The multi-layered history of “Fever” incorporates some strange tales and unlikely bedfellows. They include the R&B star who died in prison, the man who wrote rock’n’roll anthems for Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, the singer-actress whose voice starred in a Walt Disney classic, and hundreds of artists who covered the tune, from Tom Jones via Isaac Hayes to Madonna.
Here are some of the best versions of “Fever.”
Little Willie John version
The song was written, officially at least, by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell, the latter composer deservedly recognised as the creator of Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel,“ “All Shook Up” and “Return To Sender,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire”, Jimmy Jones’ “Handy Man” and others.
The slinky “Fever” was first recorded in March 1956 by the perennially-underrated Little Willie John, the 5’ 4” soul man from Arkansas whose other notable sides included the first version of the blues-classic-to-be “Need Your Love So Bad.” That song, and its predecessor as a John single, “All Around The World,” had already given him soul hits when “Fever” went all the way to No.1 in the R&B market. Little Willie’s career, and life, would decline on a sad note, with his mid-60s conviction for manslaughter and his death in prison, in 1968. The cause of death, recorded as a heart attack at the age of just 30, has often been disputed.
Peggy Lee version
Artists including Sandra Meade, Earl Grant and Ray Peterson recorded early covers of “Fever” before Peggy Lee completely reinhabited it in 1958, investing the lyric with all the sensuous allure it called for. Charting just as Billboard introduced its new Hot 100 countdown, Lee’s version went Top 10 on both that list and, as a tribute to her performance, on the R&B chart, as well as in the UK, Australia and beyond.
Elvis Presley version
Presley’s history with Blackwell made it perhaps unsurprising that The King would record his own, fingersnapping version of “Fever” as he did on the Elvis Is Back! album. Released in 1960, the LP marked his return to recording after his National Service.
James Brown version
Such is the undying attraction of the song, barely a year has gone by that hasn’t seen several new interpretations of “Fever.” In the 60s, they included takes by Ben E King, Dion, Quincy Jones And His Orchestra and Bobby Bland. James Brown tackled it on his 1967 album Cold Sweat, as did Buddy Guy the following year on This Is Buddy Guy!
Isaac Hayes version
In the 70s, the range of candidates keen to address the song ran the gamut from Rita Coolidge to Boney M. Isaac Hayes took it to the disco on an eight-minute workout for his Don’t Let Go album in 1979, the same year rock’n’roll original Link Wray did his. Among hundreds more versions, we’ll give special mention to those by Chaka Khan and Joe Cocker, as well as the one by Madonna, recorded, appropriately, for her 1992 Erotica album.
“Fever” is a song that spans the ages in every sense: in 2016, British entertainer Petula Clark recorded her version for the album From Now On, which charted a little before her 84th birthday. To quote the lyric, it remains a song to give you fever – be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade.