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:
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.
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:
*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 album, Thinking 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.