WILSON PICKETT

Many an auditorium stage has been set ablaze by big, bold entertainers, but if you placed any of them in a screaming, shouting, soul singing standoff against Wilson Pickett, the Alabama-born "Midnight Hour" man would score a sonic knockout; James Brown, his only real competition (that would be a matchup to remember!), might have to break out his signature dance moves to get a leg up on such a formidable opponent. Starting in 1962, when Wilson burst forth as the loudest of The Falcons' four lead singers, radio listeners were treated to a decade of extraordinary energy as he notched some of the hottest rhythmic hits this side of N.Y. By the mid-'60s a cunningly accurate nickname, The Wicked Pickett, had become widespread (in '67 it was the title of his fourth album for Atlantic Records).

Wilson, the youngest of eleven children, picked cotton alongside his siblings while growing up in Prattville, Alabama, and spent his Sundays singing with the choir in the Baptist church the family attended. In 1955 he moved to Detroit to live with his estranged father and soon the 14-year-old was performing with a gospel group, The Violinaires; when the spirit moved him he got carried away, screaming like a soul possessed. Though there was no initial plan to sing anything but religious spirituals, Pickett's attitude changed in his later teens as he noticed popular artists like Sam Cooke (of gospel's Soul Stirrers) and Aretha Franklin (who sang at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church where her father, C.L. Franklin, was minister) had crossed over into secular careers. The lure of fame and fortune was hard to resist. By 1960, Wilson had decided to join Sam and Aretha on the devil's side of the tracks!

Having seen Detroit R&B quintet the Falcons perform a number of times, he gingerly jumped at the chance to join as the act's lead singer when Joe Stubbs (who'd fronted their big 1959 hit "You're So Fine") decided to leave. His recording debut with the Falcons appeared in late 1960 on United Artists; "Pow! You're in Love," a lightweight love song written by Cooke, gave little indication of what the future soul belter was capable of. UA passed on renewing the group's contract in 1961, leaving them to their own devices; band manager Robert West started his own label, Lu Pine, and matched them with Dayton's Ohio Untouchables (later known as '70s hitmakers The Ohio Players), giving the whole lot of them freedom to cut loose in the studio. "I Found a Love," a tune penned by West, Pickett and Falcons bass man Willie Schofield, became a top ten R&B hit (and minor pop hit) on the basis of Pickett's unrestrained, full-throated vocal delivery. His impassioned scream would be honed to perfection over the next few years.

The Falcons were signed to Atlantic (the distributor for Lu Pine) and the second single, "Take This Love I've Got" (written by Falcons Eddie Floyd, Sir Mack Rice and Pickett), commenced with a prototypical Wilson wail, yet this strong track somehow failed to garner airplay. He'd already made a solo single, "Let Me Be Your Boy," a string-backed recording produced by the Motor City's Sonny Sanders and issued in spring '62 on the Correc-Tone label, then on MGM's Cub subsidiary; it stumbled promotionally but succeeded in setting the stage for the wicked one's career as a top-billed star. He sent a demo of "If You Need Me," a gospel-tinged ballad he'd written with Wilbert Golden and "Please Mr. Postman" co-writer Robert Bateman, to Atlantic's Jerry Wexler, who turned it down but then handed it off to Solomon Burke to record (Sol's side of the story was that Wil P. had given it to him). Wilson's version hit the street on Lloyd Price and Harold Logan's Double-L label after Burke's Atlantic disc had gotten a slight head start. Both versions peaked in June 1963, Burke's in the top 40 (it reached number two R&B) and Pickett's much lower.

The "If You Need Me" situation was disheartening to Pickett, but he bounced back with "It's Too Late," a top 50 pop/top ten R&B hit in September. Suddenly Wexler was interested; the singer swallowed his pride and left the small Double-L for Atlantic's large New York setup (a third Double-L disc, "I'm Down to My Last Heartbreak," made a minor chart showing later that year). At Atlantic he was teamed with Don Covay and the two penned his summer '64 single "I'm Gonna Cry," a well-produced track that borrowed a bit too much from some of Major Lance's 1963 hits ("Hey Little Girl" in particular). Taking a different angle, he recorded "Come Home Baby," a Bert Berns-produced duet with Tami Lynn, a singer from New Orleans who'd been around a few years (she had her own single on Atco, Berns' "I'm Gonna Run Away From You," which stiffed at the time but became a huge hit six years later...in England). The early-'65 effort, his second failure, made him rethink his approach.

Wilson Pickett

So he headed to the Stax studio in Memphis, Tennessee and began soaking up the local vibe. The next four Atlantic singles, all co-written with Steve Cropper and/or ex-Falcon Eddie Floyd, flat-out cooked with help from the Mar-Keys horn section, keyboard lord Isaac Hayes and the MG's lineup, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, drummer Al Jackson and axe man Cropper...in other words, the usual to-die-for suspects. "In the Midnight Hour" is considered the single of the '60s by many aficionados of soul; it put Pickett at number one on the R&B chart in August '65, had a strong top 40 run and got him on the short list for a Grammy Award in the category Best Rhythm and Blues Recording. "Don't Fight It" was a scorching follow-up, then in March and April of '66, "634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)" spent seven weeks atop Billboard's R&B chart (going top 20 pop) and became rock and roll's new "official" phone number (while alluding to the fact that exchange name numbers had been phased out since "Beechwood 4-5789" scored big for The Marvelettes in 1962).

For the most part, these fall '65 recordings were done live with no overdubs; Wilson established his soulful "holla" with a large fan base. But Stax owner Jim Stewart wasn't sure it was in his best interest to have Atlantic's artists coming down to Tenn. to hijack his hitmaking formula, so he set a policy prohibiting recording sessions by anyone outside the Stax-Volt family. The Memphis masters took Pickett through mid-'66 with killer cut "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)," then with encouragement from Wexler, W.P. headed to the FAME studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to keep momentum going under founder Rick Hall's watch. Chris Kenner's 1963 standard "Land of 1000 Dances," a screamer at near double the tempo of the original, returned Wilson to R&B's top chart spot in September '66 and broke the pop top ten barrier for the first time.

While the earlier batch of rockin' soul classics were original compositions, Pickett began pulling material straight off the record surveys. Funky "Mustang Sally" had been a minor hit for Sir Mack Rice in '65. "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" gave a nod to Pickett's pal Solomon Burke. "I Found a Love" was a not-so-raw (and, sorry to say, not-as-good) remake of the Falcons hit that established his career. "You Can't Stand Alone" came from the pen of prolific hitmaker Rudy Clark. "Funky Broadway" had been a hit for Dyke and the Blazers early in 1967; Pickett picked up on it a few months later and made it even bigger, his fourth R&B chart topper and second top ten pop seller with another Grammy nom thrown in for good measure.

Bobby Womack was struggling to establish a solo career after the breakup of his family act, The Valentinos, following the December 1964 death of Sam Cooke, whose SAR label had them under contract. Success as a vocalist was to come later; meanwhile, he struck up a working relationship with Wilson Pickett, writing several of his best hits starting with "I'm in Love," a more-romantic-than-usual late-'67 hit (its flip was "Stag-O-Lee," a traditional folk song that, as "Stagger Lee," had gotten Lloyd Price to number one in '59). Womack and sax man King Curtis supplied him with "Jealous Love" to kick of the hot '68 season. Wilson reworked "She's Lookin' Good," a '67 "bubbler" by Rodger Collins (a solid soul shouter in his own right), and scored yet another hit. "I'm a Midnight Mover" ('...groover! teaser! pleaser!'), a Pickett-Womack tune, came next. "I Found a True Love" ('...I call 'er Magnolia!'), a song by Womack and session guitarist Reggie Young, popped the dials off radios from coast to coast. "A Man and a Half" ('...I'm two wrapped up in one!') portrayed Pickett as the bad dude he'd been all along.

His 1969 hits, recorded at FAME with guitarist Duane Allman on several tracks, found Wilson in rocker mode. His cover of The Beatles' massive "Hey Jude" upped the ante on ear-splitting euphoria with a screamfest fade-out lasting more than a minute. His version of Mars Bonfire's "Born to Be Wild" matched the ferocity of Steppenwolf's monstrously huge hit from the previous year, then he tackled the often-recorded "Hey Joe" (best know by The Leaves and, later, Jimi Hendrix) and closed out the decade at Miami's Criteria Studios with a Vanilla Fudge-style version of "You Keep Me Hanging On," the Holland-Dozier-Holland number made famous by The Supremes.

The '70s rolled in for Wilson with a more poppish yet rough-edged-like-we-like-it cover of Jeff Barry and Andy Kim's multi-million-selling surprise hit by The Archies, "Sugar Sugar." He headed to Philadelphia for a change of pace with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and cruised back out with two more smashes, the diabolically good fall release "Engine Number 9" (getting him on track for a third Grammy nomination) and upbeat advisory "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You" in early '71. Then it was back to his comfortable hangout, Muscle Shoals, for his fifth R&B chart topper and biggest hit of the decade, "Don't Knock My Love." His seven year hit streak wound down in 1972 with "Fire and Water" and "Funk Factory."

All this success came at a price. Wilson was congenial at times, hard to work with perhaps more frequently, a "Jekyll and Hyde" type with a fondness for guns. As alcohol consumption gradually took a greater hold, his demeanor worsened, as if his long-past acquiescence to the devil had gained steam...yet his musicianship never wavered. He recorded for RCA and several smaller labels without success and later had a few run-ins with the law involving separate incidents of firearms possession and drunken driving...he even did a year in prison for a fatal hit-and-run. But things started looking up in his later years: along with Eddie Floyd and teenage blues man Jonny Lang, he performed his hit "634-5789" in the 1998 film Blues Brothers 2000, and his final album, It's Harder Now, was nominated for a Grammy in 1999 in the category Best Traditional R&B Performance. A heart attack in January 2006 put him in the grave at age 64. But let's not dwell on the ending or the complications that led to it. No one quite compares to the great, screamin', southern soul star still referred to as the "Wicked" Wilson Pickett.

- Michael Jack Kirby

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