1960 Little Willie John – Sleep
William Edward John was born in Arkansas in 1937, one of ten kids in his family. His father followed a job and moved the family to Detroit four years later. The siblings formed their own gospel group several years later, and Willie began singing in talent shows as well. King Records signed him to a recording contract in 1955, and he began appearing as Little Willie John.
Willie’s records sold well right from the start, giving him two records that reached #5 on the R&B chart and one that reached #6. His fifth single, Fever, reached the top of the R&B chart in 1956. It sold over a million copies and became his first record on the Hot 100 when it peaked at #24. In 1958, Peggy Lee covered the song with a few new lyrics and a slightly different arrangement. Her version reached the top ten on the Hot 100, resulting in her biggest hit record since 1952.
A few more R&B hits followed for Willie, and his next record to reach the Hot 100 was Talk To Me, Talk To Me in 1958. The single reached #5 on the R&B chart and #20 on the Hot 100 and again sold over a million copies.
While Willie continued to chart on the R&B chart for a few more years, his last big hit on the pop side came in 1960. Sleep had been an important hit for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians in 1923, and Willie’s cover version touched the top ten on the R&B chart and reached #13 on the Hot 100.
Willie co-wrote and recorded the single Leave My Kitten Alone in 1959. Johnny Preston (who had hits with Running Bear and Cradle Of Love) released a single cover of the song that reached #73 on the Hot 100 in 1961. While working on The Beatles For Sale album, the Beatles recorded the song in 1964 based on Johnny’s version of the song. The Beatle recording did not get released until 1995, when a final remix got included on the Beatles Anthology 1 album.
Willie struggled with alcohol abuse and had problems with his temper, and the combination doomed his later career. They convicted him of manslaughter and imprisoned him in 1965. He died at the prison from questionable health problems in 1968.
They inducted Willie into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.