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Fever – Peggy Lee with Jack Marshall’s Music

‘Fever’ was the first hit written by seminal rock’n’roll writer Otis Blackwell…

Fever – Peggy Lee with Jack Marshall’s Music

Capitol 3998 (USA) / Capitol CL14902 (UK)

Recorded at Capitol Tower, Hollywood, 19th May 1958

Released June 1958

Writers John Davenport & Eddie Cooley

Producer Dave Balfour    Arrangement by Dave Balfour & Peggy Lee

USA #8   8/58    UK #5   9/58

Though originally a Top 30 US hit for Little Willie John in 1956 (recorded at King Studios, Cincinnati, 1st April 1956), it was Peggy Lee’s pared down version of ‘Fever’ two years later that turned the song into an international hit, one of the most distinctive in pop music history. Born Norma Delores Egstrom, of Scandinavian descent, in North Dakota in 1920, Peggy Lee milked cows before making her singing debut on a local radio show and was an accomplished blues, jazz and pop vocalist long before ‘Fever’ became a worldwide hit in 1958. Ms Lee, who passed on in January 2002, began her singing career with the Jack Wardlow Band in 1936. However, it was when she replaced Helen Forrest as vocalist with Benny Goodman’s band in 1941 that she found real success. It wasn’t long before she married the band’s guitarist Dave Balfour, embarking on a solo career, and the couple later collaborated on many of her most popular songs.

Her biggest career hit was ‘Manana’, a US Number 1 for 9 weeks in 1948. She also won a Grammy Award for her 1969 recording of Lieber & Stoller’s ‘Is That All There Is?’ Not just a singer, Peggy Lee became an accomplished writer, arranger and actress. She appeared in a number of Hollywood movies during the 1950s including a re-make of the first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer in 1952. (This was later “re-made” yet again, starring Neil Diamond in 1980.) For Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), a re-creation of the 1920s jazz-age, she starred as an alcoholic singer and was nominated for an Oscar® for Best Supporting Actress. However, her most successful film performance was one in which she didn’t actually appear in person at all! For Disney’s 1955 classic, Lady And The Tramp, Ms Lee wrote a number of songs and also supplied the voices of characters Peg, Darling and the Siamese cats, Si and Am.

‘Fever’ was the first hit written by seminal rock’n’roll writer Otis Blackwell (‘All Shook Up’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, ‘Great Balls Of Fire’, ‘Return To Sender’), and he wrote the song together with Eddie Cooley but used the pseudonym ‘John Davenport’ since he still had contractual obligations under a previous recording contract with Jay-Dee Records. In need of some cash, Cooley and Blackwell had sold the song to Atlantic Records for $75, but Cooley wanted to record it himself, and with this in mind he presented it to Henry Glover, artist and repertoire chief at King Records. Glover swiftly bought the song back from Atlantic, but instead of letting Cooley record it, he gave it to Little Willie John, and John’s version went to #24 on the US charts in the summer of 1956.

The version of ‘Fever’ that Peggy Lee sang was, in fact, considerably different from Little Willie John’s original. Her hypnotic, stripped-down arrangement of bass (Joe Mondragon), drums (Shelly Manne –actually played with his bare hands) and finger popping (Howard Roberts), with progressive key-changes and a new bridge was a radical improvement. Not only that, but the song was completely re-written and expanded. Peggy Lee only used 2 of the song’s original 4 verses and in fact created 3 entirely new verses of her own, including those about Romeo and Juliet and Captain Smith and Pocahontas. This should have been more than enough to win her a songwriting credit, but the song’s publishers refused. Much covered over the years, ‘Fever’ has been recorded by Elvis, Brenda Lee, the McCoys (as follow-up to their #1 ‘Hang On Sloopy’) Madonna and Beyonce, to name but a few. However, there is no doubt that it was Peggy Lee’s skilful vocal, arranging and writing talents that turned what might have remained a small US R&B hit into a worldwide standard.


Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton

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