Wilson Pickett is recognized as one of the most talented and energetic vocalists of the soul music era. Popularized in the 1960s, soul music offered an explosive combination of gospel-derived vocal displays with a strong emphasis on the presence of a rhythmic instrumental groove. Atlantic Records impresario Jerry Wexler recalled Pickett in his prime: “I called him the Black Panther even before the phrase was political.... His temperament was fire, his flash-and-fury singing style a study in controlled aggression, his bloodcurdling scream always musical, always in tune.” The singer’s contemporaries summed up his demeanor with the nickname “Wicked Pickett.”
But Pickett’s success stemmed from more than just his vocal abilities. He was a prime participant in the intense creative ferment that launched soul music itself. In 1965, a year after signing Pickett to the Atlantic label, Wexler decided to transfer the singer’s base of recording operations from New York to the Memphis studios of Stax Records. The music that resulted both ignited Pickett’s own career and provided soul music with some of its biggest commercial successes of that time.
Born in Prattville, Alabama, in 1941, Pickett was the youngest of eleven children. His childhood was violent. “The baddest woman in my book, hoooooeee. My mother,” he told Gerri Hirshey in Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music. “I get scared of her now. She used to hit me with anything, skillets, stove wood.” He ran away from home once. “I cried for a week. Stayed in the woods, me and my little dog.” He sang gospel music in church and in small vocal groups but suffered another beating from his grandfather, a preacher, when he was caught with a copy of Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.” Eventually he left for Detroit, where his father lived. “Me and a million other dudes said ’Later’ to pickin’ cotton and that shit,” Pickett recalled.
In Detroit, Pickett became one of many southern migrants who honed their singing in church and in impromptu streetcorner quartets. In 1959 he joined a group called the Falcons, which numbered among its members future Memphis soul star Eddie Floyd and Joe Stubbs, the brother of Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs. All over the industrial Midwest at this time black musicians were mixing the old musics of the rural South into potent new brews. Pickett offered Hirshey an involved automotive metaphor for the process: “You harmonize, then you customize. Now what kid don’t want to own the latest model? And tell me now, what black kid in some city project can afford it?... So you
For the Record…
Born March 18, 1941, in Prattville, AL.
Gospel performer, Detroit, mid-1950s; member of the Falcons, 1959-64; signed with Atlantic Records, 1964, and released “In the Midnight Hour,” 1965; recorded in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, AL, 1965-71; signed with RCA, 1973, EMI America, 1979, and Motown, 1988.
Awards: Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
Addresses: Agent —Talent Consultants International, Ltd., 200 West 57th St, New York, NY 10019.
look around for a good, solid used chassis. This be your twelve-bar blues... . Then you look around for what else you got. And if you come up like most of us, that would be gospel.”
Pickett began to contribute many original songs to the Falcons, who achieved some recording success in the rhythm and blues field. He released several solo singles on small Detroit labels; a demonstration version of one of these, the self-penned “If You Need Me,” caught the attention of Atlantic Records executives in New York shortly after its release. Sensing strong competition, Atlantic had its own new star Solomon Burke cover the song, and in 1964 Pickett himself was signed to the label. But success was slow in coming at first. As was the case with future soul diva Aretha Franklin, Pickett was surrounded with smooth pop arrangements that proved unsuited to his raw, emotional style.
So in 1965 Jerry Wexler decided to record Pickett at the Memphis studios of Stax Records, which had close business ties with Atlantic. The session that followed unleashed Pickett’s vocal energies and resulted in the record for which he remains best known, “ln the Midnight Hour.” The process by which the record took shape typified the creative partnerships that swirled around soul’s crucial southern breeding ground. The group of musicians at Stax was interracial to a degree unmatched before or since at any American studio, and it was a white guitarist, Steve Cropper, who worked with Pickett to develop a vocal fragment that Pickett had been improvising in live performances. But Wexler was responsible for the song’s final rhythmic configuration—he had taken note of a teenage dance craze called the “Jerk” and during the session demonstrated it to the amazed musicians.
Soon, due to a disagreement between Atlantic and Stax, Pickett moved even farther south, to the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. But producer Rick Hall offered much the same environment that Pickett had found in Memphis, and hit records came in a steady stream, including “Land of 1,000 Dances,” which rose to Number Six on Billboard magazine’s pop charts, “Mustang Sally,” and “Funky Broadway.”
Pickett was always ambivalent about returning to the South. In the interview with Hirshey, he described his reaction to his first trip to Muscle Shoals: “I looked down out the plane window, and I see black folks pickin’ cotton, and I say, ’Shit, turn this motherf—in’ plane around, ain’t no way I’m goin’ back there.’” He saw Rick Hall waiting for him at the airport. “How did I know Jerry Wexler gonna send me to some big white southern cat? Woulda never got on that plane. And I woulda made the biggest mistake of my life. Rick Hall made things grow down there.”
Throughout the late 1960s Pickett was an established star, making the rounds of television talk shows even though their hosts were never really comfortable with him. He released several successful covers of pop records, including one of the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” and a version of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” that featured a young Duane Allman on guitar. In 1971 he began to record with Philadelphia producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and had several more moderate hits. But as tastes in black popular music began over the 1970s to swing toward the high-tech realm of disco, Pickett’s popularity declined. Several later recordings attempted to recapture the classic soul atmosphere and were well received by some critics but failed to make much of a commercial impact.
But Pickett’s music was revived for a new generation with the release of the 1991 film The Commitments, which deals with the rise of a fictional Irish band that dedicates itself to American soul music—Pickett’s in particular. The motion picture soundtrack features “In the Midnight Hour” along with other Pickett songs. Pickett appeared live at the film’s swank Manhattan release party and, according to the Village Voice’s Michael Musto, “delved into octaves only the late Minnie Riperton [a seventies singer known for her phenomenal range] could hear.” Asked by Rolling Stone for his comments on The Commitments, Pickett pointed to the fictional band’s appropriation of black vocal styles: “This doesn’t do anything for Wilson Pickett, this doesn’t take anything from Wilson Pickett. We are legends in the first place.” His 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tends to confirm his assessment of his own significance.
The 1992 release of a two-disc collection of Pickett’s work—entitled A Man and a Half— also brought him new fans. He told People magazine that he plans an early retirement: “The old farts should get on out of the way. I would like to retire with a good image, a good track record and money in my pocket.” That image was marred slightly by a 1992 arrest for driving with open containers of alcohol and further charges of aggravated assault. But Pickett’s place in music history is secure. Entertainment Weekly assessed A Man anda Half this way: “What’s most apparent from [the] superb two-disc retrospective of this sanctified soul titan is the timelessness of his music.”
In the Midnight Hour, Atlantic, 1965.
The Exciting Wilson Pickett, Atlantic, 1966.
The Wicked Pickett, Atlantic, 1967.
The Best of Wilson Pickett, Atlantic, 1967.
Hey Jude, Atlantic, 1969.
The Best of Wilson Pickett, Vol. II, Atlantic, 1971.
A Funky Situation, 1978.
American Soul Man, Motown, 1988.
A Man and a Half, Rhino, 1992.
The Very Best of Wilson Pickett, Rhino, 1993.
I Want You, EMI America.
The Right Track, EMI America.
Guralnick, Peter, Sweet Soul Music, Harper & Row, 1986.
Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, The Faber Companion to 20th-century Popular Music, Faber, 1990.
Hirshey, Gerri, Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music, New York Times Books, 1984.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House, 1986.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Detroit Free Press, June 25, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, June 19, 1992.
People, October 7, 1991.
Rolling Stone, September 8, 1988; October 3, 1991; June 25, 1992; August 6, 1992; February 18, 1993.
Village Voice, August 27, 1991.
—James M. Manheim
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