THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF WILSON PICKETT
(March 18, 1941 – January 19, 2006) Wilson Pickett was an American R&B/rock and roll and soul singer and songwriter. A major figure in the development of American soul music, Pickett recorded over 50 songs which made the US R&B charts, and frequently crossed over to the US Billboard Hot 100. Among his best known hits are “In the Midnight Hour” (which he co-wrote), “Land of 1,000 Dances”, “Mustang Sally”, and “Funky Broadway”. The impact of Pickett’s songwriting and recording led to his 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Pickett was born March 18, 1941 in Prattville, Alabama, and grew up singing in Baptist church choirs. He was the fourth of 11 children. Pickett eventually left to live with his father in Detroit in 1955.
Soon after recording “I Found a Love,” Pickett cut his first solo recordings, including “I’m Gonna Cry,” his first collaboration with Don Covay. Around this time, Pickett also recorded a demo for a song he co-wrote called “If You Need Me,” a slow-burning soul ballad featuring a spoken sermon. Pickett sent the demo to Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records. Wexler heard the demo and gave it to one of the label’s own recording artists, Solomon Burke. Burke’s recording of “If You Need Me” became one of his biggest hits (#2 R&B, #37 Pop) and is now considered a soul standard, but Pickett was crushed when he discovered that Atlantic had given away his song. “First time I ever cried in my life”. Pickett’s version of the song was released on Double L Records and was a moderate hit, peaking at #30 R&B, #64 pop.
Pickett’s first big success as a solo artist came with “It’s Too Late,” an original composition (not to be confused with the Chuck Willis standard of the same name). Entering the charts on July 27, 1963, it eventually peaked at #7 on the R&B chart, #49 pop. This record’s success convinced Wexler and Atlantic to buy Pickett’s recording contract from Double L Records in 1964.
RISE TO STARDOM: IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR (1965)
Pickett’s Atlantic career began with a self-produced single, “I’m Gonna Cry”. Looking to boost Pickett’s chart chances, Atlantic next paired him with record producer Bert Berns and established songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. With this team, Pickett recorded “Come Home Baby,” a duet with singer Tami Lynn, but this single failed to chart. Pickett’s breakthrough came at Stax Records‘ recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee, where he recorded his third Atlantic single, “In the Midnight Hour” (1965), his best-remembered hit, peaking at #1 R&B, #21 pop (US), and #12 (UK). It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
The genesis of “In the Midnight Hour” was a recording session on May 12, 1965, at which Wexler worked out a powerful rhythm track with studio musicians Steve Cropper and Al Jackson of the Stax Records house band, which also included bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. Stax keyboard player Booker T. Jones, who usually played with Dunn, Cropper and Jackson as Booker T. & the M.G.’s, did not play on any of the Pickett studio sessions. Wexler said to Cropper and Jackson, “Why don’t you pick up on this thing here”. He performed a dance step. Cropper later explained in an interview that Wexler told them that “this was the way the kids were dancing; they were putting the accent on two. Basically, we’d been one-beat-accentors with an after beat; it was like ‘boom dah,’ but here this was a thing that went ‘um-chaw,’ just the reverse as far as the accent goes.”
STAX/FAME YEARS (1965-67)
Pickett recorded three sessions at Stax in May and October 1965, and was joined by keyboardist Isaac Hayes for the October sessions. In addition to “In the Midnight Hour,” Pickett’s 1965 recordings included the singles “Don’t Fight It,” (#4 R&B, #53 pop) “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A,)” (#1 R&B, #13 pop) and “Ninety-Nine and A Half (Won’t Do)” (#13 R&B, #53 pop). All but “634-5789" were original compositions Pickett co-wrote with Eddie Floyd and/or Steve Cropper; “634-5789" was credited to Cropper and Floyd alone.
For his next sessions, Pickett would not return to Stax; the label’s owner, Jim Stewart, banned all outside productions in December, 1965. As a result, Wexler took Pickett to Fame Studios, another recording studio with a closer association to Atlantic Records. Located in a converted tobacco warehouse in nearby Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Pickett recorded some of his biggest hits there. This included the highest charting version of “Land of 1,000 Dances“, which became Pickett’s third R&B #1, and his biggest ever pop hit, peaking at #6, it was another million selling disc.
Other big hits from this era in Pickett’s career included two other covers: Mack Rice‘s “Mustang Sally“, (#6 R&B), and Dyke & the Blazers‘ “Funky Broadway“, (R&B #1, #8 Pop). Both tracks were million sellers. The band heard on almost all of Pickett’s Fame recordings included keyboardist Spooner Oldham and drummer Roger Hawkins.
LATER ATLANTIC YEARS (1967-1972)
Towards the end of 1967, Pickett began recording at American Studios in Memphis with producers Tom Dowd and Tommy Cogbill, and also began recording numerous songs by Bobby Womack. The songs “I’m In Love,” “Jealous Love,” “I’ve Come A Long Way,” “I’m A Midnight Mover,” (a Pickett/Womack co-write), and “I Found A True Love” were all Womack penned hits for Pickett in 1967 and 1968. Pickett also recorded work by other songwriters during this era; Rodger Collins’ “She’s Looking Good” and a cover of the traditional blues standard “Stagger Lee” were also Top 40 Pickett hits recorded at American. Womack was the guitarist on all these recordings. Pickett returned to Fame Studios in late 1968 and early 1969, where he worked with a band that featured guitarist Duane Allman, Hawkins and David Hood. A #16 pop hit cover of The Beatles‘ “Hey Jude” came from these Fame sessions, as well as the minor hits “Mini-Skirt Minnie” and “Hey Joe”.
Late 1969 found Pickett at Criteria Studios in Miami. Hit covers of The Supremes‘ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (#16 R&B, #92 Pop) and The Archie’s‘ “Sugar Sugar” (#4 R&B, #25 Pop), as well as the Pickett original “She Said Yes” (#20 R&B, #68 Pop) came from these sessions.
Pickett then teamed up with established Philadelphia-based hit makers Gamble and Huff for the 1970 album Wilson Pickett In Philadelphia, which featured his next two hit singles, “Get Me Back On Time, Engine No.9″ and “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You”, the latter selling one million copies.
Following these two big hits, Pickett returned to Muscle Shoals and the band featuring Hood, Hawkins and Tippy Armstrong. This line-up recorded Pickett’s fifth and last R&B #1 hit, “Don’t Knock My Love, Pt. 1″. It was another Pickett recording that clocked up sales in excess of one million copies. Two further hits followed in ’71: “Call My Name, I’ll Be There” (#10 R&B, #52 Pop) and “Fire and Water” (#2 R&B, #24 Pop), a cover of a song by “Free”.
Pickett recorded several tracks in 1972 for a planned new album on Atlantic, but after the single “Funk Factory” reached #11 R&B and #58 pop in June of 1972, he left Atlantic for RCA Records. His final Atlantic single, a cover of Randy Newman‘s “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” was actually culled from Pickett’s 1971 album Don’t Knock My Love.
In 2010, Rhino Handmade released a comprehensive compilation of these years titled “Funky Midnight Mover – The Studio Recordings (1962-1978)”. The compilation included all originally issued recordings during Pickett’s Atlantic years along with previously unreleased recordings. This collection was sold online only via Rhino.com.
POST-ATLANTIC RECORDING CAREER
Pickett continued to record with some success on the R&B charts for RCA in 1973 and 1974, scoring four top 30 R&B hits with “Mr. Magic Man”, “Take a Closer Look at the Woman You’re With”, “International Playboy” and “Soft Soul Boogie Woogie”. However, he was no longer crossing over to the pop charts with any regularity, as none of these songs reached higher than #90 on the Hot 100. In 1975, with Pickett’s once-prominent chart career on the wane, RCA dropped Pickett from the label.
Pickett continued to record sporadically with several labels over the following decades, occasionally making the lower to mid-range of the R&B charts; however he never had another pop hit after 1974. His last record was issued in 1999, although he remained fairly active on the touring front until he became ill in 2004. Pickett appeared in the 1998 film Blues Brothers 2000, performing “634-5789″ along with Eddie Floyd and Jonny Lang.
PERSONAL LIFE AND HONORS
Outside of music, Pickett’s personal life was troubled. Even in his 1960s heyday, Pickett’s friends found him to be temperamental and preoccupied with guns; Don Covay described him as “young and wild”. Then in 1987, as his recording career was drying up, Pickett was given two years’ probation and fined $1,000 for carrying a loaded shotgun in his car. In 1991, he was arrested for allegedly yelling death threats while driving a car over the mayor’s front lawn in Englewood, New Jersey.
In 1993, Pickett was involved in an accident where he struck an 86-year-old pedestrian, Pepe Ruiz, with his car in Englewood. Ruiz, who helped organize the New York animation union, died later that year. Pickett pled guilty to drunken driving charges and received a reduced sentence of one year in jail and five years’ probation. Pickett had been previously convicted of various drug offenses.
Throughout the 1990s, despite his personal troubles, Pickett was continually honored for his contributions to music. In addition to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his music was prominently featured in the film The Commitments, with Pickett as an off-screen character. In 1993, he was honored with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Pickett was also a popular songwriter, as songs he wrote were recorded by artists like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, the Grateful Dead, Booker T. & the MGs, Genesis, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hootie & the Blowfish, Echo & the Bunnymen, Roxy Music, Bruce Springsteen, Los Lobos, The Jam and Ani DiFranco, among others.
Several years after his release from jail, Pickett returned to the studio and received a Grammy Award nomination for the 1999 album “It’s Harder Now”. The comeback also resulted in his being honored as ‘Soul/Blues Male Artist of the Year’ by the Blues Foundation in Memphis. “It’s Harder Now” was voted ‘Comeback Blues Album of the Year’ and ‘Soul/Blues Album of the Year.’
In 2003, he co-starred in the D.A. Pennebaker directed documentary Only the Strong Survive, a selection of both the 2002 Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals. In 2003, Pickett was also a judge for the second annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists’ careers. In 2005, Pickett was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame. His recording of “Mustang Sally” was voted a Legendary Michigan Song in 2007.
Pickett spent the twilight of his career playing dozens of concert dates a year until 2004, when he began suffering from health problems. While in the hospital, he returned to his spiritual roots and told his sister that he wanted to record a gospel album. However, he never recovered.
Pickett died from a heart attack on January 19, 2006 in Reston, Virginia. He was 64 years old. He was buried in Louisville, Kentucky. The eulogy was delivered by Pastor Steve Owens of Decatur, Georgia, who is a longtime friend of the family. Little Richard spoke about him and preached briefly at the funeral. Pickett spent many years in Louisville when his mother moved there from Alabama. He was remembered on March 20, 2006, at New York’s B.B. King Blues Club with performances by the Commitments, Ben E King, his long-term backing band the Midnight Movers, soul singer Bruce “Big Daddy” Wayne, and Southside Johnny Lyon in front of an audience that included members of his family.
EARLY MUSICAL CAREER (1955-1964)
Pickett’s forceful, passionate style of singing was developed in the church and on the streets of Detroit, under the influence of recording stars such as Little Richard, whom he later referred to as “the architect of rock and roll".
In 1955, Pickett became part of a gospel group called the Violinaires. The group accompanied The Soul Stirrers, The Swan Silvertones, and The Davis Sisters on church tours across the country. After singing for four years in the locally popular gospel-harmony group, Pickett, lured by the success of other gospel singers of the day who left gospel music in the late 1950s for the more lucrative secular music market, joined the Falcons in 1959.
The Falcons were one of the first vocal groups to bring gospel into a popular context, thus paving the way for soul music. The Falcons also featured some notable members who went on to become major solo artists. When Pickett joined, Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice were also members of the group. Pickett’s biggest success with The Falcons came in 1962 when “I Found a Love,” (co-authored by Pickett and featuring his lead vocals), peaked at #6 on the R&B chart and at #75 on the Hot 100.