the text from 'Everybody's got the fever').
As much as there was a racial division in music in the 50s and 60s, there was for the two versions of this song. The numerous black artists who covered it merely stuck to Little Willie John's original, the white artists used Peggy's extension. In fact, that situation makes that this song is two classics in one - Little Willie John's original is *the* classic for the R&B conaisseurs.
- Koen, Rijswijk, Netherlands
Of all the female Jazz singers from that era, Peggy Lee was in my opinion the most adventurous. The sparse backing in 'Fever' was simply unheard of at the time, making the song an instant classic, which even Elvis two years later couldn't improve on. Also check out Peggy's 'Don't Smoke In Bed' (1949), 'Lover' (1951), 'I'm Gonna Go Fishing' (1960) and 'Is That All There Is?' (1969).
- walter, Antwerp, Belgium
There seem to be only two musical instruments in Peggy Lee's arrangement: bass and drums. It's a very spare, abstract piece of music that's quite characteristic of one of cultural threads of the late 1950's. When you hear this again, think of Eames chairs, abstract paintings on the walls, 'Playhouse 90' on television, and the people who would be voting for John F Kennedy two years hence.
- Mark, Lancaster, OH
Boney M sang it first I guess, the album is "take the heat off me"
- sum sum, New Delhi
Peggy Lee recorded it first.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
Madonna doing this? I never would of thought of that. She is a pretty good singer though, unlike some of those who cite her as their idol.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
Madonna's version is close in spirit to Peggy Lee's. The amazing Eva Cassidy does it more like the Little Willie John original. The sweet, angelic voice of this Songbird is surprising sexy in her recording; the bluesy fiddle playing of brother Dan and a great jazz backup combo makes this a memorable listening experience. But then, so is everything Eva ever did. Maybe there should be a special Songfacts category -- "Songs that Eva Recorded and Made Us Forget the Originals"
- Jerry, Brooklyn, NY
Madonna's version shows what a truly great singer she is capable of being when she wants to be. Forget the pretentious and smarmy video -- just listen to the vocal track. Better yet, check out her live performance of this on SNL. I don't have the date at my fingertips but it should be easy to research. Just Madonna on a blacked-out stage and a simple combo behind her. Brilliant!! Too bad she can't do all her stuff so well.
- Jerry, Brooklyn, NY
I wish Michael Buble (sorry if I spelled his name wrong) would give credit to the
great people whose songs he covers!
Susy
- Susy, New York, NY
Who recorded it first? Was it Ray Charles or Peggy Lee?
- Maud, Borgloon, Belgium
Yeah, I herd the version that Ray charles recorded.
- Stefanie magura, Rock Hill, SC
Ray Charles and Natalie Cole recorded this song on Charles' "Genuis Loves Company" (2004).
- Nicole, Apple Valley, MN
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