Born on 18 March 1941 and raised in Prattville, Alabama, Wilson Pickett went to Detroit to live with his preacher father at the age of 14. He began to sing with local gospel groups, among them the Violinaires. Then he picked up on the rapidly developing Detroit soul scene by joining the Falcons, who had already hit the US R&B charts with ‘You’re So Fine’ (#2 R&B/17 pop) in April ’59. The Falcon’s first line up featured Eddie Floyd (lead), Bob Manardo, Arnett Robinson, Tom Shelter, Willie Schofield in ’55 but the line up changed. Joe Stubbs and Mack Rice came on board, and then Pickett joined to replace Stubbs in 1960. He sang the great lead on ‘I Found A Love’ that went to #6 US R&B/75 pop in April ’62. Wilson went solo in ’63 and the Falcons disbanded, at which time another group (formerly the Fabulous Playboys) took over their name.
Wilson’s early solo on Correctone flopped, then he joined Lloyd Price’s Double L label and ‘If You Need Me’ hit #30 US R&B/64 pop in May ‘63. This record brought Wilson to the attention of Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, who got Solomon Burke to cover the hit. Burke’s version went to #2 R&B and #37 pop providing him with the bigger hit. ‘If You Need Me’ was also cut later by the Rolling Stones among many others. Undaunted, Pickett wrote and recorded ‘It’s Too Late’ which went to #7 R&B/49 pop in August ’63 providing his first top 10 record. Wexler signed him to Atlantic in ’64 but early Bert Berns produced singles ‘I'm Gonna Cry’ and ‘Come Home Baby’ didn’t sell well. His career really lifted off in ’65 when Wexler took him down Memphis to record his career song, the iconic ‘In The Midnight Hour’, written and recorded with Steve Cropper at Stax. It became his first international hit and established Wilson forever amongst the highest cluster of soul music’s brightest stars.
The Pickett/Cropper team produced a successful series of big hits at Stax including, ‘Don’t Fight It’, ‘634 5789’, ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Funky Broadway’. By the late ‘60s he had moved over to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he cut successful re-workings of Chris Kenner’s ‘Land of a 1000 Dances’, the Beatles ‘Hey Jude’ and the Archies ‘Sugar, Sugar’. In the ‘70s more big hits followed, among them ‘Engine Number 9’, ‘Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You’, ‘Don’t Knock My Love’ and ‘Fire & Water’ with producers Gamble & Huff. A concert held in West Africa was filmed and released as ‘Soul To Soul’ which featured many other acts including Ike & Tina Turner, the Staple Singers, Roberta Flack but Pickett’s performance made him the star turn. With all this success came a few problems. A fiery temperament led Jerry Wexler to dub him “The Wicked Pickett” and his heavy drug use had an adverse effect on his performances, getting him into hot water with the law.
Wilson joined RCA in ’73 and a couple of top 20 R&B hits followed in the next two years but the quality of his songs lacked the consistency that he’d enjoyed earlier. He was jailed following an auto accident and further drink, drugs and driving offences were to plague him repeatedly over the next 20 years. He set up his own Wicked label in ’75 and scored two more medium single hits. But his recording career was in a slow decline. More medium hits occurred in ’78 on Big Tree and he scored again with EMI America and finally returned to the motor city and Motown. Inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, Wilson also made a phantom appearance in Alan Parker’s movie ‘The Commitments’ that same year. Further struggles with a drug-fuelled ego persisted but at the close of the century, his fortunes improved and he bounced back in 1999 with his first studio album in 12 years for Rounder - ‘It's Harder Now’ which earned him a Grammy nomination. With 49 hit singles and 17 hit albums to his credit in America alone, Wilson Pickett’s huge success made him an international sensation. His influence had an indelible effect on mainstream pop and his Atlantic hits will remain at the forefront of popular dance music for many a year. Wilson Pickett died from heart attack in Reston, Virginia on 19 January 2006.
Peter Burns, March ‘06
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Photo and graphic scans
Soul To Soul /71
Only The Strong Survive TV Special /02
If You Need Me Acrobat ACRCD 100 /03
Wilson Pickett Warner Music 2CD 8122700282 /06