The late Jackie Wilson combined top quality vocals and a riveting stage presence to become one of the best known rhythm and blues performers of the 1950s and 1960s. A contributor to the Rolling Stone Record Guide notes that although many of Wilson’s recordings suffer from “over-orchestrated arrangements, heavy-handed choral accompaniment and dubious song selection,” still “the sheer power and virtuosity of Wilson’s voice overcame many of the obstacles.” With hits such as “Reet Petite,” “Lonely Teardrops,” “Whispers,” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” Wilson assured his own success while he helped launch the pioneering Motown music corporation. Sadly, few of his live performances remain on tape, to the disappointment of r&b aficionados.
Jackie Wilson was born and raised in the same Detroit ghetto that produced Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. Like Gordy, Wilson donned boxing gloves at an early age and sought glory in the Golden Gloves championships. At sixteen he lied about his age and competed as an eighteen-year-old, winning his division. His mother, who feared for his health, forced him to quit boxing despite his success in the sport. He decided to seek a singing career instead, and after graduating from Highland Park High School, he went to work in local night clubs.
Soon Wilson was entertaining as a solo act and as part of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. In 1953 he won a coveted position as lead singer with the Dominoes, an r&b group that had already recorded a string of hits. Wilson sang lead tenor for the Dominoes until 1957. That year he signed with the Brunswick label and began a solo career that would last almost two decades. Wilson’s years with the Dominoes prepared him well for live performances, but he suffered from a lack of recordable material. He turned to his old friend Berry Gordy for advice and was provided with some songs Gordy had written himself.
Wilson’s first solo hit was “Reet Petite,” a Gordy tune. In 1958 he had his first number one r&b hit with another Gordy number, “Lonely Teardrops.” By 1960 Wilson was a major star with a number of r&b and crossover chart-toppers, including “Doggin’ Around” and “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend.” Gordy used the royalties for his Wilson songs to found Motown, and Wilson used the songs to propel himself to fame. A handsome and frankly sexual performer onstage—music fans called him “Mr. Excitement”—Wilson quickly became a favorite among female fans. His appearance could whip crowds into hysteria, and he even received a serious gunshot wound from an unbalanced admirer.
Wilson was a regular on the charts through the mid-1960s, with songs such as “All My Love,” “My Empty
Born June 9, 1934, in Detroit, Mich.; died of complications following a heart attack, January 19, 1984, in Mount Holly, N.J.; children: Tony, Thor. Education: Graduate of Highland Park High School, Highland Park, Mich.
Began career as singer with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, c 1951; became lead tenor with the Dominoes, 1953. Solo artist, 1957–75; signed with Brunswick Records, 1957, had first charted hit, “Reet Petite,” 1957, and first number one hit, “Lonely Teardrops,” 1958. Made numerous live appearances in dance clubs and concert halls.
Arms,” “Baby Workout,” and “You Better Know It.” In 1966 he was matched with veteran producer Carl Davis, who engineered two of his biggest hits, “Whispers” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Thereafter Wilson’s career began to decline, and by 1972 he was playing the oldies circuit in casino lounges and dance clubs. Some critics have maintained that the Brunswick label did little to enhance Wilson’s talents over the years, suggesting that he might have fared better if he had recorded elsewhere.
On the night of September 25, 1975, Wilson was headlining a Dick Clark Revue at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia. Midway through his act he suffered a severe heart attack and collapsed. Although he lived another eight years he was a bedridden invalid, often semi-comatose and completely unable to care for himself. He died January 19, 1984, at a hospital in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Since his death, a number of his hits have been re-released by Epic, Columbia, and Rhino Records. The Rolling Stone Record Guide lists Wilson as a “performing genius” who “may have been the best pure vocalist of his generation.”
Singles; released on Brunswick
“Reet Petite,” 1957.
“To Be Loved,” 1958.
“We Have Love,” 1958.
“Lonely Teardrops,” 1958.
“That’s Why,” 1959.
“I’ll Be Satisfied,” 1959.
“You Better Know It,” 1959.
“Talk That Talk,” 1959.
“Doggin’ Around,” 1960.
“All My Love,” 1960.
“A Woman, A Lover, A Friend,” 1960.
“Alone At Last,” 1960.
“Am I the Man?” 1960.
“My Empty Arms,” 1961.
“Please Tell Me Why,” 1961.
“I’m Comin’ On Back to You,” 1961.
“Years from Now,” 1961.
“The Way I Am,” 1961.
“The Greatest Hurt,” 1961.
“I Just Can’t Help It,” 1962.
“Baby Workout,” 1963.
“Shake, Shake, Shake,” 1963.
“Baby Get It,” 1963.
“Squeeze Her-Tease Her,” 1964.
“Danny Boy,” 1965.
“No Pity (In the Naked City),” 1965.
“I Don’t Want To Lose You,” 1967.
“(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” 1967.
“Since You Showed Me How To Be Happy,” 1967.
“I Get the Sweetest Feeling,” 1968.
“For Once in My Life,” 1968.
“Let This Be a Letter (To My Baby),” 1970.
“This Love Is Real,” 1970.
“Love Is Funny That Way,” 1971.
Lonely Teardrops, Brunswick, 1958.
Doggin’ Around, Brunswick, 1959.
So Much, Brunswick, 1960.
Jackie Wilson Sings the Blues, Brunswick, 1960.
My Golden Favorites, Brunswick, 1960.
A Woman, A Lover, A Friend, Brunswick, 1960.
You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, Brunswick, 1961.
By Special Request, Brunswick, 1961.
Body & Soul, Brunswick, 1962.
Baby Work Out, Brunswick, 1962.
Shake a Hand, Brunswick, 1962.
Something Else, Brunswick, 1964.
Spotlight, Brunswick, 1965.
Soul Galore, Brunswick, 1966.
Whispers, Brunswick, 1966.
Higher and Higher, Brunswick, 1967.
Get the Sweetest Feeling, Brunswick, 1968.
It’s All a Part of Love, Brunswick, 1971.
You Got Me Walking, Brunswick, 1973.
Jackie Wilson’s Greatest Hits, Brunswick, 1973.
This Love Is Real, Brunswick, 1973.
Nobody But You, Brunswick, 1977.
The Jackie Wilson Story, Epic, 1984.
The Jackie Wilson Story, Volume 2, Epic, 1985.
Reet Petite—The Best of Jackie Wilson, Columbia, 1987.
Through the Years: A Collection of Rare Album Tracks and Single Sides, Rhino, 1987.
The Very Best of Jackie Wilson, Ace, 1987.
Nite, Norm N.. Rock On, Crowell, 1974.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Summit, 1983.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1979.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, revised edition, St. Martin’s, 1989.
New York Times, January 21, 1984.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Jackie Wilson was "a gifted singer of considerable range and an athletic showman who commanded a stage like few before or since," according to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography. Wilson was a key figure of the late 1950s and early 1960s in American popular music, the singer of "Lonely Teardrops" and other numbers that have won places for decades in the playlists of oldies radio stations. His chilling long falsettos exerted an influence on the vocal acrobatics of the soul singers who followed him. Wilson enjoyed only intermittent success during his own career, sometimes failing to anticipate new trends in African-American music, but a busy schedule of reissues that followed his untimely death in 1984 has attested to his influence and enduring popularity.
Jack Leroy Wilson Jr. was born in Detroit on June 9, 1934. His parents, Jack and Eliza Wilson, had come to Detroit from Mississippi, and he grew up in Highland Park, Michigan, an auto-manufacturing enclave surrounded by the city of Detroit. By age six he was singing, and even before reaching adolescence he found that he could fit in with musicians singing blues or gospel music in the streets and storefront churches of Detroit. At 12 he joined a group called the Ever Ready
The influence of gospel did not keep Wilson out of trouble, however (and as an adult he converted to the Jewish faith). He attended Highland Park High School but kept missing class and eventually dropped out. Sent to the Lansing Correctional Institute, he took boxing lessons and fought in Golden Gloves matches back in Detroit. He considered becoming a professional boxer. After marrying Freda Hood as a 16-year-old in 1951 and starting a family, he tried to buckle down to work at a Ford Motor Company foundry but lasted only two weeks. From then on, his income came exclusively from performing music.
Fortunately, Wilson quickly made his mark on the music scene. He started performing in nightclubs at age 15 and worked with a group called the Royals that also included future Four Tops lead vocalist Levi Stubbs. Wilson's career took a step up in 1953 when he won an audition to join the rhythm-and-blues vocal group Billy Ward and the Dominoes after one of its members joined the military. He got another break when the group's lead singer, Clyde McPhatter, departed to form the Drifters; Wilson was chosen as his replacement. Although the Dominoes did not match the commercial success they had experienced in the early 1950s with such songs as "Sixty Minute Man," Wilson's talents received national exposure. The Dominoes appeared in Las Vegas, and a young Elvis Presley became a lifelong admirer of Wilson after hearing him cover his hit "Don't Be Cruel."
After the Dominoes scored a pop top-ten hit with "St. Therese of the Roses" in 1956, Wilson decided to launch a solo career. He was signed to the Brunswick label by executive Nat Tarnopol, who became his manager. In Detroit, Wilson worked at rounding up new material. He met the young songwriters Berry Gordy Jr. and Roquel Davis at the Flame Show Bar, a nightspot that incubated much of the talent later showcased on the Motown label, and the pair gave him the novelty number "Reet Petite." Wilson released the song as a single in September of 1957 and scored a moderate hit in Britain as well as the United States.
The following year Wilson reached the pop top ten with another Gordy composition, "Lonely Teardrops"; the single was a major hit in African-American markets and became the vocalist's first million-seller. Through the late 1950s, Wilson was a major chart presence with such singles as "To Be Loved," "That's Why (I Love You So)," "Doggin' Around," and "I'll Be Satisfied," many of them composed or co-composed by Gordy. Part of his success was due to his ability to appeal equally to black and white audiences, and part of it was reportedly due to the spectacular choreography and raw energy of his stage shows; fans dubbed him "Mr. Excitement." Unfortunately, Wilson was active during the period just before the invention of videotape, and few visual records of his performances exist.
Gordy used some of the money he earned from the hits he wrote for Wilson to launch the Motown label, and Wilson's fusion of smooth pop styles with African-American idioms influenced many of that label's early successes. In retrospect, Wilson would likely have been a perfect fit at Motown, but he remained at Brunswick and was steered toward popular styles by Tarnopol. Many of his recordings of the 1960s featured string stylings by longtime Decca-label arranger Dick Jacobs, and he appeared at such pop clubs as New York's Copacabana and at various Las Vegas hotels. With African-American music moving in a rootsier direction in both Detroit and Memphis, Wilson hit top chart levels only intermittently in the early 1960s. He scored major hits with "Night" (1960), the upbeat "Baby Workout" (1963), and the socially relevant "No Pity (In the Naked City)" (1965). He released a flood of albums on the Brunswick label, but few sold in large numbers.
Nevertheless, Williams remained a strong concert draw. Tension surrounded his performances in the segregated South, and he was beaten by New Orleans police after a disagreement on one occasion. Female fans flocked to his shows; women, it is said, would rip his clothes off after he jumped into a crowd, and one of them shot and wounded him in 1961; a romantic triangle may have been involved. In the late 1960s Wilson enjoyed a string of hits recorded with Chicago soul producer Carl Davis, including "Whispers" (1966) and the top-ten hit "Higher and Higher." By 1970, however, his releases languished in the lower reaches of Billboard magazine's black-music charts. In all he landed 24 recordings in the magazine's top 40.
Wilson toured with the Dick Clark Revue and performed at other oldies-oriented venues in the early 1970s. Headlining the Dick Clark show in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on September 25, 1975, Wilson was stricken by a massive heart attack. He hit his head while falling, and the resultant brain damage left him in a coma from which he never awakened. Prior to his own death in 1977, Elvis Presley helped pay Wilson's medical bills. Wilson died in Mount Holly, New Jersey, on January 19, 1984. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. An 11-disc collection of Wilson's recordings was issued in 1999 by the Edsel label in Britain, where the singer had always maintained strong popularity, and by the early 2000s he was recognized as a classic figure of rhythm and blues. A play about Wilson's life, The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart Is Crying…Crying), was written by Jackie Taylor and staged by the Black Ensemble Theater of Chicago.
At a Glance …
Born on June 9, 1934, in Detroit, MI; died on January 19, 1984, in Mount Holly, NJ; married Freda Hood, 1951; children: Tony, Thor. Education: Attended Highland Park High School, Highland Park, MI. Religion: Jewish (converted as adult).
Detroit clubs, vocalist, late 1940s-53; Billy Ward and the Dominoes, band member, and then lead vocalist, 1953-56; Brunswick label, solo artist, 1957-60s; Dick Clark Revue, performer, early 1970s.
Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987.
Singles (on Brunswick label)
"Reet Petite," 1957.
"To Be Loved," 1958.
"We Have Love," 1958.
"Lonely Teardrops," 1958.
"That's Why," 1959.
"I'll Be Satisfied," 1959.
"You Better Know It," 1959.
"Talk That Talk," 1959.
"Doggin' Around," 1960.
"All My Love," 1960.
"A Woman, A Lover, A Friend," 1960.
"Alone At Last," 1960.
"Am I the Man?" 1960.
"My Empty Arms," 1961.
"Please Tell Me Why," 1961.
"I'm Comin' On Back to You," 1961.
"Years from Now," 1961.
"The Way I Am," 1961.
"The Greatest Hurt," 1961.
"I Just Can't Help It," 1962.
"Baby Workout," 1963.
"Shake, Shake, Shake," 1963.
"Baby Get It," 1963.
"Squeeze Her—Tease Her," 1964.
"Danny Boy," 1965.
"No Pity (In the Naked City)," 1965.
"I Don't Want To Lose You," 1967.
"(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," 1967.
"Since You Showed Me How To Be Happy," 1967.
"I Get the Sweetest Feeling," 1968.
"For Once in My Life," 1968.
"Let This Be a Letter (To My Baby)," 1970.
"This Love Is Real," 1970.
"Love Is Funny That Way," 1971.
Lonely Teardrops, Brunswick, 1958 (reissued Diablo, 1998).
Doggin' Around, Brunswick, 1959.
So Much, Brunswick, 1960 (reissued Diablo, 1999).
Jackie Wilson Sings the Blues, Brunswick, 1960 (reissued Diablo, 1999).
My Golden Favorites, Brunswick, 1960.
A Woman, A Lover, A Friend, Brunswick, 1960 (reissued Edsel, 1999).
You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet, Brunswick, 1961.
By Special Request, Brunswick, 1961.
Body & Soul, Brunswick, 1962 (reissued Edsel, 1999).
Jackie Wilson at the Copa, Brunswick, 1962 (reissued Edsel, 1999).
Baby Workout, Brunswick, 1962 (reissued Edsel, 1999).
Shake a Hand, Brunswick, 1962 (reissued Diablo, 1999).
Somethin' Else!, Brunswick, 1964 (reissued Edsel, 1999).
Spotlight, Brunswick, 1965.
Soul Galore, Brunswick, 1966 (reissued Diablo, 1999).
Whispers, Brunswick, 1966 (reissued Diablo, 1999).
Higher and Higher, Brunswick, 1967 (reissued Diablo, 1999).
I Get the Sweetest Feeling, Brunswick, 1968 (reissued Edsel, 1999).
It's All a Part of Love, Brunswick, 1971.
You Got Me Walking, Brunswick, 1973 (reissued Edsel, 1999).
Nowstalgia, Brunswick, 1974.
Jackie Wilson's Greatest Hits, Brunswick, 1973.
This Love Is Real, Brunswick, 1973 (reissued Edsel, 1999).
Nobody But You, Brunswick, 1977 (reissued Edsel, 1999).
The Very Best of Jackie Wilson, Rhino, 1994.
The Jackie Wilson Story (4 vols.), Charly, 1999.
Best of Jackie Wilson (2 vols.), Collectables, 2003.
The Essential Masters with Billy Ward and His Dominoes, Varese Sarabande, 2004.
Jackie Wilson Live, Collectables, 2006.
History of Jackie Wilson (3 vols.), Edsel, 2006.
Contemporary Musicians, vol. 3, Gale, 1990.
Times (London, England), September 14, 1999, p. 39.
Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), July 31, 2001, p. B6.
"Jackie Wilson," All Music Guide,www.allmusic.com (March 17, 2007).
"Jackie Wilson," Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,www.rockhall.com (March 17, 2007).
Jackie Wilson—Mr. Excitement,www.jackiewilson.net (March 17, 2007).
—James M. Manheim
Wilson, Jackie enormously successful and influential R&B singer of the late 1950s and early 1960s; b. Detroit, Mich., June 9, 1934; d. Mount Holly, N.J., Jan. 21, 1984. A Golden Gloves boxing champion in Detroit at the age of 16, Jackie Wilson was “discovered” by Johnny Otis at a talent show in 1951. He sang with The Thrillers, an R&B quartet, and recorded for Dizzy Gillespie’s Dee Gee label, eventually replacing Clyde McPhatter in Billy Ward’s Dominoes in 1953. The group’s first release with Wilson, “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” became a near-smash R&B hit and was soon followed by the R&B smash “Rags to Riches.” Wilson was lead singer on The Dominoes first pop hit, “St. Thérèse of the Roses” in 1956, but opted for a solo career in late 1957, to be replaced by Eugene Mumford.
Signing with Brunswick Records, Jackie Wilson recorded in N.Y. and soon achieved a minor pop hit with “Reet Petite,” co-written by Berry Gordy Jr., who later formed the immensely successful Motown organization. Gordy also co-wrote Wilson’s major pop and R&B smash hits “To Be Loved,” “That’s Why” and “I’ll Be Satisfied,” and his top R&B and smash pop hit classic “Lonely Teardrops.” Wilson also appeared in the 1959 film Go, Johnny, Go, singing “You’d Better Know It.”
Performing engagements at major Los Angeles, Las Vegas and N.Y. nightclubs and recording a variety of material, including bland pop material and classical adaptations such as “Night,” “Alone at Last” and “My Empty Arms,” Jackie Wilson suffered through intrusive arrangements and critical neglect in the early 1960s. Nonetheless, he scored four two-sided crossover hits in 1960-61 with “Night”/“Doggin’ Around,” “(You Were Made for) All My Love”/”A Woman, a Lover, a Friend,” “Alone at Last”/”Am I the Man,” and “My Empty Arms”/The Tear of the Year.” “Night” was a pop smash, while “Alone at Last” and “My Empty Arms” were near-smash pop hits. “Doggin’ Around” and “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend” were top R&B hits. Later in 1961 Wilson achieved major pop and R&B hits with “Please Tell Me Why” and “I’m Comin’ Back to You,” followed by the moderate pop hits “Years from Now” and “The Greatest Hurt.” He subsequently formed a songwriting partnership with Alonzo Tucker that yielded a top R&B and smash pop hit with “Baby Workout” in 1963. Later major R&B and moderate pop hits included “Shake a Hand” (with Linda Hopkins) and “Shake! Shake! Shake!” Although he continued to score hits over the next three years, Jackie Wilson didn’t achieve another major pop and smash R&B hit until he began recording in Chicago with producer Carl Davis. Under Davis, Wilson staged a dramatic comeback with “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)”; the classic “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” a top R&B and smash pop hit; and “I Get the Sweetest Feeling.” He recorded with Count Basie in 1968 and managed his last near-smash R&B and moderate pop hit with late 1970’s “This Love Is Real” He was subsequently relegated to the oldies revival circuit, despite continued R&B hits into 1975. On the night of Sept. 29,1975, while performing at the Latin Casino near Cherry Hill, N.J., Wilson had a massive heart attack that left him in a coma. He remained hospitalized until his eventual death on Jan. 21, 1984, at the age of 49. Jackie Wilson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES: Billy Ward and The Dominoes (1956); 21 Original Greatest Hits Featuring Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson (1960); 14 Hits (1951-1965) (1977); 14 Original Greatest Hits (1978); 21 Hits (1977); Sixty Minute Man: The Best of Billy Ward and The Dominoes; Meet Billy Ward and His Dominoes (1993). THE DOMINOES: Have Mercy Baby (1985). IACKIE WILSON AND THE DOMINOES: 14 Hits (1977). JACKIE WILSON: He’s So Fine (1958); Lonely Teardrops (1959); So Much (1960); Sings the Blues (1960); My Golden Favorites (1960); A Woman, a Lover, a Friend (1960); You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet (1961); By Special Request (1961); Body and Soul (1962); Sings the World’s Greatest Melodies (1962); At the Copa (1962); Baby Workout (1963); Merry Christmas (1963); My Golden Favorites, Vol. 2 (1964); Somethin’ Else (1964); Soul Time (1965); Spotlight on Jackie Wilson (1965); Soul Galore (1966); Whispers (1967); Higher and Higher (1967); 7 Get the Sweetest Feeling (1968); Greatest Hits (1969); Do Your Thing (1969); It’s All a Part of Love (1970); You Got Me Walking (1971); This Love Is Real (1973); Beautiful Day (1973); Nowstalgia (1974); Nobody but You (1977); The Jackie Wilson Story (1983); The Jackie Wilson Story, Vol. 2 (1985); The Soul Years (1966); Reet Petite (1985); Very Best (1987); Through the Years: A Collection of Rare Album Tracks and Single Sides (1987); Merry Christmas from Jackie Wilson (1991); Mr. Excitement (1992); Very Best (1994). JACKIE WILSON AND LINDA HOPKINS: Shake a Hand (1963). JACKIE WILSON AND COUNT BASIE: Manufacturers of Soul (1968).