That Ain't Jack White's song, it's Little Willie John

Music video for Jack White's "I'm Shakin'" directed by Dori Oskowitz. From Jack White's debut Album Blunderbuss. (Dori Oskowitz)

Quick — name the only artist who's had his songs covered by the likes of The Beatles, Jack White, Fleetwood Mac and Peggy Lee. This same singer and songwriter tragically died in prison back in 1968 and never lived to know how influential his music would become. If you guessed Little Willie John, you got it right.

Born Willie Edward John in 1937, the diminutive Little Willie was first noticed by bandleader Johnny Otis (Shuggie's dad) and hit the R&B charts while still a teen, selling over a million copies of his song "Fever" in 1956, two years before Peggy Lee recorded the definitive version. With 14 Billboard Top 100 hits between 1955 and 1961, Little Willie John could still be making music today, but his short temper and propensity to abuse alcohol led to his being dropped by his record label in 1963 and conviction for manslaughter in 1966 from a fatal knifing incident following a show in Seattle. While appealing his conviction he recorded what was intended to be a comeback, but after losing his appeal and returning to jail he mysteriously died in prison in 1968, aged just 30.

Besides the Peggy Lee version of "Fever," I probably first heard a Little Willie John song when the American roots rock band The Blasters had a minor hit with "I'm Shakin'" back in 1981.

On the early albums of The Beatles, they often paid tribute to some of their favorite R&B songs — think "Twist and Shout," "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and the fab four cut a version of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" for the Beatles For Sale album, but it went unreleased until 1995's Anthology collection. Who knows what might have happened to Willie John's fortunes had he tapped into some Beatles' royalties back then?

And now Jack White has included "I'm Shakin'" on his solo debut Blunderbuss. Although not written by Little Willie John, you gotta hope that wherever his soul resides, he's smiling to know that his music still resounds. You can hear Jack's version on The Current, but here's the original from a great artist lost too young: Little Willie John.

Here's a link to a TV news story with his son and the author of a book on his life and impact.


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