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Wilson Pickett

On a par with 60s southern soul icons PERCY SLEDGE, OTIS REDDING and SAM & DAVE, the “Wicked” WILSON PICKETT was also one of the funkiest dudes to work up a sweat for Atlantic Records. As well as unleashing his super-stud nails ‘n’ whiskey growl, his shuffling, groin-grinding classic `In The Midnight Hour’ also assured Wilson a place in R&B history. The man’s feral, dancefloor-rooted style was based on some of the M.G.’s tightest ever playing, engendering a series of vital Stateside – and to a lesser extent, UK – hits, `634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)’, `Land Of 1000 Dances’, `Mustang Sally and `Funky Broadway’.
Born March 18, 1941, Prattville in Alabama, the teenager ran away from his domineering mother to live with his father in Detroit. Wilson initially honed his vocal chops in a gospel group, The Violinaires, before joining the big bad secular world of The FALCONS. Comprising Eddie Floyd, Mack Rice, Lance Finnie, Robert Ward and Joe Stubbs (the latter whom he replaced in 1960), this pioneering R&B act from Detroit were already famous for one Top 20 hit, `You’re So Fine’. With Wilson now on vocals, they scraped a further Top 75 volley in spring ‘62 with `I Found A Love’.
His lead-vocal berth filled by FLOYD (a man who’d soon `Knock On Wood’), WILSON PICKETT duly went solo and, after a one-off single in 1962 on the small Correc-Tone imprint, `Let Me Be Your Boy’ (b/w `My Heart Belongs To You’), he signed to LLOYD PRICE’s Double L Records. There, PICKETT scored a trio of respectable self-penned R&B hits (`If You Need Me’, `It’s Too Late’ and `I’m Down To My Last Heartbreak’), which also gained a foothold in the lower regions of the official pop chart; his parent debut LP, IT’S TOO LATE (1963) {*6}, probably should’ve done better chart-wise.
Yet it took a deal with soul giant Atlantic Records (home to Aretha, Otis, et al) to see the “Wicked Pickett” really earn his famous nickname. Although his first two singles for the company (`I’m Gonna Cry’ and `Come Home Baby’) were unequivocal flops, producer Jerry Wexler duly directed him to the Stax Studios in Memphis, where he hooked up with house band BOOKER T. & THE M.G.s. In summer ‘65, PICKETT emerged with `In The Midnight Hour’ (penned with ace MGs guitarist STEVE CROPPER), a soon-to-be classic soul staple that netted him his inaugural R&B solo chart-topper and a transatlantic Top 30 smash. Not only present on IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR (1965) {*6} set – featuring follow-up hit `Don’t Fight It’ – but also 1966’s THE EXCITING WILSON PICKETT {*8}, the unforgettable platter was a perennial favourite all over the globe. The latter LP was as “exciting” as it suggested, showcasing no less than three further career-enhancing, Muscle Shoals/CROPPER/FLOYD classics, `634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)’, `Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do)’ (soon to be re-tread by CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL) and the Top 10 Chris Kenner-authored `Land Of 1000 Dances’.
`Mustang Sally’ (penned by the aforementioned Mack Rice) and SOLOMON BURKE’s `Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ (both from THE WICKED PICKETT (1967) {*7}) continued the run of Top 30 breakers, along with a re-vamp of `I Found A Love, Part I’ (b/w `Part II’), the minor `Soul Dance Number Three’ (paired with `You Can’t Stand Alone’) and a second Top 10 smash `Funky Broadway’, all assuming their place on THE SOUND OF WILSON PICKETT (1967) {*8}.
The hit machine kept on rolling by way of trad adaptation `Stag-O-Lee’ (twinned with `I’m In Love’), `Jealous Love’ and `She’s Lookin’ Good’ – all Top 50 and lifted from I’M IN LOVE (1968) {*6} – but there were signs that Wilson’s repertoire was staid and not shifting with the changing tides (psychedelic soul, etc.) sweeping the music scene.
Later that year, PICKETT found a kindred spirit in BOBBY WOMACK, whose `I’m A Midnight Mover’ he took into the Top 30, and who would continue to be a source of inspiration for him. He also worked with DUANE ALLMAN on an unlikely UK Top 20 cover of a concurrent BEATLES’ hit; the album of the same name HEY JUDE (1969) {*6} even saw him running through STEPPENWOLF’s `Born To Be Wild’ and other entry `A Man And A Half’.
An even more unlikely take of The ARCHIES’ `Sugar Sugar’ (from RIGHT ON (1970) {*6}) suggested that Wilson was running out of ideas; a temporary solution came in the form of rising Philly production prodigies, Gamble & Huff, with whom he recorded 1970’s IN PHILADELPHIA {*7}. The record’s `Engine Number 9’ hit the Top 20, as did further early 70s G&H productions, `Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You’, `Don’t Knock My Love’, `Call My Name, I’ll Be There’ and FREE’s `Fire And Water’ (the latter triumvirate from parent album DON’T KNOCK MY LOVE (1971) {*6}. These efforts just about marked his last stand for Atlantic Records, as RCA Victor took on the mantle for a string of albums, namely MR. MAGIC MAN (1973) {*5}, MIZ LENA’S BOY (1973) {*4}, PICKETT IN THE POCKET (1974) {*5}, LIVE IN JAPAN (1974) {*5} and the disco-friendly JOIN ME AND LET’S BE FREE (1975) {*3} – none of which had spawned much of a return to the singles chart. In fact, amid personal problems and infamy for his volatile off-stage temperament, heavy drinking bouts, drug offences, etc., Wilson was arrested on November 21, 1974 for threatening behaviour with a gun.
A succession of low-key label changes led to a sharp decline in profile; CHOCOLATE MOUNTAIN (1976) {*4} for Wicked Records, and A FUNKY SITUATION (1978) {*3} for WEA’s Big Tree, grabbled a little of the limelight back, but PICKETT now made a living on the supper club cabaret circuit. EMI America was positive enough to give “The Midnight Hour” singer another chance, but I WANT YOU (1979) {*5} and RIGHT TRACK (1981) {*5} fell on deaf ears outside his long-serving fanbase.
PICKETT did, however, hit the UK charts one more time with the obligatory remix of `In The Midnight Hour’ (from parent Motown set AMERICAN SOUL MAN (1987) {*4}. For the most part of the 90s, he gave up recording completely; the man’s alcohol problem resulting in tragedy in October 1993, when he was found guilty of knocking down and killing pensioner Pepe Ruiz while drink driving; he was given a reduced one-year jail sentence and five years probation.
PICKETT returned to the recording front in ‘99 with the tellingly-titled IT’S HARDER NOW {*5} (he’d cameo’d in the Blues Brothers 2000 movie in ’98), while post-millennium he was still performing and supporting others in their careers. However, having retired because of ill-health toward the end of 2004, PICKETT died of a heart attack in Reston, Virginia on January 19, 2006.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS May2015

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