One Song, Three Versions – Fever

Never know how much I love you
Never know how much I care
When you put your arms around me
I get a fever that’s so hard to bear

You give me fever (you give me fever) when you kiss me
Fever when you hold me tight (you give me fever)
Fever in the mornin’
Fever all through the night

In the history of popular music, there may be no cooler song than “Fever.” Written by prolific songwriter Otis Blackwell (“Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Return to Sender,” Handy Man.”) and friend Eddie Cooley, it was first released in 1956 by R&B singer Little Willie John.* (Blackwell was under contract elsewhere and used the pseudonym John Davenport.)

Most of Little Willie’s output was released on the King record label. King was operational from the ’40s through the ’70s and is now a reissue-only label. King was initially the country label while its sister Queen was the “race records” label. As a country label, King released classics such as “I’m Using My Bible for a Road Map” by the duo of Reno and Smiley.

But King later “mixed the country and R&B sides” and ultimately either through that label or its subsidiary, Federal, wound up with quite the roster. In addition to Little Willie, they recorded Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Petula Clark,** Wynonie Harris, The Ink Spots, Etta Jones, Freddie King, Joe Tex, Merle Travis, Johnny “Guitar” Watson. And James Brown.

Little Willie wasn’t crazy about the song but was persuaded to record it anyway (and name his album for it.) This version made it all way to #25 in the Billboard Hot 100. It’s smoky, baby:

Spotify link

If you know this song at all, it’s possible that you know Madonna’s version or for that matter Beyonce. But I know (and dig) Peggy Lee’s version. Peggy Lee (born in North Dakota as Norma Deloris Egstrom) was a singer and actress of some renown starting in the ’40s.*** It was the era of Big Band music and what Wikipedia refers to as her “sultry purr” was just right for Benny Goodman’s orchestra.

She married a guitarist (what was she thinking? – ME) and tried to drift off into being a mother and housewife. But the world wasn’t having it and so after a hiatus, she went back out and did some recording and touring (overall, for six decades no less.)

Ms. Egstrom recorded her equally naughty if more playful version of “Fever” in 1958. Note how the horn section part is now being played by just a bass. I think that that arrangement – as much as her voice – gives it a sexy snap. And Peggy added in the lyrics about Captain Smith and Pocahontas and Romeo and Juliet, uncredited. To this day, those have become part of the lyrics.

Lee’s version went to number 8 in the Hot 100 and no matter who does this song, till the end of time it will be known (and rightfully so), as her signature song. Even though some guy is credited with the arrangement, legend has it that the accomplished Ms. Lee had a hand in it as well.

Spotify link

Speaking of James Brown, I suppose it was inevitable that the “hardest working man in show business” would give this one a shot. There’s about a million versions of this song but everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Elvis pretty much borrows Peggy Lee’s arrangement.

But James brings the horns back in to do their funky thing and makes up his own lyrics. And who else – I ask you – ends the song by saying, “My face is wet.”

“Sun lights up the daytime
Moon lights up the night
My eyes light up
When you call James Brown
I know you’re gonna love me right.”

Ladies and gentlemen, from 1967’s Cold Sweat, James Brown has entered the building:

Spotify link

*John was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, presented by Stevie Wonder. James Brown, who early in his career had opened shows for John, recorded a tribute albumThinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things.

**Fun fact – Petula Clark, whose first big hit was a mainstream number called “Downtown,” was a backing vocalist on John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

***And on into the new century. Peggy Lee died in 2002 and they held a Carnegie Hall tribute to her in 2003.

Source: Wikipedia; Inspiration, Carlos Santana.



28 thoughts on “One Song, Three Versions – Fever

  1. Oh man, I’ve got to shout out to The Cramps cover which I hope you don’t mind me embedding now:

    Growing-up on punk this was my little to this song, recorded in 1980 if you want a timeline or something?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have no problem at all with you posting it. I was not crazy about their version but let other readers decide I say. I thought this a screaming banshee version I once heard but no it’s oddly pretty faithful. On the one hand I’m glad that bands cover standards so that a new generation hears them; on the other, I hate the fact that it’s the only version some will know. Or think that that band wrote.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, i don’t know about others but i’m a bit mad for covers but also song writers credits then check-outing the original and i do already love both Little Willie and Peggy. The Cramps were wicked because they let their fans know their own influences and made it pretty clear, unlike some bands so I know what you mean.
        Cheers Jim 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Now there’s a song that I just can’t listen to unless it’s done by The Cramps. No doubt it’s a well crafted tune, but there’s just too many versions of it floating around.


    1. But why should the one you grew up with be the only one you can listen to? Granted there’s a lot of versions but there’s a reason for that – it’s a great tune. ‘Yesterday’ has some 2000 cover versions. That doesn’t lessen it as a song. Oh, sure I’m sick to death of it. But it’s still a great song. As to ‘Fever,’ the Cramps version means nothing to me but I could listen to say, Elvis’ all day long.


      1. Oh, I didn’t hear The Cramps time till much later. I think Peggy and Elvis’ versions were the ones I grew up with. Like I say, a well crafted song, but there are just too many versions floating about. I don’t choose to listen to it, but if I did, it would be The Cramps version. I certainly don’t think it’s a bad song, it’s just one I don’t care to hear.

        As for Yesterday, I agree that it’s a great tune. My favourite version (that I’ve heard) is Sinatra’s.


        1. What inspired this – as mentioned in the post- was Carlos Santana. I am taking an online video course from him and he used it as an example of playing something that has a sexy feel on guitar. So I dug it, It’s great to play, has a great feel.. You should sing it, then there’ll be one more version. 🙂


  3. That’s one figgin’ smoking hot tune, Jim! My intro to Fever was Elvis’ version.

    As I believe I previously volunteered, Elvis was my teenage idol. And while I’m no longer trying impersonate him, I still believe he was one of the most compelling American artists of the last century, even though the quality of his recorded output widely varied. But when it comes to ’50s classic rock & roll, Elvis really was in a category by himself, in my completely unbiased opinion! 🙂

    Even though I think Fever is a terrific tune, I don’t believe I had ever heard the original – very cool! As a James Brown fan, I also dig his take. And, boy, Peggy Lee is pretty compelling as well!


    1. If you volunteered that Elvis tidbit I dont recall it..on that topic, watch these pages in future. I have yet to give The King his due.

      I had actually intended to use Elvis’s version all along. But it was so similar to Peggy Lee’s that I thought JB’s version would make for a nice contrast.


        1. Actually in my time blogging, I’m no longer sure what is and isn’t a safe assumption. I’ll bet half the people who read this didn’t even know he HAD a cover of it. It also bugs me that artists cover a song and then do it exactly like the last version they heard. That’s why I liked JB’s – he at least put the horns back in!


        2. The James Brown version is definitely cool.

          And, yes, it’s great when an artist covering a song makes it their own. The first who comes to my mind in this context is Joe Cocker. His version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” is just amazing and frankly much better than the original. Perhaps I’d even go as far as calling it the best rock cover I know.


  4. I’m with you on Peggy Lee – though William’s later post of The Cramps version grabs me too.
    Gotta say, I just don’t think it a great fit for James Brown though. 🙂


    1. I wonder how James would have sounded “live” on that one. I was looking for variation in style there but Elvis’ is good too.


  5. I like the simplicity of Peggy’s version. I like the Cramp’s go at it. Brown gives it his treatment but it works. But I do dig the Little Willie John version. I have an attachment to originals especially when they are as good as his. It’s why people get inspired to cover them. His version is just greasier and it has that great sax in it.
    Springsteen’s ‘The Fever’ is a cousin to this especially Willie’s version. So there Doc, take that.


    1. “Greasier.” We at Music Enthusiast applaud the use of such terms. It’s also a nice, if unintentional, segue to Springsteen who uses the term ‘greasy lake’ in ‘Spirit in the Night.’ There’s even a tribute page to him called that.

      I definitely had Bruce’s version in mind. What a great, sexy tune THAT is. See, why can’t he do more stuff like that now?

      Liked by 1 person

        1. “I grew up in a neighborhood of greaseballs.” That right there is the beginning of a great novel or screenplay that CB should write.

          Liked by 1 person

      1. Our friend Pete cooked something up. He should be posting it soon.
        You mentioned getting inspired for this ‘Fever’ take from Carlos. Have you heard his new album and if so what’s the scoop?


        1. Yeah, as I think you know, I’m taking a video class from the Great One. He played that as an example of playing with sensuality. Not sure if I’m capable of that but I dug it on guitar. One thing led to another and voila – post!

          As to the new album, mixed bag for me. Christian reviewed it. Check out his site and you’ll see the conversation which largely speaks for itself. For me, apart from a couple of tunes, it pretty much sounded like Carlos plays over the ‘Lion King’ soundtrack. A disappointment as was Santana IV.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Cool where inspiration comes from. Love that stuff.
          I’ll check out the take. I kinda trust your feel on that. Like you I’m a huge fan . When he busted on the scene he was something special.


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