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Jackie Wilson

One of the pioneers of R&B and soul, 50s/60s singing sensation JACKIE WILSON captured the spirit, if not quite a superstar reputation, of his peers JAMES BROWN, SAM COOKE and RAY CHARLES. A ball of sexually-kinetic energy as potent as the legendary JB, Jackie’s loose-footed athleticism and sweat-stained, gospel-rooted fervour made him a magnetic performer who attracted legions of female fans. Best-known for several soul classics (including `To Be Loved’, `Lonely Teardrops’, `Night’ and `Baby Workout’), there was one song in particular that stood out: `Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want To Meet)’. Not his biggest hit by any stretch of the imagination, it was his initial chart breakthrough in November 1957, although in Britain it surprisingly soared into the Top 10. This strutting slice of pop/R&B was to make the record books in 1986, when, posthumously, it became a UK No.1 nearly three decades after its original release, spurring further major chart successes for re-issues of `I Get The Sweetest Feeling’ and `(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher’.
Born Jack Leroy Wilson, Jr., June 9, 1934, Detroit, Michigan, his first taste of fame (albeit minor) came in 1950, when he won an American amateur “Golden Gloves” boxing title; due to his young age he was registered under a false name, Sonny Wilson. His mother, however, was more interested in directing him towards the musical arena and the teenage tenor WILSON joined The Ever Ready Gospel Singers, that same year. The falsetto singer then went on to perform along with the likes of HANK BALLARD (The Royals/The Thrillers), having being spotted by Los Angeles R&B talent scout, JOHNNY OTIS. Jackie subsequently cut two solo singles in 1952 – as Sonny Wilson – on DIZZY GILLESPIE’s dee gee label; the first was `The Rainy Day Blues’, the other a straining pop cover of Irish traditional standard, `Danny Boy’.
The following April, he took over as BILLY WARD & THE DOMINOES’ lead singer, following the departure of DRIFTERS-bound CLYDE McPHATTER. Although Jackie was a more than adequate replacement, the group managed only one Top 20 hit (`St. Therese Of The Roses’) during his tenure.
In early’57, inspired by ELVIS, who complemented his cover version of `Don’t Be Cruel’, JACKIE WILSON mounted a solo career, signing to Brunswick Records. Almost immediately, augmented by the pen of Berry Gordy, Jr. (the future Tamla/Motown guru) and Tyran Carlo (aka BILLY DAVIS), the promising R&B artist scored his inaugural hit with the aforementioned brassy classic, `Reet Petite’. Hot on its heels, its spring-1958 follow-up, `To Be Loved’ (also gifted from Gordy), cracked the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic, although it’d be on home-soil where WILSON would make a lasting impression on his audience; despite debut LP HE’S SO FINE (1958) {*6} – like the majority of future sets – not registering a chart position.
One of his greatest and most enduring Top 10 ballads came in late ‘58 with the classic title track from his second LP, LONELY TEARDROPS (1959) {*6}, a record that also hosted hits `That’s Why (I Love You So)’ and `You Better Know It’; the latter soon-to-be starring with Jackie, Alan Freed and Co, in the rock’n’roll movie, Go Johnny Go.
SO MUCH (also 1959) {*5} continued the run of flop LPs, although with spawned multi-sellers `I’ll Be Satisfied’ and `Talk That Talk’, Jackie and his team cared less for this fresh format. The near-operatic dimension to his vocal style – many of his songs were adapted from operas or classical works – was showcased on the Top 5, `Night’ (b/w `Doggin’ Around’, a track from JACKIE SINGS THE BLUES (1960) {*6}. The artist then reeled off a run of five major hits, namely double-headers `(You Were Made For) All My Love’ and its title-track flip-side from A WOMAN, A LOVER, A FRIEND (1960) {*4}, `Alone At Last’ (b/w `Am I The Man’) and `My Empty Arms’ (b/w `The Tear Of The Year’) – none from the tragically nostalgic YOU AIN’T HEARD NOTHIN’ YET (1961) {*4}.
BY SPECIAL REQUEST… (1961) {*4}, BODY AND SOUL (1962) {*5} and SINGS THE WORLD’S GREATEST MELODIES (1962) {*5} all suffered sales bypasses; the rut halting when his live set, AT THE COPA (1962) {*6} peaked at #137. In the meantime, WILSON’s persistence paid off in the singles chart by way of `Please Tell Me Why’ (b/w `Your One And Only Love’), `I’m Comin’ On Back To You’, `Years From Now’ and `The Way I Am’ – all from 1961 – plus a rare Top 40 hit from the following year, `The Greatest Hurt’. Ironically, the man almost came a cropper in ‘61 when one of those fans, Juanita Jones, attempted to shoot herself in Jackie’s New York apartment; when WILSON intervened he received a bullet in the stomach and spent a long period in hospital.
1963 was thankfully another turning point for JW, when the title track from his soon-to-be Top 40 album, BABY WORKOUT {*5}, made it all the way to No.5. A proto-Northern soul belter that went a long way to capturing the excitement of the JACKIE WILSON live experience, a string of modest hits trailed in its wake, namely the title song (a Faye Adams ballad shared with stalwart LINDA HOPKINS for the accompanying SHAKE A HAND {*5}) and a second “Workout”: `Shake! Shake! Shake!’; MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM JACKIE WILSON {*5} sealed the year in a festive spirit.
If his studio output didn’t always live up to expectations (minor hit 45 examples on SOMETHIN’ ELSE!! (1964) {*5}, SOUL TIME (1965) {*6} and SPOTLIGHT ON JACKIE WILSON (1966) {*5}), the soul man was guaranteed to pull off at least the occasional powerful performance; a link-up with veteran Windy City producer, Carl Davis, resulted in the near-Top 10 `Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)’ – from WHISPERS (1966) {*6} – and the joyous, near-Top 5 `(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher’ – spawned from his best set by far HIGHER AND HIGHER (1967) {*7}.
On the back of a collaborative record with jazz giant COUNT BASIE, MANUFACTURERS OF SOUL (1968) {*5} – UK title:- TWO MUCH – WILSON was soon back in the Top 40 with the VAN McCOY-co-scribed title piece from I GET THE SWEETEST FEELING (1968) {*6}; this gemstone 45 would take four years to breech the high echelons of the British charts when it gate-crashed the Top 10; a re-issued version in ’75 (twinned with `Higher And Higher’) entered the UK Top 30.
Ironically, in the midst of a poor time for the great man (DO YOUR THING (1969) {*5}, THIS LOVE IS REAL (1970) {*6} and YOU GOT ME WALKING (1971) {*6} were almost swept under the proverbial rug), long-time fan VAN MORRISON scored a minor chart hit in September ’72 with his sublime JW tribute, `Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’. Despite this resurgence of sorts, neither BEAUTIFUL DAY (1973) {*6} or NOWSTALGIA (1974) {*4} gleaned any significant sales.
Tragically, on September 29, 1975 (by which time WILSON was touring the golden oldies circuit), the singer suffered a heart attack onstage; he’d been midway through `Lonely Teardrops’, performing as part of a Dick Clark Revue at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. In order to keep his name glowing in darkened times (he was in a coma), NOBODY BUT YOU (1977) {*6}, was released without much fuss in an ever-evolving pop world.
Jackie never fully regained his faculties due to brain damage and spent several years+ in hospital before his death on January 21, 1984. BARRY WHITE and The SPINNERS were among the stars who performed benefit concerts to pay for his hospital bills, although the $60,000 that was raised, allegedly went towards a $300,000 unpaid tax demand.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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