The Blues. Everybody gets them. Blues singers get them worse than most. When you get them you just gotta shout about it, sing about it, pick up a guitar and share your troubles. It’s the only thing that seems to help.
Speaking of help, here’s what John Lennon had to say about that kind of thing.
“When you’re drowning, you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.”
Little Willie John had his fair share of troubles. (So did Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, but I’ll come back to him another day). He was a short man with an at times even shorter temper. He lived fast and died young. Today’s song of the week was credited to his older brother, Mertis John Jr, who helped out with the writing of the song, but according to biographer Susan Whitall, it turns out that Willie “gave” the song to his older brother.
“He was generous that way. But later Willie wrote to his wife that when he did that, he didn’t think ahead to a day when he’d have a family of his own who would need the money.” I found this quote from Susan on a comment she left on another blog post about the song.
Mertis later agreed to restore partial credit to his brother, so any future royalties are split 50/50 between Mertis and Willie’s family.
It was written in 1955 and hit number 5 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1956 while the b-side Home at Last reached number 6. It’s been described as “A tightly wound and intense plea for love.” It wasn’t your typical R&B ballad. This was the beginning of what would later be called soul. That superb guitar playing you hear was by Mickey “Guitar” Baker, who would later find fame with his group Mickey & Sylvia who appeared briefly in SOTW6-Trash. I’ll come back to Mickey Baker a bit later in the other classic version of this song. In the meantime, enjoy the one and only original…
William Edward John was born on the 15th of November 1937 in Cullendale, Arkansas, to a family of ten children. His family moved to Detroit, Michigan when he was four, so his father could work in a factory. He performed with the older children in his family in a gospel singing group and also in talent shows, which brought him to the notice of singer, composer and talent scout Johnny Otis, and later Henry Glover who signed him up to King Records in 1955 after seeing him sing with Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams orchestra.
He sold over a million copies with probably his best known hit, Fever, which later became an even bigger hit for Peggy Lee. I’ll do a SOTW about that one some day too. The Beatles covered his Leave My Kitten Alone intended for their Beatles for Sale album, but it was left unreleased until the anthology in 1995.
Willie John was dropped from his record company in 1963, due to issues with alcohol abuse and his wild temper.
In Autumn 1964 John arrived in Seattle with a troubled mind, on a self destructive streak. He had skipped bail at the time for assaulting a man with a broken bottle in August. An old pal, musician Bill Engelhart recalled that he was already “way drunk” onstage, so drunk that his friend refused the offer to go and party with him after the gig on Saturday night.
John continued drinking with a chauffer/valet and buddy in the notoriously wild after hours nightclub The Birdland. When he got there he jumped up on stage and sang a few tunes with the house band and left to partry with a couple of local women. By Sunday he’d moved to another illicit after hours den in a house party on 23rd Avenue. There a brawl broke out. The singer was punched in the mouth by a 6’2″, 200 pound ex con railroad worker named Kenneth Roundtree and the 5’4″ John responded by fatally stabbing his attacker with a knife.
He was initially arrested for murder, but those charges were soon reduced to manslaughter (because of how physically outmatched John had been). He was found guilty, but appealed the conviction and was released for 18th months while his case was being considered. He was sentenced to between 8 and 20 years in the forbidding Walla Walla State Penitentiary in Washington. While he was out, he recorded what was intended to be his comeback album (Nineteen Sixty Six), but contractual wrangling and the failure of his appeal caused it to be held back, and it was left unreleased until 2008.
While in prison, he got into more fights and was reportedly abused by guards. He also wrote some songs and performed several times for inmates. His old friends Aretha Franklin and James Brown visited him to try to cheer him up.
He died on the 26th of May 1968 in the same prison after allegedly checking into the prison hospital with pneumonia, and then being locked into a Maximum Security isolation room. His official cause of death is listed as a heart attack, although some suspected he’d been beaten, and died from neglect. He was 30 years old.
His sister was the Motown and Stax singer Mable John and he was the father of Keith John, a longtime backing vocalist for Stevie Wonder. Willie was also a major influence on James Brown, who used to open for him in his early career, and would wax lyrical about hi in interviews. Brown believed his friend had simply died of a broken heart, and recorded a tribute album the same year he died, called Thinking About Willie John… and a Few Nice Things.
The Band’s Robbie Robertson referenced him in his song from 1987 Somewhere Down a Crazy River.
The fields are empty, abandoned ’59 Chevy
Laying in the back seat listening to Little Willie John
Yea, that’s when time stood still
There’s also a biography, Fever: Little Willie John; A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul written by Susan Whitall with his son Kevin John.
The song Need Your Love So Bad taps into a universal feeling that no other song does for me. Or at least no song describes it so well, so simply. That “need”. There’s no beating around the bush here. It’s just straight up honesty.
Need someone’s hand to lead me through the night
I need someone’s arms to hold and squeeze me tight
And when the night begins, I’m at an end
Because I need your love so bad.
It’s that time of night when his love has departed and he now starts to feels alone. He needs to spend every second with her and hold her in his arms, but she’s not here and as everyone knows “you can’t put your arms around a memory.”*
I need some lips to feel next to mine
Need someone to stand up, and tell me when I’m lyin’
And when the lights are low – and it’s time to go
That’s when I need your love so bad
The whole song is about just one thing. That frustration. It’s the first flush of love and the singer can’t sit still without his girl. And he can’t stand the uncertainty. Yes or no? The not knowing is unbearable.
Write it on a piece of paper, baby, so it can be read to me
Tell me that you love me and stop driving me wild
Oh, because I need your love so bad
It’s been covered by Greg Allman, by Joe Cocker. You can check out their versions if you wish, but I don’t think you need to look any further than the two artists that nailed it. The original is perfect, but if anyone could improve on perfect, it’d have to be Peter Green who is in my humble opinion, the greatest British Blues musician. And this man was so humble, he wanted to give his royalties to blues musicians who inspired him. As generous as Willie John. Led Zep take note!
As I said I’ll write about him another day, because his songwriting and guitar playing deserves it’s own little corner of the song of the week village.
The first video I shared fades out on the solo, but you have to listen to that solo, so here’s the full version in all it’s glory.
I love those strings too, which are credited to Mickey “Guitar” Baker (string arrangement and string conductor), which for me is a stroke of genius. The melody the strings play elevate the song to a whole other level. Absolutely timeless.
Need a soft voice to talk to me at night
I don’t want you to worry baby
I know we can make everything alright
Listen to my plea, baby
Bring it to me
Cause I need your love so bad
Now there’s a love letter if ever I heard one. They don’t write ’em like they used to. That’s for sure.
I’m not going to write any more about this one. I won’t beat around the bush either. Little Wille John already put it succintly and sweetly. All you need to do is listen.