Fever started long ago

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Last weekend I went on a short musical excursion. It began thanks to a post on Jill London’s blog. A friend and I were comparing the translation of Charles Trenet’s Boum! (which Jill had posted) with the original French words. Though my friend has a pretty good grasp of French (my own knowledge is rudimentary), we struggled a little with this line, referring to the beating heart:

Et s’il fait boum, s’il se met en colère  /  Il entraîne avec lui des merveilles

The translation provided reads:

Then if it [i.e. the heart] goes boom if it makes me angry   /   It brings with it the wonders.

Clearly, here, we’ve hit the usual problem of translating colloquial or idiomatic French. My friend and I assumed that Trenet was here hinting at the more troublesome, or disturbing aspects of falling in love. While we were puzzling over this, a line from a song came into my mind:

My heart beats so it scares me to death

Which perhaps is close to the kind of sentiment that Trenet was expressing (I would be delighted to be corrected in this assumption by any accomplished – or native – French speakers out there, or any Trenet-philes). That line, “My heart beats so it scares me to death” is, of course from All Shook Up, made famous by Elvis Presley. And here’s where my musical excursion took an unexpected detour.

I assumed that All Shook Up was one of the Elvis songs written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller*. My friend, however, looked it up in a reference book and discovered that it was written by a certain Otis Blackwell (though Elvis is also given a writing credit for the song). I looked up Otis Blackwell on Wikipedia and discovered that he wrote a fair number of very well-known songs, including Great Balls of Fire as well as Elvis favourites Don’t Be Cruel and Return to Sender.

Now according to Wikipedia, Blackwell was also responsible for the song Fever.

My parents were great Elvis Presley fans, so I grew up with a lot of Presley records around and was always fond of his take on Fever. Here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9Ht1q9psfY

At a young age I gave little thought to songwriters and thought of Fever merely as an Elvis song. Later on, though, I discovered that Elvis’s Fever was a cover of a Peggy Lee record. People in the know informed me that Peggy’s version was the original and best. Fond as I am of the Presley version, I can’t help thinking that they have a point:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGb5IweiYG8

Best version? Quite possibly: but original? Not really. The song, as written by Otis Blackwell, was first recorded in 1956 by Little Willie John. Until last weekend, I’d never heard it, and it is a delight:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i93-hlwULUk

I like that masculine horn arrangement, and Little Willie John’s forthright performance, very much. And the arrangement changes enough from verse to verse to keep up musical interest. But what on earth happened to the song between its 1956 release and Peggy Lee’s 1958 take on it?

Before I come on to that, I should just mention a man called Eddie Cooley who co-wrote Fever with Otis Blackwell. Because of contractual complications, however, Blackwell used the pseudonym John Davenport. So the original record was credited to E Cooley – J Davenport.

Peggy Lee’s version retains the finger-snapping and the underlying riff of John’s original. It pares the arrangement down to a single bass line, but adds musical interest by the inclusion of a new middle eight and – a lovely touch this – two key modulations. In addition, Lee replaced two of the original verses with her own whimsical evocations of archetypal love affairs – those between Captain Smith and Pocahontas and, of course, Romeo and Juliet. This necessitated (lyrically as well as musically) the middle eight : “Fever isn’t such a new thing, fever started long ago”.

Presley’s 1960 version follows Lee’s fairly closely, though the drum fills on his somewhat slower version are a little more boisterous (Peggy Lee used subtle Shelly Mann on drums, and he, reportedly played with his fingers, rather than sticks). Presley also, alas, eschews the modulations that are an important refinement on Lee’s version. I do relish Elvis’s playful addition, though: he replaces Peggy’s “chicks were born to give you fever” with “cats were born to give chicks fever”, which is rather lovely. I can’t help wondering, nonetheless, why Elvis didn’t go back to Little Willie John’s version of the song which perhaps would have played better to his strengths as a performer.

So, from Charles Trenet’s joyful masterpiece Boum! I discovered an unexpected history behind a song that I thought I knew well, and I thought that this discovery might be worth sharing. Perhaps Little Willie John’s original version of Fever is still well know these days, but for me it was entirely new. And I enjoyed indulging in a little light musical archaeology. Fever, it seems, went through as much of a musical development in half a decade as I Bid You Goodnight went through in a century.

To finish, I can’t resist linking to this utterly captivating performance of Fever by Rita Moreno. I wonder whether Rita intended to include Peggy’s key changes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yvHWyvexZA

*amongst many hits to their name, Lieber & Stoller also wrote Is That All There Is? which, of course, Peggy Lee made her own in 1969, though it’s important to note that she was not the first person to record it.

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Posted in Popular music
4 comments on “Fever started long ago
  1. Jill London says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I hadn’t heard the Little Willie John version either. It gives us a good sense of the evolution of the song but I think Lee’s sultrier version really brought it together. Enjoyed seeing the The Muppets again and the lovely Moreno.

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Thank you Jill. I always enjoy hearing from you. I’m pleased that you enjoyed it. I am inclined to agree with you about Peggy Lee’s version. It’s interesting that you should use the adjective “sultry”. I suppose it is. But doesn’t its strength derive from the coolness of Peggy’s approach? Sultry and cool. As Animal remarked following his – ahem – altercation with Rita Moreno, that’s my kind of woman. That aside, though, I realised that I missed a trick in this particular post. Given that it had its origins in your post about Charles Trenet’s Boum! and in particular his line in the song about the marvels that ensue from the maddening effects of the beating heart (if that, indeed, was what he meant by that line) I should have connected up the pieces – Boum!, All Shook Up and Fever all present love as a marvellous malady.

  2. JDB says:

    I really enjoyed this tale of your exploits in musical archeology! The Little Willie John version was completely new to me, and I must say I prefer it over Miss Peggy Lee’s (it’s those horns). In the early 90s, I rented a charming Belgian movie called “Toto le héros”; at a number of points during the movie, the soundtrack included an infectious ditty, sung in French, that immediately lodged itself in my brain (in a good way!). When the credits rolled at the end I learned that the song was “Boum”….I was whistling it for days afterward, and seeing your mention of it brought a huge smile to my face this morning.

  3. G.H.Bone says:

    Thank you JDB. I’m pleased that you enjoyed my little excursion. I’m also pleased to hear that Little Willie John’s “Fever” was new to you, as it was with Jill (see exchange with her above). It seems possible that the original “Fever” was not just a gap in my knowledge, but is in fact largely forgotten these days. That’s a shame. I have to say (again, see my remarks above to Jill) that, on balance, I have to side with Peggy Lee. Her poise, her coolness and her crisp deadpan (“Fever, yea I burn, forsooth”) leave me marvelling at her seemingly effortless phrasing. But Little WIllie John: why isn’t that gorgeous record better known? As you say, those horns! Virile, yet sophisticated and luscious on the ears.

    If you’ll indulge me, I’d just like to return briefly to Peggy Lee. Just in case you haven’t heard this record, I’d love you to listen to “Folks Who Live On The Hill”. The song is one of Jerome Kern’s most inspired compositions. Peggy is beautifully warm, simple and direct, Sinatra (yes!) conducts an exceptionally good orchestra, arranger Nelson Riddle channels Copland, and the listener’s eyes swim as bar lines disappear and the melody blossoms. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nu-z8mJKzs4

    I do hope I didn’t oversell that.

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