Pickett, Wilson, Jr.

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PICKETT, Wilson, Jr.

(b. 18 March 1941 in Prattville, Alabama), singer whose full-throated, sexually charged, impassioned soul music performances were wrapped in an explosive persona that symbolized the emergence in the 1960s of an assertive African-American identity while providing an evocative soundtrack for the turbulent decade.

Pickett was the fourth of eleven children born to Wilson Pickett, Sr., and a mother whose name is unknown. The family picked cotton for a living. Pickett's mother and father separated when he was very young, and for several years he lived with his mother. When he was fourteen Pickett moved to Detroit to live with his father and began singing in his local Baptist church choir. For a brief time in the mid-1950s he sang with the famed gospel group the Violinaires. Pickett married "Bonnie" (her surname is unknown) when he was seventeen, but the marriage did not last. He later had a fourteen-year domestic relationship with Dovie Hall, with whom he raised a son sired from another relationship.

In 1960 Pickett joined a vocal harmony group called the Falcons. Pickett wrote and sang lead in the group's 1961 recording "I Found a Love," which went to number seven on the Cash Box rhythm and blues chart the following year. The song represented the new sound of gospel-influenced rhythm and blues that came to be called soul music, and Pickett's screaming and exhortatory lead vocals represented the genre's most heavily gospelized approach. Pickett left the Falcons in 1962 to establish a solo career. His first single made no impact, but in spring 1963 he entered the charts for the first time with an original composition, "If You Need Me." He quickly followed with another strong offering, "It's Too Late."

In 1964 Pickett joined Atlantic Records, one of the leading producers of soul music. Atlantic believed the style of soul music for which Pickett was noted was being best recorded in studios in the South, so the company's producer, Jerry Wexler, took Pickett to Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, to record in its studio. The results were stunning, producing the biggest hit record of Pickett's career, "In the Midnight Hour." The record went to number one on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and stayed there for an extraordinary twenty-three weeks. "In the Midnight Hour" was Pickett's most influential record, and it virtually defined the soul sound of the day. Thousands of bands, both black and white, made the song part of their repertoire in the 1960s. Three other hit singles during 1965 and 1966 came out of the Stax sessions: "Don't Fight It," which rose to number four on the Billboard rhythm and blues charts; "634-5789," a number-one hit; and "Ninety-nine and a Half (Won't Do)." These songs cemented Pickett's arrival as a major new soul talent. Atlantic also released an album that included these hits, The Exciting Wilson Pickett (1966), which is considered his most outstanding album.

In late 1966 Wexler took Pickett to the Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Pickett recorded another series of standout hit records. The first, "Land of a Thousand Dances," marked another number-one hit on the Billboard rhythm and blues charts. The song was a remake of a Chris Kenner hit from 1963, but Pickett's version was sung in a hard-driving, swaggering manner featuring screaming and grunting. It was the biggest pop hit of his career, rising to number six on the Billboard pop charts. Pickett closed out 1966 with "Mustang Sally," a faster and much improved version of Mack Rice's original from two years earlier.

In spring 1967 Pickett reprised his hit with the Falcons, "I Found a Love," and pushed it to sixth place on the charts. Pickett's other 1967 hits included "Soul Dance Number Three" and "Funky Broadway," another number-one hit, which was a remake of the Dyke and the Blazers' song from earlier in the year. Two outstanding albums from Pickett's Muscle Shoals sessions were The Wicked Pickett (1966), which established an evocative nickname for the singer, and The Sound of Wilson Pickett (1966).

During 1968 Pickett entered into a fruitful collaboration with the songwriter Bobby Womack, who wrote "I'm in Love" and other songs on the I'm in Love album. Womack also wrote "I'm a Midnight Mover" and half of the other songs on Pickett's The Midnight Mover album. Pickett then began recording soul versions of rock hits, notably the Beatles' song "Hey Jude" in 1969 and the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" in 1970.

Atlantic realized it could not sustain Pickett's career on remakes of rock hits forever, and in 1970 the company had Pickett record in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with the producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The two were fast making an impact on the soul market with a highly orchestrated, danceable music known as the Philadelphia Sound. The Philadelphia sessions produced two hugely successful singles, "Engine Number Nine" in 1970 and "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You," which hit number two on the Billboard rhythm and blues charts and was a million-selling single in 1971. Another number-one, million-selling single, "Don't Knock My Love," was recorded in Muscle Shoals with the producer Brad Shapiro in 1971. It was the last Top Twenty pop hit in Pickett's career. While chronologically the record is in the 1970s, "Don't Knock My Love" in essence represents the last achievement of Pickett as a 1960s soul music artist.

Pickett signed with RCA Records in 1972 and tried to change his singing approach from a screaming and shouting style to a softer, more crooning manner to stay in tune with the times. The records, however—five albums and a load of singles—proved both commercial and artistic failures, and Pickett left RCA in 1975. Pickett's last rhythm and blues hit, "A Funky Situation"(1978), appeared on his own label, Wicked. Recordings during the 1980s failed to resurrect Pickett's career, and the 1990s saw the singer battling alcohol and cocaine addiction problems.

Election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and receipt of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 1993 helped to immortalize Pickett's contribution to soul music. In 1999 Pickett's first album in twelve years, the aptly titled It's Harder Now, was released. It paled in comparison to the singer's glory years in the 1960s, when he effortlessly produced hit after hit of hard-driving, impassioned soul that broke down racial barriers in music and made him a cultural hero to the African-American community.

A number of pages are devoted to Pickett's life and career in Gerri Hirshey, Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music (1984). A personal profile of Pickett at the height of his popularity is David Llorens, "Soulin' with 'Wicked' Pickett," Ebony (Oct. 1968). An essay on Pickett focusing on his musical output, written by Leo Sacks, is part of the liner notes for the compact disc collection The Best of Wilson Pickett: A Man and a Half (1992).

Robert Pruter