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The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography:
Observations About The Song "Fever"

by Iván Santiago

Page generated on Nov 11, 2021

I. Scope And Authorship

The present write-up focuses on the early history of the song "Fever," with emphasis on its two most important recordings, one by Little Willie John and the other by Peggy Lee. Notice that this is a supplementary page of the present Peggy Lee discography, which means that some of the basic data about Lee's hit version of "Fever" is not discussed herein. For such basics, including the issues on which Lee's recording has been released, see session dated May 19, 1958 in the sessionography.

The essay below is based on my research and my general thoughts on the topic at hand. Main, specific research sources can be gleaned from the text itself. I am also responsible for the full redaction of the text -- a point which I am compelled to make after seeing parts of the essay appropriated, without credit, in other sites. Moreover, various web users are passing as their own some of the factual research that I conducted and shared herein. Case in point: the various other artists who, in the span between the Little Willie John and Peggy Lee versions, recorded "Fever." There was no widespread knowledge about such versions until I first wrote about them in this discography. Granted that appropriation of other people's work is by no means a strange occurrence in the web, it still deserves, at the very least, one's expression of disapproval. (That said, I am happy to see and share in the spread of accurate knowledge.)

II. Point Of Contact: How Peggy Lee Contracted "Fever"

The song "Fever" was brought to Peggy Lee's attention by Max Bennett, who was her bassist of choice from the mid-1950s to 1970. (He would rejoin her in 1979, for the recording of one additional album.) In 2001, Bennet kindly shared the following memories:

"I joined Peggy Lee in 1956 at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas along with Lou Levy, pianist & Larry Bunker, drummer. I continued to work with her until sometime early in 1958. We had finished an engagement in Palm Springs, CA and Peggy informed the musicians that she was taking a break from performing live for an extended period of time. Prior to leaving, she mentioned to me that she was looking for a torch song & that if I heard of anything please let her know. One evening I was working in a bar on Western Ave. in Hollywood with saxophonist Nino Tempo. A young man came over to the bandstand and asked if he could sit in with the band and sing. We said yes and ask him what he would like to sing. He mentioned a song called Fever. I said that I was not familiar with that song but he explained that it was very simple with only 2 chords. We proceeded to wend our way through the song accompanying him and I realized that it was exactly what Peggy was looking for. I called Peggy the next day and told her about Fever and she proceeded to find the song. Meanwhile, since she was not working live, I joined a trio that was formed to accompany Ella Fitzgerald at a club in Hollywood on the Sunset strip."

Peggy Lee's own account of the events matches Bennett's memories. During an interview conducted in the late 1950s, she said the following: "My bass player, who is a marvelous, marvelous musician, knows that I like bass patterns and knows that I like a downhome feeling, without being rock 'n' roll. [Fever is] actually kind of an old blues bass pattern and he said, I think you ought to listen to that record."

The singer proceeded to search for the sheet music, or for any available version of "Fever" on record. She found a version by Ray Peterson, on a 45-rpm single (RCA 20-7087) which had been released in October of 1957 and released on the following month.

After listening, Lee agreed with Max Bennett: the tune heard on the Ray Peterson single could suit her purposes. It could be reshaped into the torch number that she wanted for her nightclub act. Nevertheless, neither the music nor the lyrics struck her as fully congenial with her taste. According to what she said to the aforementioned interviewer, "I thought, well, I think I'd like to use it with just the bass and drums." Hence, ignoring the rhythm & blues and rock 'n' roll leanings of Peterson's version, the artist and her musicians stripped the melody of "Fever" to its bass line and then proceeded to rebuild the number into a jazz piece featuring spare accompaniment. As for the original lyrics, Lee decided to skip about two choruses (ten lines or so) which she deemed unsuitable to her approach. Ample compensation for the deletions came in the form of several newly written choruses, amounting to over 30 new lines.

III. Breaking A Sweat: Little Willie John's Pre-"Fever" Days (And Nights)

The first artist to record "Fever," predating Ray Peterson by a year, was the r&b vocalist Little Willie John (1937-1968), born in Arkansas but raised in Michigan. His early involvement in music was a family affair, as he joined his elder brothers when they formed a local gospel quintet. The siblings had been in turn inspired by their mother, who informally sang gospel and played guitar.

Various sources identify Johnny Otis, a King Records A&R executive, as the man who discovered Little Willie John. The discovery took place during a 1951 talent contest at the Paradise Theater, in Detroit. It was an aborted "discovery," however. According to the encyclopedic website Arkansas History & Culture, John "was turned away because [he] was too young." Other sources add that another singer at the same 1951 contest, Michigan-born Hank Ballard, had caught the eye of King Records' boss Syd Nathan. The label's boss chose to sign the then-budding young adult (24 years of age), as well as a group that Otis had recommended, The Royals. But he passed on Johnny Otis' two other recommendations, one of them being Jackie Wilson, the other 14-year-old Little Willie.

John continued to pursue a solo career in the world of rhythm & blues, and succeeded at climbing several stepping stones within the next three years. For starters, he managed to line up singing gigs in the Detroit club scene. And he made his record debut toward the end of 1953, on a minor label (Prize). He would professionally graduate to bigger leagues in 1954, when bandleader and saxophonist Paul Williams hired him. An established artist with a major r&b hit under his belt ("The Hucklebuck," from 1949), Williams was taking his band on one of its national tours, and was in need of a dependable vocalist for the duration of the tour. The youngster did not turn out to fit the part all too well, alas. Around mid-1955, when the band finally reached New York City, Little Willie was fired due to temperamental and unruly behavior. His rebellious unruliness and ostentatious nature was exacerbated by a weakness for frequenting gambling joints, and a penchant for running with so-called wrong crowds.

The second and more firm discovery of William Edgar John happened in 1955, and it again involved King Records. Out of a job and needing money, John sought and succeeded at catching the interest of King's record producer for the New York area, Henry Glover. According to various encyclopedic sources, including the Musician Guide, Glover was immediately wowed by John's raw talent. "I heard Willie John at five o'clock and I was so impressed with him that at eight o'clock I had musicians in the studio and I recorded him,'" Glover claimed in later years. Thus the then-17-year-old youngster did his first session for King Records on June 27, 1955, and was promptly signed to a record contract with the label.

(A note on one of the aforementioned sources. Musician Guide commendably describes both "discoveries" of the artist, and offers a well-written text. However, the text is marred by a couple of inaccurate, misleading remarks. One: John did not co-write "Fever" with Eddie Cooley. The correct songwriters are Cooley and Otis Blackwell, aka John Davenport (not Willie John). Two: Lee's recording of "Fever" ' did not propel her to stardom.' Long before "Fever," Lee had already become a nationally known artist, with numerous noteworthy credits under her belt, including million-selling tunes, top placements in music polls, and nationwide recognition.)

Little Willie made his debut on record with the composition "All Around The World," which became a top 5 hit in the 1955 r&b charts. His was, incidentally, a cover version. The song's composer, Titus Turner, had just recorded his own tune on Mercury Records. Little Willie's catchier version was released just one month afterwards, thereby lessening any potential chart incursions for the Turner original. In producer Glover's recollection, Titus' single had actually come out on the very same day in which Little Willie John came to the recording studio. "I picked the record up, covered it, and changed the arrangement completely," Glover acknowledged. The producer's picking up of "All Around The World" for that session had taken place after having played the fresh-of-the-presses record for Little Willie earlier in the day, and hearing the singer boast that he could "do better than that."

John also had significant success with his second single. Both sides reached the top six of the r&b charts. His third issue failed to make a dent, though. King Records quickly put a remedy to that situation by releasing -- merely a month or so after the third single -- a promising fourth 45-rpm disc. Its A side was "Fever."

IV. Of Immunity And Snaps, Or How Little Willie John Resisted Any Exposure To "Fever"

Curiously, Little Willie resisted recording the song, at first. The eighteen-year-old did not find it to his liking, expressing particular displeasure at the use of finger snaps (and/or hand claps?) throughout. Fortunately, the handlers of the young and temperamental artist talked him into doing the tune. John came into the recording studio on March 1, 1956. Less than two months later, his record label already had the single on the market.

[Addendum, redacted on June 29, 20011. In a recently published biography of Little Willie John, author Susan Whitall adds: "One thing everybody agrees on is that Willie took an instant dislike to Fever. Before the session started, he greeted Henry Glover with a sassy Whatcha got for me? Got something good for you, Glover replied. He ran down the changes and lyrics for Fever ... snapping his fingers." Neither Willie nor his older brother Mertis (there partly to keep Willie in check, it seems) liked it, which eventually prompted Glover to give an ultimatum: I tell you what, if he don't do this song, he's doing nothing. Songwriter Otis Blackwell is also quoted on the matter: It wasn't the type of thing that Willie was doing at the time. He didn't like the finger snapping. With his brother's assistance and encouragement, John learned the song later that day, and came back to record it. Also, according to Mertis, "King's staff arranger Andy Lipson sketched out an arrangement, with heavy input from Glover." Little Willie John is said to have come to like the song in due time -- particularly, after seeing it become such a success for him. One of the sources which I consulted adds that "what makes the song is the guitar," a statement that is of course highly debatable.]

V. How A King Labeled And Spread "Fever" All Over An Industry

King Records heavily promoted its singles, placing ads in trade publications such as Billboard on a weekly basis. Each of such weekly 1956 Billboard ads lists from seven to ten current King singles. Furthermore, King's advertisements oftentimes received pride of place in the magazine: next to The Top 100 (the name of Billboard's mainstream pop chart at the time).

King #4935 ("Fever" / "Letter To My Darling") first appears in the ad that the company placed on the magazine's April 29 issue. It is one of that week's three brand new King singles. They are listed along with seven then-current titles -- including Little Willie's aforementioned, never-charting previous single. For the May 6 issue, the non-charting single had been dropped, and the new single had been moved up to second place in the ad's list. A few weeks later, in the June 16 issue, King began to place "Fever / Letter From My Darling" at the very top of the list. By late September, the single's prominence in the ad was eclipsed only by Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk," to which the record company would refer as "our biggest hit." All in all, King Records advertised the Little Willie single in every single Billboard issue from late April to late October 1956.

Still further, Billboard published not one but various trade reviews of "Fever / Letter From My Darling." For starters, the single was featured in the Spotlight page of the magazine's May 5 r&b section. The Spotlight writer described "Fever" as a "rhythm piece with a Sixteen Tons beat." (The latter was a reference to a previous big hit from the country pop field, sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.) In the May 12 issue, a reviewer from the r&b section's This Week's Best Buys praised Little Willie for his consistency as a hitmaker and listed the national territories in which "Fever" is showing rapid growth. Yet another promotional mention of the Little Willie John single was found in the Coming Up Strong section of the July 28, 1956 issue. Implied in that mention was the fact that the r&b record was clearly making a headway in the mainstream pop market, too -- and thus showing crossover appeal.

VI. "Fever" Score Index, Exhibit A: How Little Willie John Spread It

Little Willie's version of "Fever" climbed to the top on all three r&b Billboard charts. It did best in Most Played R&B In Jukeboxes, where it was #1 for five non-consecutive weeks, beginning with the July 21 issue of the trade magazine. In that same issue, it also topped the R&B Best Sellers In Stores chart, for the first of three non-consecutive weeks. Finally, the August 18 issue shows Little Willie's "Fever" at #1 in the Most Played By Jockeys chart. It stayed in that position just for that issue.

The smaller time spent at the top of the r&b Jockey chart might point to a divide between (male) disc jockeys who preferred other numbers and the (young female) audiences who are likely to have been the largest buying block for Little Willie John's single. A similar inference can be gleaned from a look at Billboard's 1956 Ninth Annual Disc Jockey Poll, where Little Willie John's "Fever" is actually listed as #4 among the most played r&b records of the year, but is nowhere to be found in the top 10 of favorite dj records for the same year. (The discrepancy is made all the more noticeable by the fact that every other top 10 artist, from Fats Domino and Little Richard to The Platters and Elvis Presley, can be found in both lists. The two exceptions are Little Willie John and The Teen Agers, both of which make an appearance only in the list of most played records.)

In Cash Box, the Little Willie John record ended up ranking as the Best R & B Record Of 1956, forcing The Platters' "Great Pretender" into second placement, and Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" into the third slot.

It should be noted that "Fever" was not the only song from King single #4935 that received attention in the music trade. This Little Willie John single was actually a double-sided hit. Its flip side, "Letter From My Darling" spent two weeks in the Most Played By Jockeys r&b chart and peaked at #10, thereby contributing to the single's popularity.

Little Willie's single also crossed over to the mainstream charts. After its debut at #50 on July 7 of 1956, his "Fever" peaked at #27 in the Top 100 and, according to Joel Whitburn's Billboard Book Of Top 40 Hits, stayed in the top 100 for nine weeks. It also appeared in Billboard's pop Best Seller chart for one week, at #24. Still further, Little Willie John's "Fever" entered Cash Box magazine's music chart, too, peaking at #22 and staying for 13 weeks.

In the often derivative world of rhythm & blues, the number promptly inspired copycat renditions and tongue-in-cheek parodies. One of the best among those is Joe Tex's "Pneumonia," also released on King Records (#4980). There was also the far less palatable, overtly derivative "Sugar Diabetes," written by the aforementioned Tituts Turner and released by Eddie Banks with The Five Dreamers on the Josie label (#804). Hence Little Willie's "Fever" proved a lasting source of success for King Records and the r&b market.

(However, Willie John's "Fever" did not reach the same high level of popularity enjoyed by a contemporaneous King single, Bill Doggett's rendition of "Honky Tonk." A major 1956 crossover hit, "Honky Tonk" peaked at #2 in the Top 100. It is said to have sold four million copies. Cunningly, King actually released not one but two "Honky Tonk" singles by Doggett -- starting with the instrumental that became a hit and continuing with a vocal version. It is also interesting to notice that the instrumental versions of "Honky Tonk" and "Fever" share a hard and catchy beat. The beat is partially driven by hand claps in the Doggett tune, by finger snaps and/or hand claps in the Little Willie recording. The possibility that the arrangement of Little Willie John's "Fever" was inspired by Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk" could be worth exploring -- though not in this essay, and not by someone who is not an expert in r&b music.)

According to Joseph Murrells' 1984 book Million Selling Records From The 1900s To The 1980s, Little Willie John's version of "Fever" was a million seller. (Murrells also lists Peggy Lee's version as a million seller.) [Addendum, June 29, 2011. A recently published biography of Little Willie John states that Little Willie John's single sold one million, and that Peggy Lee's single sold five millions. I do not know the source of the biographer's claim, nor can I vouch for its accuracy. Before reading this biography, I had come across an entirely different claim -- i.e., that John's single had outsold Lee's two to one. In any case, whether accurate or otherwise, the biographer in question seems to be making this statement in order to support what strikes me as, regrettably, a biased argument on her part.]

VII. Little Willie John, Post-"Fever" And Post-Mortem

Little Willie John would continue to have hits in both the r&b and pop charts for the next three years. Though none of them approached the bestselling magnitude of his "Fever," three reached the mainstream pop chart. Two of those even reached higher positions than "Fever": "Talk To Me, Talk To Me" (#20 in 1958) and "Sleep" (#13 in 1960).

Incidentally, King single #5108 featured not only the hit "Talk To Me, Talk To Me" but also a song called "Spasms," which did not chart. Musically, the song stands on its own, but lyrically, it is clearly an attempt at a "Fever" sequel. (Sample lyrics: "Oh what a fit I always get when you talk my cheek and hand ... You kiss me once, hmmm, I ask for more. You kiss me twice, wooo, I hit the floor! I say woooo .... Please save me from going crazy. Oooh, you are giving me spasms, baby!) Otis Blackwell and producer Henry Glover are the credited songwriters.

Willie John stayed with King Records until 1963, when the label dropped him, allegedly due to behavioral problems -- once again. A combination of factors caused Little Willie's life to continue on a downward spiral. The partying youngster's taste for alcohol and gambling led him to frequent somewhat seedy environments, where he sometimes had to endure heckling on account of his short height (about 5'4").

Foremost of all, his volatile temper was perennially at issue. In 1964, John was arrested after a fight in which he attacked another man with a bottle. He jumped bail and left town. Two or three years later, another altercation pushed his life into a more grave landslide. After allegedly stabbing to death another man (a former convict who had refused to give back a seat to one of the ladies at the establishment where these events took place), the artist received a manslaughter sentence. He jumped bail once again, but was finally arrested in May of 1965.

Little Willie John ended up spending most of the next two years of his life in prison. They were also his last two years: he died there at the age of 31, of causes that have never been fully clarified. A heart attack and pneumonia are cited in medical records. According to the more sensationalized but not impossible accounts of conspiracy theorists, asphyxiation or a beating led to his death, and a bureaucratic coverup ensued.)

[Addendum, June 28, 2011: Naturally, this subject matter is covered in the aforementioned biography of Little Willie John. Mention is made of theories according to which Willie John would have been assassinated by fellow convicts who were spiteful or envious of the singer's friendship with the prison guards. Yet other theories point out Willie's so-called big mouth as a potential source of lethal trouble. After having read the paragraphs that the biographer dedicates to this topic, I came away with a different impression. I felt that I was reading about a natural death that was poorly, ineptly documented in the medical records. Particularly telling was the corroborated fact that, since his childhood, John had suffered from epilepsy, an illness which could have led to numerous health complications. In any case, the question of how the young man died has yet to meet a conclusive answer.]

Little Willie John was inducted in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996. His rendition of "Fever" is listed in the hall's top 500.

VIII. The Epidemy Through Its Initial Stages: Other Artists Who Caught "Fever" In 1956 And 1957
(Sandra Meade, Arthur Lee Maye, Earl Grant, Ray Peterson)

On the same year in which Little Willie John recorded "Fever" for King Records (1956), a cover by rhythm & blues singer Sandra Meade was released on Champion Records. The arrangement for Meade's version sounds very similar to the one for the Little Willie John recording, and so does the singer's vocal -- to the point of slavish imitation.

Three additional versions were recorded during the following year (1957). One was by baseball-player-turned-vocalist Arthur Lee Maye, who waxed his "Fever" for Johnny Otis' own Dig Records. Left unissued at the time, Maye's reading had to wait until the CD era to be released. Like Sandra Meade's earlier cover, it sounds dangerously close to the Little Willie John hit -- even more so.

Of the two other 1957 versions, one was sung by organist-vocalist Earl Grant. Decca issued Grant's "Fever" on both LP (The Versatile Earl Grant) and single (backed with "Malagüeña"). The organist's interpretation is commendable for breaking away from previous versions. Grant's phrasing betrays no attempts at imitating John or anyone else -- if we leave aside an obvious though not overwhelming Nat King Cole influence. From a musical standpoint, his version also breaks away from John's mold. As should be expected, it is heavy on organ (Grant's trade). Less expectedly, it is also heavy on saxophone, but not on bass.

As for the remaining studio version from 1957, it was the aforementioned one by Ray Peterson, on RCA Victor.

Neither Sandra Meade's 1956 cover nor the 1957 versions managed to make a dent on the charts. Worthwhile as they were, and in spite of being major label releases, even Earl Grant's and Ray Peterson's "Fever" singles failed to gain widespread success. (Grant's version of "Fever" managed to peak at #52 in Cash Box, disappearing from the magazine's chart after just three weeks.)

IX. Lovely Ways To Burn: Peggy Lee's "Fever" Ignites The Nightclub Circuit, The Radio Airwaves And The Capitol Studios

In November of 1957, Peggy Lee signed a contract for a two-week concert engagement at the prestigious Copacabana club.  Lee had previously appeared there in the early 1950s, but in the four or five ensuing years she had not done any concert appearances in the Manhattan area. Set to start on February 6, 1958, the new Copacabana engagement was thus touted as her return to live performing in New York's nitery scene. 

The Copa engagement also signified a return from a brief period of self-imposed retirement.  During late 1957 and/or early 1958, Lee had tried to stay off the road.  In doing so, her goal had been not only to rest but also, and probably more urgently, to please her husband, whose preference was for her to stay home.  (Lee had married her third husband on April 28, 1956.  Another maritally-fueled attempt at semi-retirement had taken place within that year.  She had voiced her intention to stay off the road for a full year, starting in the summer of 1956.  Neither attempt seems to have gone well, and by July of 1958 the marriage had informally reached its demise.  In her mid-to-late thirties at this point in time, Lee had been a concert singer since her teens, and had thus breathed too much of a musical environment to stay away from live performance for too long.)

The venue chosen for her return to the Big Apple was known for offering eye-catching spectacle, as well as a nightly variety of artists. A Copa evening would typically present acts from distinct walks of entertainment --  In addition to the main attraction, comedians, dancers, singers, and staples such as the Copa Girls.  Essentially, patrons were attending a revue, rather than just one artist's concert.  

Intent on making her return show a spectacular event both musically and visually, Peggy Lee pulled all stops.  The artist spent over $20,000 in wardrobe alone (mostly exclusives, created by high-end designers, such as the MGM-associated Don Loper), and was coiffed in the so-called Chrysanthemum Cut, a haircut especially created for the occasion.  Her agent even sent out word that "The New Peggy Lee" was the most appropriate moniker for the performer set to appear at the Copa.

Equally lavish attention was bestowed on the musical aspects of the upcoming engagement.  Nelson Riddle arrangements were used, for starters.  Furthermore, Lee hired Sid Kuller, a talented (and probably very expensive) wordsmith who, from his roots in vaudeville, had transitioned to writing special material for all sorts of performers and occasions: Broadway shows, movies, and concerts starring the likes of Abbott & Costello, Eddie Cantor, Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Tony Martin, Groucho Marx, Louis Prima, et cetera.  

"Fever" was among the prospective nightclub numbers for which Lee commissioned Kuller to write special material, possibly with the objective of singing them while actors and/or dancers simultaneously enacted them.  (Further specifics are unclear.  On the Kuller-Lee collaboration, additional commentary has been provided below, under the section about songwriting credits.)

Peggy Lee's re-interpretation of "Fever" thus made its debut at this expensively produced but also highly successful Copacabana engagement. On just about every night the singer wounded up doing "three encore sets and an authentic beg-off," remarks Kristin Baggelaar in her worthwhile book The Copacabana.  Press reviews evince that, while certain songs that the audience already knew garnered the greatest enthusiasm, her brand new interpretation of "Fever" was very well-received.

See, for instance, Robert W. Dana's statements on his Tips On Tables column for The New York-World Telegram: "Probably the most impressive number Peggy sang was How Long Has This Been Going On?   Very effective, too, was Fever ..." 

Enthusiasm for the number built up over a short time. Three months later (May 1958), when Leee took her act to Hollywood's Mocambo, the audience reaction to "Fever" was so obviously enthusiastic that the attending Variety reviewer highlighted it above the rest of the song program. Fulfilling Lee's original intent, her rendition of "Fever" became the torchy centerpiece of each concert.

Previous to the month of May, Lee is not known to have harbored any intentions to record the number.  Her abstention was by no means out of the ordinary.  During her long career, the singer performed quite a few numbers that met with audience acclaim but which she never recorded.  (Among them:  her self-penned "How Do You Erase A Memory" and a so-called Clown Medley, conceived chiefly by Arthur Hamilton.)  Naturally, the reasoning behind Lee's abstention must have varied from one song to another.  In some instances, she seems to have thought that the success of the given number stemmed from a combination of aural and visual components, rather than from the audio alone.  Perhaps "Fever" struck her as one of those performances -- one that had been devised as a showmanship piece, and which was thus suitable chiefly for the stage. 

However (in a pattern similar to her earlier re-conceptualization of the standard "Lover"), Lee's concert version of "Fever" was met with such wild enthusiasm that its commercial potential could not be ignored for too long.   Well aware that she had a crowd pleaser in her hands, Peggy Lee further tested the song during various media appearances, including a guest spot in The Eddie Fisher Show (April 1958) and a singing segment for a telethon (date and other specifics unknown).

The telethon in question was taped at Radio Recorders by engineer Norm Pringle.  At the time, Pringle was in charge of locating and recording local radio and TV performances for prospective use by the Armed Forces Radio network. From the numbers that Lee and other artists performed at that LA telethon, Pringle became particularly impressed with "Fever."  He shared his enthusiasm with Red Robinson, the celebrated rock 'n' roll disc jockey who would go on to also have careers as TV host and advertisement agent.  

Red Robinson proceeded to play the telethon version on his radio show at CKWX (1130 AM) in Vancouver.  The phones went wild.  Since Robinson was enjoying a 50% audience share in radio ratings, his initiative had a significant impact in the early popularization of Lee's "Fever."  Word about listeners' feverish reaction to her rendition spread quickly, reaching Capitol's executive offices in Canada and the United States.  Within a matter of days, Robinson received a phone call from Merrilyn Hammond, head of sales and promotions for Capitol Records.  Making good use of the opportunity afforded by the call, the disc jockey emphasized the high volume of radio requests that the number had been receiving at CKWX, and stressed the obvious need for the immediate release of a commercial single.

On May 19, 1958, Peggy Lee arrived at Capitol Studios with the purpose of recording the first of four sessions for her upcoming album Things Are Swingin'.  Taking advantage of this occasion, Lee and company tackled "Fever" at the end of the date. Difficulties [had] stemmed from a difference of opinion on how to arrange the song. As explained by music critic Will Friedwald in an epilogue to the second edition of Lee's autobiography, she "had sketched the arrangement and given it to [Jack] Marshall. He kept adding things and Miss Lee taking them out to maintain her desire to keep it as earthy as possible. Producer Dave Cavanaugh agreed with her on this point, and as a result, the final arrangement is Peggy Lee's and hers alone." In the end, a master was successfully waxed.  The single's A side was finally on tape.

As the prospective B side, Lee decided to re-try "You Don't Know," a number that she had already recorded for release on a single a year earlier.  (Back then, the resulting master had been left in the can, presumably because it had not turned to Lee's satisfaction.  But the singer clearly loved this blues tune, and did not give up on it.  She probably felt that "You Don't Know" made a fine pairing with "Fever," which she also considered a blues number.)   "You Don't Know" was thus re-recorded right at the start of Lee's second session for the album Things Are Swingin' (May 25, 1958), before any of the numbers intended for the album.  The results proved satisfactory on this occasion. 

During the remainder of May, while Lee continued hard at work on her album sessions, Capitol wasted no time.  Capitol's single F 3998, containing "Fever" and "You Don't Know," was already out by early June 1958, and advertisement on its behalf began to appear in the mid-June issues of music trade publications.    

X. "Fever" Score Index, Exhibit B: How Peggy Lee Spread It

According to Joel Whitburn's The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Hits, Peggy Lee's recording of "Fever" debuted in Billboard's Hot 100 during the week of July 21, 1958. It peaked at #8 and stayed in the chart for 13 weeks. The song also reached the top ten of two specialized Billboard charts: #10 in the Most Played By Jockeys list and #9 in the Best Seller Pop Singles in Stores list.

In the charts of Cash Box magazine, Peggy Lee's "Fever" did even better, peaking at #6 and spending 14 weeks in the Best Selling Singles chart.

As shown in another Whitburn book (The Billboard Book Of Top 40 R&B And Hip Hop Hits) Peggy Lee's recording of "Fever" also entered Billboard's rhythm & blues charts. It peaked at #5 in the Most Played By R&B By Jockeys chart and #12 in the R&B Best Seller In Stores chart. (As for the previously mentioned Most Played R&B In Jukeboxes chart, by 1958 it was no longer operating -- or, if it was, Billboard magazine was not publishing the tabulations.)

In Great Britain, Lee's smash hit fared very well, too. "Fever" not only peaked at #5 when it was released there (1958), but it also managed to re-enter the British chart in 1992, reaching #75. (This re-entry was presumably the result of a TV commercial that featured the song.)

Furthermore, Lee's recording of "Fever" was a multiple nominee at the very first Grammy award ceremony. For starters, "Fever" was nominated for Record Of The Year. (The award-winning song ended up being "Volare," as sung by Domenico Modugno.) "Fever" also garnered a Best Arrangement nomination, which was questionably bestowed on Jack Marshall, who had not actually been involved, rather than on Peggy Lee. (Henry Mancini's arrangement of "The Music From Peter Gunn" won. See also comments about arrangements, below.) A third nomination at the ceremony was strictly for Lee, in the category of Best Vocal Performance, Female. Nominations in that category were incongruously given for both songs (interpreted by Doris Day, Peggy Lee and Keely Smith) and albums (recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Eydie Gormé). The album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Irving Berlin Songbook earned the award. Lee herself was one of the presenters during the ceremony, held on May 4, 1959.

Peggy Lee's version of "Fever" was not forgotten by the music academy, either. At a ceremony that took place in 1998, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. (For another Lee performance that also received this honor, see session dated January 24, 1969 in this page.)

And there was more. The perennial appeal of Peggy Lee's take on "Fever" was proven during the week of April 2, 2011, when the number entered Billboard chart territory once more. Climbing to the #3 slot, this showing, on the Jazz Digital Song Sales chart, was its best to date.

XI. Peggy Lee As A "Fever" Carrier: Her Contributions To The Lasting Popularity Of The Song

Peggy Lee would not record her version of "Fever" until May 19, 1958. By then (with the 1956 and 1957 versions already a thing of the past), the song was probably about to start wending its way into oblivion.

Thanks to Peggy Lee's re-conceptualization of the r&b ditty, "Fever" enjoyed not just a second run in the music charts but also a permanent placement in the world of pop and jazz standards.
The number went from being merely a minor if catchy ditty to becoming a memorably sophisticated piece of pop artistry. It is now firmly ensconced in the notoriously fleeting annals of mainstream popularity.

The fact that "Fever" became a staple of Lee's repertoire meant that audiences old and new kept on hearing it for the next four decades. Oblivion was no longer a risk for the song. After her death, the number's currency is stronger than ever, in part due to the opportunity for video dissemination that the modern-day, computerized era affords. Many amateur versions are uploaded to YouTube within any given channel, and most of the vintage versions by the artists mentioned herein can be found there, too. From Peggy Lee, the video site offers not only her original recording but also some of the televised and concert renditions that she did over the years (1958, 1965, 1966, 1969, 1984, 1986, 1990).

Insofar as it inspired so many subsequent covers, Lee's version has also kept royalties flowing for the original songwriters and/or their heirs (yet not for Lee herself). Within two years of the 1958 hit recording, new versions would start to pop up in a wide variety of music fields (teenage pop, lounge), both domestically and internationally (Sweden, Brazil, Germany, France, Finland). Around 2005, the number of officially recorded versions was about 250; by now, the 300 mark should be within reach.

XII. "Fever" Diagnosed And Assessed: Comparison Of The Two Main Hit Versions

Over the years, Peggy Lee often made a point of crediting Little Willie John as the first artist to make "Fever" a success in the charts. For some time, she actually went even further, referring to him as the writer of the song, too. On that last count, she was momentarily misinformed -- a state of affairs that is not surprising when we take into account that various individuals falsely tried to claim ownership of the original composition. (For specifics, see section entitled Songwriters, Part 2, right below.)

I should further clarify that Peggy Lee's initial public praise was bestowed not on Little Willie John's but on Ray Peterson's version of "Fever." Her references to Peterson's single were due to the fact that, at that time, she was not yet acquainted with the version by John. Lee was particularly complimentary of the musicians who backed Peterson, and which included Shorty Rogers, with whom she herself had worked before. Later on, once she found out about the original hit, Lee's praise was bestowed on Little Willie John alone.

The basic differences between the approaches that Little Willie John and Peggy Lee took to "Fever" are aptly described in an online article by Klaus Kettner and Tom Wilkinson: "Little Willie John ... infused it with a thinly veiled eroticism that appealed to the young black female audience who bought the disc in large quantities ... The song received its definitive form from Peggy Lee, when she reworked [it as a] bass, drums and finger snapping version. In the hands of Miss Lee, the basic earthiness contained in Little Willie John's interpretation was replaced by a sophisticated eroticism." Both versions are, in the opinion of this discographer, excellent. Picking a favorite out of the two means having to make a choice between earthiness or sophistication, obviousness or subtlety, sexuality or sensuality, adolescence or adulthood, masculinity or femininity, rhythm & blues or jazz and blues-oriented pop. In the best of worlds, no "picking" should be necessary.

June 29, 2011:

I regretted reading various disparaging comments made by the author of the recently published biography of Little Willie John. I hope that the present essay will make it clear that the biographer's comments about Peggy Lee and her version of "Fever" are alternatively off the mark or unnecessary. John's connection to "Fever" is indisputable, and does not need to be boosted though low-cut strategies, such as the act of putting down other versions.

Of the various negative comments that the biographer makes, the one that most merits a response is her characterization of Lee's recording of "Fever" as a case of, shall we say, Caucasian opportunism. The author tries to dump Lee with Pat Boone and Georgia Gibbs, both white vocalists (of a different generation and a different stylistic bent than Lee) who have been berated for waxing somewhat "sanitized" versions of certain r&b ditties. At the request of the respective labels to which they were signed, Boone and Gibbs recorded those ditties when they were brand new in the market, and instantly saw them skyrocket in the charts. Thus their versions eclipsed the bestselling potential of the debut recordings, which had been made by black artists. (The purpose of this addendum is not to discuss any of those artists' individual cases, nor to dwell on the state of the music industry at the time. I would like to make passing reference, however, to the likely but seldom mentioned role that those ditties' songwriters and songpluggers played in their dissemination. Those gentlemen must have been making the labels' rounds, eager to have as many recordings of their songs as possible.)

Since Peggy Lee's version of "Fever" was made two years after the original by John, and since in the interim the number had been recorded by a fair number of additional artists (both black and white, some of them slavishly imitating John'd original), the biographer is obviously misguided in her attempt at linking Lee with those of the other white artists. The error of the biographer's ways is further made evident by one of the very detractors that she quotes. Though openly expressing his dislike of Lee's version, this gentleman (a black artist connected to John) still acknowledges that "I don't think it hurt ... If anything it made him more business ... It probably helped him a lot."

In recording "Fever" two years after the original, Lee was also doing what tons of other (black, white, yellow, green or blue) artists of her generation (and of later generations) have commendably done: keeping such songs current and adding to their appeal. It is worth adding that her version reinvigorated the song not only in the top 100 but also in the r&b chart: as already detailed, Lee's interpretation entered the r&b charts, where it did very well, too. (Therefore, her vocal held appeal beyond the mainstream.)

If we must introduce racial elements into the equation, I should then point out that examples of African-American vocalists who "covered" recordings by Caucasian singers can also be found. In Peggy Lee's own case, The Mills Brothers' version of "I Don't Know Enough About You" remained neck-in-neck with Lee's original in the charts. Also, Sarah Vaughan recorded "What More Can A Woman Do" shortly after Peggy Lee's single of the same song had come out; Big Maybelle followed suit some years later. The practice is not uni-directional. It's not even "bi-racial": I have already alluded to the fact that Little Willie John's debut, "All Around The World" was a cover of a record whose sales must have thus been affected by John's successful version, because the two singles were released only one month apart.

In any case, I was highly disappointed to encounter, in what otherwise read to me like a decently written biography, an overtly biased approach on this particular matter.

XIII. Other Charting Versions Of Fever

Proving its malleability, the song "Fever" charted not only for Little Willie John and Peggy Lee but also for two acts who recorded later versions. In 1966, the teen group The McCoys took their Beat(les)-lite rendition to #7 in Billboard (#9 in Cash Box), and stayed in the Hot 100 for 8 weeks. In 1993, Madonna took her techno version to #1 in Billboard's Hot Dance/Disco chart. Hence the song has enjoyed four different runs in Billboard's charts.

Furthermore, Peggy Lee's own version charted twice in the British charts, first in 1958 and then many years later, in 1992, after a TV commercial revived interested in the song.

The Cash Box also lists a 1962 version by Pete Bennett & Embers that stalled at #98.

XIV. Later Carriers Of "Fever"

Due to the perennial success and currency of the Peggy Lee version, the song has been tackled by a wide and diverse number of acts. From Elvis Presley and Ruth Brown to Madonna and Beyoncé, "Fever" has remained in vogue.

Elvis Presley (1960) was directly inspired by Peggy Lee (1958). He sticks close to her phrasing, and includes the special lyrics that were new to Lee's version. The prominent finger snaps from her arrangement are kept, too. In the end, swagger and an injection of testosterone are the sole contributions of his cover.

Ruth Brown sang the song at a 1994 tribute to Peggy Lee that was held by the Society of Singers. Her excellent rendition can be watched and heard here. Peggy Lee was present in the audience.

The arrangement of Beyoncé's version is ostensibly inspired by the Little Willie John r&b piece -- or by versions from artists who closely followed his approach. However, she too sings the lyrics of Peggy Lee's version.

Madonna went to see Peggy Lee perform in 1992, and met with her backstage, after the show. Presumably under the belief that Peggy Lee had something of a proprietary claim to the song (as it was the older singer's signature number), Madonna politely asked Lee for "permission" to record it herself.

Another recent version that has received plenty of attention is by the popular Michael Bubble. His vocally derivative version (Elvis-imitative in spots) benefits greatly from a punching arrangement and excellent musical backing. It too uses the special lyrics from the Peggy Lee version .

XV. Official (Or Popular) Remixes of Fever

Gabin's Remix Of Peggy Lee's "Fever"
Alex Callier's Remix Of Peggy Lee's "Fever"
Mark Vidler's Mashup "Passenger Fever"

Peggy Lee had no direct involvement in the making of the above-listed mashup and remixes. They were made, however, with Capitol's consent, and copies are kept it the company's vaults.

Mark Vidler's oft-praised mashup consists of "Fever" and Iggy Popp's "The Passenger" -- a number that Popp co-wrote with Rick Gardiner. The mashup comes from Vidler's CD Mashed, which his company (Go Home Productions) released in association with Virgin and EMI Music.

For more issues containing these mixes, see also this discography's page for Various-Artists Compilations.

XVI.  Songwriters, Part 1:   
Valid Credits For The Writing Of "Fever" 
(Otis Blackwell & Eddie Cooley) (Sid Kuller & Peggy Lee)

Otis Blackwell and Eddie Cooley wrote the original lyrics and melody of "Fever."  Both were singer-songwriters.  A pianist by trade, Blackwell is also one of the major songwriters from the early world of rock 'n' roll, with credits such as "All Shook Up," "Don't Be Cruel," and "Great Balls Of Fire."  Cooley's claim to fame is circumscribed to his connections with Blackwell -- specifically, their 1956 co-writing of the songs "Fever" and "Priscilla."  The latter became a rockabilly hit for Cooley when his demo version ignited interest from a producer, who had him sing it.  Cooley did so in the company of a female trio (The Dimples) set up by Blackwell for the occasion.  A handful of additional recordings and songwriting credits failed to make much of a dent for Cooley. 
Otis Blackwell was often asked about the genesis of his songs, and over the years he offered several accounts of how "Fever" came to be.  The previously mentioned article by Kettner and Wilkinson quotes some of his comments: "Eddie Cooley was a friend of mine from New York and he called me 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."  The pseudonym that he picked was actually his stepfather's real name, John Davenport.

In an interview for the July 1979 issue of the magazine Time Barrier Express, Blackwell elaborated further on the matter of the song's conception:  " There was a group I became friendly with. One of its members Eddie Cooley, wasn't a singer then, we just write songs for the group. When the group broke up, he went back to the diamond business. It paid 180 dollars a week, so we had an agreement to write songs together and I would come to New York to hustle them and he would split his weekly pay with me. That enabled me to get around and meet people, the publishers, record companies, to hustle whatever songs we could a $25 advance for. A friend took me to Henry Clover at King Records to play a few songs - 'Fever' was one. We got a few dollars advance and when it became a hit it made us professional writers. I guess." 

The set of lyrics for which "Fever"is best remembered were not written by Blackwell and Cooley, however.  About half of the lyrics heard in Peggy Lee's 1958 hit recording were brand new.  The so-called "history lessons" about Romeo and Juliet, Captain Smith and Pocahontas are not part of the Little Willie John version, or any other version that preceded Lee's.  Ditto for the chorus that ends with "Chicks were born to give you fever /  Be it Fahrenheit or centigrade."  Re-sung on most of the versions that have followed Lee's, those lyrics are incorrectly assumed to be by Blackwell and Cooley.  In the later decades of her life, Peggy Lee lamented never having taken steps toward copyrighting them.

The lyrics were originally written as a special material for a Peggy Lee comeback concert at the Copacabana.  The importance of the occasion led Lee to hire Sid Kuller, a professional writer with an extensive career in showbusiness.  The apparent goal was to have Kuller contribute lyrics that dancers or actors could enact, as Lee sang them during this Copacabana engagement. "Fever" was among the concert numbers to which Kuller was asked to contribute.

The specifics behind the working relationship between Kuller and Lee are not known.  Lee might have had a sketch and/or a general leading concept in mind, dictating that the special lyrics should concentrate on "history's love lessons."  Kuller would have relied on Lee's sketch as he actually put pen to paper.  Other scenarios are plausible, too.  Biographer James Gavin offers one such alternate scenario as fact. (He does not provide a source for it, thereby leading the reader to suspect that it could have been imagined by the biographer instead.)  In Gavin's words, Kuller "suggested adding some substitute verses based on hot-and-bothered historical figures.  Lee began writing -- and, with Kuller's aid, she came up with several additional stanzas.  One concerned Pocahontas .... and her very mad affair with John Smith.  Another was about Romeo and Juliet.  Additional ones revealed her own case of Fever."  

In any case, these additional "Fever" lyrics were borne out of the minds of Kuller and Lee.  Kuller's involvement was pointed out by Lee in three or four of her interviews over the years. For instance, in the mid-1970s she told Wink Martindale that she "was singing some special lyrics that were partly Sid Kuller's and partly mine, and then of course partly the original song, which Max Bennett brought to me. In other casual interviews and also in her autobiography, Lee claimed ownership of the special lyrics without mentioning a second pen -- presumably because Kuller had bee hired and paid for his involvement and, more importantly, because she did did not want to go into a long or complicated explanation over what could one day become a legal battle.  Had the lyrics been copyrighted, Lee would have probably sought out to obtain credit for both herself and Kuller.  Such was the procedure followed for another piece of special material that they co-wrote and she sang live, How Can You Erase A Memory.

In 1989, Lee wrote additional lyrics alone, for a version that she recorded on the MusicMasters label.  One of the two new verses alludes to the success that Lee's 1958 recording enjoying at the time in France, as a staple of catwalks and fashion shows.  (For basic discographical details about that version, consult studio sessions dated November 1-3, 1989, in the MusicMasters And Harbinger page.

XVII. Songwriters, Part 2:
False Credits For The Writing Of "Fever"
(Little Willie John, Titus Turner, Joe Tex)

Little Willie John had no involvement whatsoever in the writing or composition of the song, yet has been wrongly given credit in some sources. Aforementioned authors Kettner and Wilkinson speculate that, when Peggy Lee's version made the song a hit all over again, Little Willie John might have tried to capitalize by taking credit for its writing.

Adding to the confusion is a quote made by contemporary singer-songwriter Tom Russell in his songbook 120 Songs (2012). Russell states that “[t]he great songwriter Otis Blackwell visited my bunker, when I lived in Brooklyn, and told me how he wrote ‘Fever’ with Little Willie John. Otis mentioned that Willie died in prison.” Russell seems to have resided in Brooklyn for much of the 1990s. Brooklyn native Blackwell moved to Nashville in 1990, suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1991, and passed away 12 years later. Presumably, his bunker visit took place some time earlier than 1990. In any case, the most likely explanation for Russell's claim is that he simply misunderstood Blackwell's comments about Little Willie John's involvement with the song.

Joe Tex (who recorded for King Records in the 1950s) and Titus Turner (whose songs Little Willie John helped to popularize) have also been incorrectly credited with writing the song. In Turner's case, he himself is said to have tried to pass it as his own. (In 1956, he did write and record "Pneumonia," a parody or answer song to "Fever." King Records released "Pneumonia" as single #4980. Sample lyrics: "The love you gave me has grown so cold, I got pneumonia in my heart and soul ... When the moon lights up the nighttime, sun lights up the sky, you won't be able to tell the difference 'cause I'm g'nna blacken both of your eyes. You gave me pneumonia, baby!") [Addendum, June 18, 2011: The recently published biography of Little Willie John mentions that Tex claimed to have written the lyric and to have then sold it. At one point Tex said that he had sold the song to Blackwell, at another point to Glover. He also claimed to have instructed Glover to set the lyrics to the melody of "Sixteen Tons."]

In more recent times, I have come across another allegation on the net, to the effect that "Fever" actually goes all the way back to 1937, when it would have been recorded by a blues singer named Martha Bell. I am not acquainted with the singer, nor have I ever heard on any such recording. In short, I have found no corroboration for what strikes me as a very odd and unlikely claim.

XVIII. Peggy Lee's Arrangement Of "Fever"

Over the years, the topic of who arranged Peggy Lee's version of "Fever" became a sore topic for the artist. She conceived the basic idea for the arrangement (see next paragraph), but all official paperwork credits Jack Marshall, who was the conductor and arranger of the other songs which were recorded during the session. Hence, when "Fever" was nominated at the Grammys for Best Arrangement, Lee was not credited, and the nomination went to Marshall.

In Peter Richmond's biography of Peggy Lee, bassist Max Bennett is quoted on this matter. Bennett's take is that the song was "obviously rearranged by Peggy and the musicians." For his part, biographer Richmond adds that "[i]t was Peggy's idea to cut out the guitar and use just a string bass, Jack Mondragon; a drummer, Shelly Manne; and a finger-snap, furnished by Howard Roberts, the guitarist whose guitar had been shelved. It was likely Manne's idea to use his fingers on the snare and tom-tom to accompany his perfect bass drum."

The scenarios envisioned by both Peter Richmond and Max Bennett are logical, but the caveat should be made that neither gentleman was present at the recording date, nor at the rehearsals or the concert performances that preceded the session. Richmond cites no source(s) and no corroborating evidence. Although he presents most of his statement as fact, Richmond is merely building on comments made elsewhere by others -- music reviewers and Lee fans, none of them actual session participants. As for Max Bennett, he was temporarily working for another singer around the time of the "Fever" date. While grounded on his own experience as Lee's bassist and thus entirely valid, Bennett's comment thus falls under the realm of reasonable inference. In short, these two otherwise worthwhile sources are not direct testimonials of what happened at the recording date.

Fortunately, we have two direct testimonials, one from Peggy Lee's daughter Nicki Lee Foster and the other from Lee herself. The following is the singer's own take on the subject, as presented in her autobiography: "Incidentally, I also did the arrangement of Fever. I well remember the day I demonstrated it to famous lyricist Sammy Cahn and told him I wanted to use bass, drums and finger snapping. (Jack Marshall, my conductor on the recording date [was Grammy nominated] for that arrangement.) Somehow it all worked." It should be clarified that Lee was not claiming to have put the final arrangement in writing, or to have notated it. Lee probably meant that she had conceived the general, defining ideas in the arrangement, such as the reduction of the instrumentation and the maintenance of a slow-burn pace. After coming up with those ideas and rehearsing them with her musicians, she would have then either written or performed them for Marshall, asking him to notate her conceptualization.

Indeed, the scenario speculated in the last sentence is the one that have been corroborated by Nicki Lee Foster. Her reminiscence is indirectly quoted in the epilogue to the second edition of Lee's autobiography (published post-mortem). The epilogue was written by Will Friedwald, who states : "As her daughter Nicki remembers, Peggy Lee had sketched the arrangement and given it to Marshall. He kept adding things and Miss Lee taking them out to maintain her desire to keep it as earthy as possible. Producer Dave Cavanaugh agreed with her on this point, and as a result, the final arrangement is Peggy Lee's and hers alone. Yet because Marshall was the officially credited orchestrator on the session, when Fever received a Grammy Award nomination for best arrangement, the name on the certificate was Marshall's, not Lee's. At the time, the misdirected award [nomination] rankled with the singer, and Marshall would have not hesitated to correct the error, but she took the advice of Cavanaugh and other Capitol bigwigs not to make waves and risk being branded as a trouble-maker by the showbiz establishment. But [eventually, she would come] around to the view that she should fight for what was right."

Since Jack Marshall was a guitarist by trade, the addition of a part for guitar must have been among his proposed contributions to the arrangement. As already mentioned, the guitar part was tried and ultimately skipped at the recording session. In short, Marshall notated the arrangement, but its creation and full conception was entirely Lee's.

To this day, all Capitol issues of the original recording continue to be released with the legend "arranged and conducted by Jack Marshall," in spite the fact that there couldn't have been much conducting in a number of this kind. It is also worth noting that "Peggy Lee With Jack Marshall's Music" is the credit given in the original 45-rpm release of "Fever." Yet Marshall did not play any instrument in the master recording, either.

XIX. Who's Who: The Musicians Who Played (And Who Didn't Play) On Peggy Lee's Capitol Recording Of "Fever"

Capitol master #19145 features only vocal (Peggy Lee), string bass (Joe Mondragon), finger snapping (credited to different people in different reports, none confirmed), and snare drums (by Shelly Manne, who actually turned off the snares, using his fingers instead of drum sticks).

In some online sites and fan blogs, Peggy Lee's recording has been wrongly credited to other sets of musicians. Instead of Shelly Manne, Stan Levey has been listed. Instead of Joe Mondragon, Monty Budwig or Red Mitchell. There is no factual support behind those other names. The personnel that I have just listed is the official one. Confirmation comes from:

a) first and foremost, the official (musician) contract sheets for the session, kept by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).

b) bassist Max Bennett. Although Bennett did not play in the session, he was the person who brought the song to Lee, and he was her regular bassist for most of her second period at Capitol Records. (As explained in an earleir section, Lee's decision to take a temporary rest from live performing earlier in 1958 led Bennett to do work chiefly with Ella Fitzgerald for a while. He was thus unavailable for the "Fever" recording date. After having spent about a year with Fitzgerald, he would return to work with Lee, however. For Bennett's own participation in another Peggy Lee version of "Fever," see Lee's Basin Street East sessions, dated February and March 1961, in this page of the sessionography.)

c) the book Shelly Manne, Sounds Of A Different Drummer, by Brand & Korst. The book's discography lists both Manne and Mondragon as members of this May 19, 1958 session. (The authors also refer to a 1960 Shelly Manne instrumental version of "Fever," recorded by Manne with Roy Brown and others, which obviously should not to be confused with Peggy Lee's various vocal versions of the song.)

The finger snapper heard throughout "Fever" is the only participant whose identity is still in contention, because this role goes uncredited in the AFM sheets. See next section.

XX.  Finger-Snapping "Fever"

Nowadays, the snapping of fingers is deemed an integral element of the song "Fever."  Ironically, those snaps ran the risk of being altogether skipped from both Little Willie John's and Peggy Lee's versions.  

Little Willie disliked the number when he first heard it, and  resisted recording it.  The finger snaps ranked high among the strongest reasons for his dislike.  This state of affairs could have easily resulted in his request that the snaps be dropped, as a condition for him to record the song.  Fortunately, the situation did not reach such a critical stage.  Since Little Willie was in no bargaining position, he eventually acquiesced to the demands of producer Henry Glover.

According to witness accounts, snapping fingers had been a characteristic, compulsive practice for Peggy Lee since the 1940s.  However, her initial version of "Fever" resorted to foot stomping instead of finger snapping.  During concert renditions of "Fever" that predate her May 19, 1958 Capitol session, she would stress key parts of the song -- e.g., the titular word -- by banging the floor with one foot.  One likely reason for the absence of snaps was that they were not part of the one version that she had hitherto heard.  (At most, some of the bass thumping and drum tapping of Ray Peterson's version may dimly sound like hand clapping to some ears.)

But, by the time that she waxed her version for Capitol Records, Peggy Lee had fortunately settled on the notion of finger snapping.  The latter was not only less strenuous than foot stomping but also more suitable to her cool-oriented version.  The shift could have been inspired by a recent listening of the Little Willie John recording, although the sources that I consulted have led me to the impression that Lee did not listen to the latter until some time after her recording came out.  Another plausible scenario is that Max Bennett could have mentioned the finger snapping to Lee, if there was any, during the aforementioned gig with Nino Tempo.  There is also the possibility that Lee herself could have come upon the notion of finger snapping, due to her already stated penchant for doing so on a compulsory basis.  

At concert performances from later years, Peggy Lee herself would invariably be the chief finger snapper, joined by the pianist and by any other musicians who were not occupied in the act of playing. But, at the 1958 studio session, someone other than Lee is likelier to have taken over that essential function.  Proposed candidates include guitarist Howard Roberts (who was definitely present during the date) and percussionist Mike Pacheco (who was not).  In an interview from the late 1970s, Peggy Lee identified someone else: producer Dave Cavanaugh.  Bassist Max Bennett offers the following account of what transpired at the session.  The account is based on his acquaintance and talks with some of the session musicians, who are no longer with us:

"Shelly Manne was the drummer, Joe Mondragon was the bass player & Howard Roberts was the guitarist. At the recording session it was soon realized that drums & bass were all that was needed & Howard became the finger snapper on the recording. Shelly Manne used his fingers instead of drumsticks for the final percussive effect. Kudos should go to the musicians for the marvelous inventive rendition of this song. After a year+ with Ella, I rejoined Peggy and was able to contribute to a live rendition of Fever with a slightly embellished bass line at Basin Street East in New York. It is not often that one gets to contribute to what became a famous hit song by a famous vocalist such as Peggy Lee and I was delighted to play a part in it." 

Even if  Roberts, Cavanaugh, Marshall, or somebody else were ever officially proven to have snapped fingers at the date, readers should bear in mind that the actual recording might have not necessarily kept those original finger snaps.  To achieve a stronger or louder overall effect, Cavanaugh and the Capitol engineers could have overdubbed new finger snaps for the final mixing of the track. (Then again, the engineering evidence suggests that no overdubbing took place. The mono tape(s) used to record "Fever" consisted of three tracks. At the session, all three tracks were used to record the performance, thereby making it impossible to do any future overdubbing. Although it is less clear if all tracks from the stereo tape(s) were used, close listening of the finger snaps in the stereo version does not suggest them to be any different from the snaps in the mono version. If anything, the finger snaps are at times harder to hear in stereo, and thus unlike to have been "remade" or overdubbed.)

XXI. Stereophonic Versus Monophonic: Sound Cures, Applied To Peggy Lee's Capital Case Of "Fever"

The stereo and mono issues of "Fever" come from the very same take. In other words, both feature the exact same vocal from Lee and the exact same playing from the musicians. The difference is only in the channeling itself, to either mono or stereo.

To casual listeners, divergences between the mono and stereo issues should be barely noticeable, if at all. Since there was no orchestra and no plethora of instruments to be separated in one or the other channel, both mono and stereo issues are likely to please casual listeners.

Audiophile listeners are a different audience, of course. They are likelier to pick the mono mix as the superior one. This perceived superiority is largely the result of how the microphones were set up for mono and stereo. The mono channel appears to have been closely miked: the bassist probably had its own mike, and ditto for the drummer and the vocalist. The finger snapper might have had his own microphone as well. As a result of this individual miking of all personnel members, each instrument has the potential to produce a heightened, visceral impact on the attentive listener -- particularly the bass, since it is prominently played from beginning to end.

On the other hand, the method followed for stereo channeling does not seem to have involved any exclusive pairing of musician with microphone. Instead, the microphones were probably positioned so that they could pick up unison playing: up in the air, to the right, left, and front of the performing group. (Lee would have been the only member with his or her own mike.)

The above-described differences in the area of microphone setup generally apply to Capitol's recordings of the mid to late 1950s, when stereo was still in its experimental stages. At that time, Capitol was using close miking specifically for mono, not for stereo recording. The matter is further explained in the following note, from the booklet of the Capitol CD Things Are Swingin': "Fever and You Don't Know are presented [in this CD] in their original mono versions because they sound the best in this form. Recorded in the sessions for this album, they were first released in May of 1958 as A and B sides on a 45-rpm single. The stereo microphone pickup on these two tracks was unsatisfactory. Capitol engineer Jay Ranellucci was at the sessions for this album and commented that stereo was in its experimental stages at the time and the engineers were instructed to give the highest priority to the mono recording. There were to be no stops or interruptions if problems arose with the stereo tapings. The engineers were allowed to make fixes during the sessions only if there was a problem with the mono sound coming through. Duplicate sets of microphones and tape machines were used - one for the mono tapes and separate mikes, boards and tape machines for the stereo tapes. Within a year or so this duplication was eliminated and virtually everything recorded at the Capitol Tower was made onto 3 track stereo tape and later mixed down from those tapes into mono and two track stereo." (Duly noted. It should be added, however, that the stereo master of "Fever" sounds quite fine in its newly mixed incarnation for the 2008 CD All Aglow Again).

XXII. Mono, Stereo, And Duophonic Issuing Of Peggy Lee's Capitol Recording Of Fever

Originally, "Fever" was released as a mono single only (1958). That mono version, issued as Capitol single F 3998, is the one that charted, and the one that has become famous. The same mono recording has of course been transferred onto later singles, not to say anything of countless LPs and CDs. See listed releases in the 1957-1959 page, under session dated May 19, 1958.

Capitol's first stereo version of "Fever" dates from 1959. It was featured in two issues from that year. One was a various-artists compilation LP that was pointedly called More Stars In Stereo. The other was a Peggy Lee EP titled Fever (Sep 1 1232). During the rest of the LP era, "Fever" was issued primarily in its mono hit version, however.

After the aforementioned 1959 and 1960 appearances, the true stereo version of "Fever" does not seem to have left the vaults until the 1980s. It was included in the budget compilation Fever And Other Hits, which record guides list as initially released on cassette by Capitol's branch of Special Markets Products in 1984. (The CD counterpart has a 1990 date.) There had also been a EP release abroad ("Dance Forever" Series, No. 28, France, 1983). In 1985, there was another appearance of the stereo version in a Time-Life issue (cassette and LP) that was part of the label's well-produced "Legendary" album series.

During the 1990s, the stereo version also showed up in a handful of various-artists CDs. (See this discography's separate page for various-artists compilations.)

Around 1995, new mixes of the stereo version began to make appearances in Peggy Lee CDs. There was her CD from Capitol's "Spotlight On ... Ladies And Gentleman Of Song" series, in which liner annotator Joseph Laredo states that the song "appears here in a stereo mix from the original three-track recording of a rendition that had previously been available only on an old EP...." Next, the stereo version was included in Capitol's 4CD "pink" box from 1998 (Miss Peggy Lee) and in the one-disc offshoot from that box (The Best Of Miss Peggy Lee). Those were followed by a 2000 British, above-average EMI CD compilation (The Very Best Of Peggy Lee). More recently, a brand new remix from the original three-track tapes was made, and released in the Collectors' Choice CD All Aglow Again (2008).

Duophonic was the name of Capitol's own so-called brand of electronically reprocessed stereo. It was a process applied to mono recordings so that they could sound closer to stereo. In the 1960s and 1970s, when stereo became widely popular, major companies such as Capitol, Columbia, and RCA developed their own competing technologies of this type, in an effort to lure listeners to buy new, re-channeled versions of old mono product. Nowadays, all those technologies are deemed sonically subpar.

I know of three releases which contain a duophonic version of "Fever." Perhaps tellingly, all three are Capitol compilations from the 1960s: Bewitching-Lee! (1962), The Hits Of Peggy Lee (1967), and Peggy Lee's Greatest! (1969). The album Bewitching-Lee! was actually issued in both mono and duophonic versions, whereas Peggy Lee's Greatest! was released (as far as I know) in duophonic only. As for The Hits Of Peggy Lee, it is mainly a true stereo album, its "Fever" being among the exceptions to the general rule. (On the subject of Bewitching-Lee!, I should also add that I have only listened to T 1743, the mono version of the album. Thus I can not ascertain how extensive the use of duophonic is in the DT 1743 counterpart. Given the D branding in the catalogue number, I can only presume that most if not all of the tracks indeed are in duophonic. As for the CD issues of Bewitching-Lee!, the one on S&P definitely used the mono tracks. Technicalities are harder to establish in the case of the more pallid-sounding DCC disc, but it stands to reason that mono was used for that CD as well.)

In recent decades, some online sellers have inappropriately touted those duophonic albums as containing the stereo mix of "Fever." Said sellers are apparently unfamiliar with the duophonic technology, or otherwise too careless to bother with the albums' fine print.