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Notable Arkansans

by Steve Stephens and Clyde Snider, Special to the Democrat-Gazette | January 17, 2021 at 2:05 a.m.

He was born in 1937, in Cullendale (now part of Camden, in Ouachita County), one of 10 children. His father was a logger, and his mother a guitar player and gospel singer. One of his sisters would become one of Ray Charles' backup singers, The Raelettes, and a solo recording artist in her own right.

In 1942, the family moved to Detroit, where his father got a factory job. He and three of his siblings formed a gospel quartet, singing at religious gatherings and local venues. He began to make solo appearances in amateur shows in other cities, including New York, where at 17, he was noticed by another Arkansan, producer Henry Glover of Hot Springs. Within three hours of hearing him sing, Glover had him recording in a studio, and signed him to a contract with King Records. His first recording, "All Around the World," was an immediate success, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard R&B Chart. His next two recordings were also high on the chart. At 18, he recorded "Fever," which topped at No. 1, and sold more than a million copies, earning him a gold record. Two years later, Peggy Lee would record a famous cover version of the song. He made the Billboard Hot 100 a total of 14 times, many of them successfully covered later by white artists. His 1959 song, "Leave My Kitten Alone," was recorded by The Beatles in 1964, but was not released until 1995.

He was said to always carry a gun and a knife. Because of his short stature (5 feet, 4 inches), he was insecure and defensive, with a violent temper — often fueled by alcohol — greatly affecting his personal life. In 1964, a man punched him at a party — he responded by stabbing the man to death. He was convicted of manslaughter, and two years into an eight-to-20-years sentence in Washington State's Walla Walla Penitentiary, he died. The official cause of death was listed as "heart attack," but there were rumors he was strangled. He was 30 years old.

Who was this R&B singer, by whom many more-famous artists — like Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Al Green — were greatly influenced?

See Notable Arkansans — Answer

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