Al Wilson: Expressive singer of 'The Snake'
Thursday 24 April 2008
"The Snake" was a slithering slice of R&B by the soul singer Al Wilson. Written by Oscar Brown Jnr and originally released in the United States in 1968, the catchy song became a Mod and Northern Soul favourite and belatedly made the British charts in 1975.
Wilson was a class act, an expressive and emotional vocalist in the Johnny Mathis and Lou Rawls mould. He also had US hits with the singles "La La Peace Song" in 1973, "I've Got a Feeling (We'll Be Seeing Each Other Again)" in 1976 and, a number one, the sophisticated, string-laden "Show and Tell" in 1974.
Born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1939, Wilson sang with his church choir as a boy. After moving to California in his teens, he spent two years in the Navy, joined a group on the base, and came out determined to make it as a musician and singer. He had a succession of odd jobs and became a member of the Jewels, a vocal group who as the Rollers scored a small hit with "The Continental Walk" in 1961.
In 1966, Wilson met the manager Marc Gordon, who brought him to the attention of the musician Johnny Rivers. Rivers had just started Soul City Records and promptly signed Wilson, who instantly made his mark with a version of the Jimmy Webb composition "Do What You Gotta Do" and the album Searching For the Dolphins in 1968.
After charting with "The Snake", Wilson repaid the favour by covering the Rivers song "Poor Side of Town" and also had a minor hit with a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Lodi" in 1969, before moving to Gordon's newly launched Rocky Road label.
In 1973, Wilson teamed up with the writer and producer Jerry Fuller who had originally written "Show and Tell" for Mathis the previous year, and also recorded the song himself. Wilson declined to listen to both versions and instead asked Fuller to play him the romantic ballad on an acoustic guitar. He then did his own take at the end of a three-hour session ostensibly arranged to record "Queen of the Ghetto", also with Fuller producing. Although it was earmarked as the B side, "Show and Tell" created such a sensation on radio that it became the A side. Issued in October 1973, the song took over three months to reach the top of the US charts in January 1974 and sold close to two million copies. It has become a soul standard, with covers by artists including Peabo Bryson.
Wilson's follow-up, "Touch and Go", also penned by Fuller, wasn't as successful, though the title track of the La La Peace Song album made the US Top 30 in 1974. Rocky Road folded and the singer subsequently released "Baby I Want Your Body" and "I've Got a Feeling (We'll Be Seeing Each Other Again)" on Playboy Records in 1976.
Wilson re-recorded several of his classics for the album Spice of Life in 2001.
Allen Wilson, singer and songwriter: born Meridian, Mississippi 19 June 1939; married (one son, two daughters); died Fontana, California 21 April 2008.
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