Wilson Pickett

Soul singer nicknamed 'Wicked Pickett' whose hits included 'In the Midnight Hour' and 'Mustang Sally'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Wilson Pickett, singer: born Prattville, Alabama 18 March 1941; married (two sons, two daughters); died Reston, Virginia 19 January 2006.

As the inexorable seducer rasping his way through "In the Midnight Hour", as the coolest of cool dudes in "Mustang Sally" or as the hysterical dance caller in "Land of 1,000 Dances", Wilson Pickett added new dimensions to rhythm and blues music and became one of the pioneers of soul. Although the music industry thrives on difficult artists, Pickett was more explosive than most and he could never contain himself, either on record or in private.

Pickett was born in Prattville, near Montgomery, Alabama in 1941. He was one of 10 brothers and sisters, who were treated shamefully by their mother. He later told Gerri Hirshey, author of Nowhere to Run: the story of soul music (1984), "I get scared of her now. She used to hit me with anything, skillets, stove wood . . ." Pickett's grandfather was a preacher, who hit the boy with a Bible every time he heard him sing a secular song. He had little schooling and worked in a cotton-field.

In 1955 Pickett moved to live with his father in Detroit, where he appreciated local singers such as Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John. In 1961 he replaced Eddie Floyd in the established R&B group the Falcons and he wrote and sang lead on their 1962 hit, "I Found a Love".

The Falcons' producer, Robert Bateman, recognised Pickett's vocal talent and introduced him to the hitmaker Lloyd Price, who was then starting his own label, Double-L. Pickett's first release, "If You Need Me", in 1963, was a soulful ballad written with Bateman. It made the US charts but it was overtaken by a cover version by Solomon Burke for Atlantic Records. The song became popular during the British beat boom, being recorded by both the Rolling Stones and Tom Jones. Pickett's subsequent Double-L recordings ("It's Too Late" and "I'm Down To My Last Heartache") were minor US hits.

In 1964, he moved to the Atlantic label. His first singles for the producer Bert Berns, ("I'm Gonna Cry" and "Come Home Baby") came to nothing, but then another producer, Jerry Wexler, thought of linking Pickett with Booker T and the MG's in Memphis.

Once in Memphis, Pickett wrote "In The Midnight Hour" with the MG's guitarist, Steve Cropper, although Pickett, typically, later claimed to have written it all himself. Pickett's hard-hitting delivery was extremely emotional and his grunting and groaning left no doubt as to what he was planning to do with his lady in the midnight hour. The MG's formed a perfect rhythm section and the Memphis Horns helped to make this a remarkable record. It topped the US R&B chart in 1965 and also made the pop Top Thirty. In the UK, following constant plays on the pirate station Radio Caroline, it reached No 12 and Pickett toured the UK that year.

Although the follow-up single, "Don't Fight It", was not as strong, it was full of Pickett's guttural shouting. There was little subtlety in his performances but he could not be beaten for sheer power. Everywhere he went, Pickett lusted after his fans, and Jerry Wexler dubbed him "the Wicked Pickett". Wexler told me in 2004,

"Wilson Pickett is a very headstrong, tough man. He has an abrasive personality, but I never had any problems with him in the studio. Outside of the studio, in the office or in the world in general, he was not an easy person to handle. You couldn't have a discussion with him."

When Pickett returned to Memphis for further recordings in December 1965, Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper had a new song for him, "634-5789". Pickett started to record the song, but he stopped singing and tore up the lyrics, saying, "Man, this is crap! I refuse to do it!" Floyd was furious and grabbed Pickett by the throat. The two fought, but they made it up during the evening and wrote a new song, "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)". They recorded both titles the following day and both were hits. Cropper commented, "For all the bad press Wilson gets, he was the only one who sent the band a bonus for a job well done."

The New Orleans singer and songwriter Chris Kenner had written "Land of 1,000 Dances" after hearing the spiritual "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" in a church service; his version was a minor US hit in 1963 and then it was covered by Cannibal and the Headhunters. Wilson Pickett came to the song in 1966 and although the dances mentioned in the lyric (the twist, the pony, the fly, the alligator) had by then disappeared, it didn't matter, because he performed it with such verve and enthusiasm. "Land of 1,000 Dances" became his biggest US hit, reaching No 6 and although it was only a Top Thirty entry in the UK, it is better known than many of his No 1s.

Pickett's success continued with the insidious "Mustang Sally", written by an Atlantic house writer, Sir Mack Rice, and the archetypal " Funky Broadway", a cover of a record by Dyke and the Blazers. His albums included In The Midnight Hour (1965), The Exciting Wilson Pickett (1966), The Wicked Pickett (1966), The Sound of Wilson Pickett (1967) and I'm In Love (1968). In 1968 he worked with Bobby Womack on The Midnight Mover and the title song, written by Womack, became another US hit.

In 1970 Pickett's sessions were relocated to Muscle Shoals and the guitarist Duane Allman, suggested they try "Hey Jude". The result was another explosive single and Pickett outclassed Paul McCartney's performance with his shrieking at the end. When the record was a hit, Pickett criticised the Beatles for not complimenting him on his performance. Although the combination of Pickett with bubblegum music in his next song, "Sugar, Sugar", sounded daft, his saccharine tribute to the deceased stars "Cole, Cooke and Redding" at least revealed another side to Pickett's personality.

Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff produced a superlative album, Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia (1971). It led to two further US hits with "Engine Number 9 " and "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You", but the album should be heard in its entirety. Pickett's hard-core shouting is showcased in a mellow, more sophisticated setting and it works surprisingly well. The songs are in tune with Pickett's personality and in "International Playboy", he boasts that he is "a legend in my own time" with a girl in every town. Pickett was pleased with the album, but he refused to work with Gamble and Huff again because, he said, "I didn't have a song I wrote in it. They took everything."

The next producers, Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford, knew they had their work cut out and when Pickett sang a snatch of a lyric, they encouraged him to turn it into a song. It became the big-selling "Don't Knock My Love" (1971). Around that time, Pickett participated in a gala concert to celebrate Ghana's independence and his performance is included in the film Soul to Soul (1971).

In 1973, Pickett left Atlantic and moved to RCA and although he made some critically acclaimed albums, Mr Magic Man (1973), Miz Lena's Boy (1973), Tonight I'm My Biggest Audience (1974) and Pickett in the Pocket (1974), his career seemed to have reached a standstill. He was an alcoholic and, in 1974, he was arrested in New York for producing a gun during an argument in a bar. He wrote about his personal problems in the song, "Two Women and a Wife".

Unlike many soul performers, Pickett was uncomfortable with the move towards disco and criticised the new sounds on every occasion. He told Rolling Stone magazine in 1979,

If Otis Redding and Sam Cooke were alive today, they wouldn't get away with changing the music like they have done today. But I don't have enough help.

Pickett formed his own label, Wicked, and released the old-style album A Funky Situation, which he made in Muscle Shoals in 1978. Although the label was soon insolvent, Pickett enjoyed some success performing in Las Vegas and bought expensive clothes and jewellery.

By 1986, Pickett was without a record label and was again arrested, this time for threatening behaviour with a loaded shotgun. He had a brief return to his former glory when he re-recorded a new version of "In the Midnight Hour" for Tamla-Motown. In 1991, the soul music film The Commitments told the story of a Dublin band who idolised Wilson Pickett and he made a brief appearance in the final scene - or did he? That year, Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The following year, Pickett was ordered to leave his home in New Jersey after an argument with his neighbour, the local mayor, resulted in Pickett destroying his lawn. When he was arrested in 1993 after hitting an 86-year-old man with his car, police found open alcohol bottles in the vehicle. Pickett agreed to rehab and served a year in prison, followed by community service. His manager commented, "Wilson Pickett's worst enemy is Jack Daniel's." Just as it seemed that things could not get worse, in 1996 Pickett was arrested after beating up his girlfriend and was charged with taking cocaine, thus breaking the terms of his probation.

In 1999, his album It's Harder Now was nominated for a Grammy and the following year he and Eddie Floyd performed "634-5789", in an amusingly choreographed sequence for the film Blues Brothers 2000. During 2006, Pickett had planned to record with Don Covay, Ben E. King, Sir Mack Rice and Solomon Burke as the Soul Clan.

Spencer Leigh

Comments