Sunday, time for a classic.
Today's tune "Fever" was presented to Otis Blackwell by an old friend, Eddie Cooley, who in 1956 had a hit song called "Priscilla". Blackwell said: "Eddie Cooley was a friend of mine from New York and he called me up and said 'Man, I got an idea for a song called 'Fever', but I can't finish it.' I had to write it under another name because, at that time, I was still under contract to Joe Davis." Little Willie John reportedly disliked the song, but was persuaded to record it, on March 1, 1956, by King Records owner Syd Nathan and arranger and producer Henry Glover. "Fever" is a soul and rhythm and blues minor key opus with an arrangement consisting of low saxophones played by Ray Felder and Rufus "Nose" Gore and a jazz guitar by Bill Jennings. The vocal style of Willie John is similar to moaning and he is backed by finger snaps. Bill Dahl from the website AllMusic noted a contrast between the song's "ominous" arrangement and the vocals along with the finger snapping which "marginally lightened the mood".
"Fever" was released as a single in April 1956 and became a double-sided hit along with the top-ten R&B song "Letter from My Darling". "Fever" reached number one for three weeks on the Billboard R&B Best Sellers chart in the United States, peaking at the top on July 21, 1956. It also made the pop charts, peaking at number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song has sold one million copies in the US. In a consumer review, Robert Christgau described Willie John's "Fever" as a very "fervid" song.
Peggy Lee version of the tune "Fever"
In May 1958, Peggy Lee recorded a cover version of the song in Hollywood, which featured significantly rewritten lyrics composed by Lee herself without credit. "Fever" was not included on Lee's album "Things Are Swingin'" when it was first released in 1959; however it was listed as a bonus track on its 2004 reissue release. The uncopyrighted lyrics by Lee featured historical invokings (including the verses beginning "Romeo loved Juliet," and "Captain Smith and Pocahontas") are now generally thought of as a standard part of the song, and have been included in most subsequent covers of "Fever".
Lee's cover, most likely arranged by the singer herself (despite the official credit to conductor Jack Marshall) was a more slow-tempo version than the original; it was described as being in "torchy lounge" mode, accompanied only by bass (played by Joe Mondragon) and a very limited drum set (played in part with fingers by Shelly Manne), while the finger snaps were provided by the singer herself, by Howard Roberts, the guitarist for the date, who set aside his guitar for this number, or possibly even by the producer, Dave Cavanaugh. Lee's rendition was further described as "smooth, sultry". It is written in the key of A Minor in a medium swing tempo with 135 beats per minute; Lee's vocals span from the musical note of G3 to B4.
A writer of the website NPR deemed "Fever" as Lee's "most memorable tune" and considered it to be "slinky and inimitable". He went on to note that it displayed characteristics which were most remembered about the singer – "her playful delivery, charisma and sexuality". John Bush from the website AllMusic opined that the singer managed to excel in sounding "sizzling" in the song. John Fordham writing for The Guardian felt that the "heated" atmosphere heard on Lee's version of "Fever", "has an underlying suggestion that the person raising the temperature for her right now doesn't have to be the one doing it next week".
Lee's version peaked at number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US and spent a total of 12 weeks on that chart. It set a peak at number five on the UK Singles Chart where it first appeared on August 15, 1958. A reissue of the single charted again in 1992, appearing at 75 and staying for only one week. Elsewhere in Europe, Lee's "Fever" managed to peak at number eight on January 3, 1959 on the Dutch Singles Chart in Netherlands for five consecutive weeks before falling off the chart. The song also peaked at number two on the Australian Singles Chart compiled by Kent Music Report and emerged as the twentieth best-selling single of 1958 in that country.
It was nominated in the categories for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance at the 1st Annual Grammy Awards held in 1959. Lee's cover version of "Fever" became her signature song and her best-known work in addition to becoming her most successful hit. It was ranked at number 100 in the book and the accompanying list 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die by Robert Dimery. Joey Cohn ranked it as the tenth best jazz vocal in a list of 50 Great Jazz Vocals on NPR.
Peggy Lee's alluring tone, distinctive delivery, breadth of material, and ability to write many of her own songs made her one of the most captivating artists of the vocal era, from her breakthrough on the Benny Goodman hit "Why Don't You Do Right" to her many solo successes, singles including "Mañana," "Lover" and "Fever" that showed her bewitching vocal power, a balance between sultry swing and impeccable musicianship.
Born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, she suffered the death of her mother at the age of four and endured a difficult stepmother after her father remarried. Given her sense of swing by listening to Count Basie on the radio, she taught herself to sing and made her radio debut at the age of 14. She made the jump to Fargo (where she was christened Peggy Lee), then to Minneapolis and St. Louis to sing with a regional band. Lee twice journeyed to Hollywood to make her fortune, but returned unsuccessful from both trips.
She finally got her big break in 1941, when a vocal group she worked with began appearing at a club in Chicago. While there, she was heard by Benny Goodman, whose regular vocalist Helen Forrest was about to leave his band. Lee recorded with Goodman just a few days later, debuting with the popular "Elmer's Tune" despite a good deal of nerves. That same year, several songs became commercial successes including "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" and "Winter Weather." In 1943, "Why Don't You Do Right" became her first major hit, but she left the Goodman band (and the music industry altogether) later that year after marrying Goodman's guitarist, Dave Barbour.
After just over a year of domestic life, Peggy Lee returned to music, first as part of an all-star jazz album. Then, in late 1945, Capitol signed her to a solo contract and she hit the charts with her first shot, "Waitin' for the Train to Come In." Lee continued to score during the late '40s, with over two dozen chart entries before the end of the decade, including "It's a Good Day," "Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)" -- the most popular song of 1948 -- and "I Don't Know Enough About You." Many of her singles were done in conjunction with Barbour, her frequent writing and recording partner.
After moving to Decca in 1952, Peggy Lee scored with the single "Lover" and an LP, Songs From Pete Kelly's Blues recorded with Ella Fitzgerald (both singers also made appearances in the film). She spent only five years at Decca however, before moving back to Capitol. There, she distinguished herself through recording a wide variety of material, including songs -- and occasionally, entire LPs -- influenced by the blues, Latin and cabaret as well as pop. Lee also used many different settings, like an orchestra conducted by none other than Frank Sinatra for 1957's The Man I Love, the George Shearing Quintet for 1959's live appearance Beauty and the Beat, Quincey Jones as arranger and conductor for 1961's If You Go, and arrangements by Benny Carter on 1963's Mink Jazz. Barbour's problems with alcoholism ended their marriage, though they remained good friends until his death in 1965.
Peggy Lee was an early advocate of rock and made a quick transition into rock-oriented material. Given her depth and open mind for great songs no matter the source, it wasn't much of a surprise that she sounded quite comfortable covering the more song-oriented end of late-'60s rock, including great choices by Jimmy Webb, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, Goffin & King and John Sebastian. She nearly brushed the Top Ten in 1969 with Leiber & Stoller's "Is That All There Is?" She continued recording contemporary material until 1972's Norma Deloris Egstrom From Jamestown, North Dakota brought her back to her roots. It was her last LP for Capitol, however. Lee recorded single LPs for Atlantic, A&M, Polydor UK and DRG before effectively retiring at the beginning of the 1980s. She returned in 1988 with two LPs for Music Masters that revisited her earlier successes. Her last album, Moments Like This, was recorded in 1992 for Chesky. Her voice was effectively silenced after a 1998 stroke, and she died of a heart attack at her Bel Air home in early 2002. ~ John Bush, All Music Guide.
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