Born in Alabama in 1941 Wilson Pickett was part of his local Baptist choir but he learnt his R&B craft on the tough streets of Detroit. Heavily influenced by Little Richard, a lifetime friend, Pickett swapped the gospel styling of his first band the Violinaires for the secular attractions of The Falcons whose ranks also included Joe Stubbs, Eddie Floyd, Mack Rice and Robert Ward. Pickett sang on the ace “I Found a Love” turning the Michigan group into a Southern soul ensemble overnight.
Liaisons with Don Covay, Jerry Wexler and Solomon Burke, albeit his nemesis since he got first crack at Wilson’s “If You Need Me”, brought Wilson into the spotlight and his debut album, It’s Too Late (1962) contains the artist’s version of the latter sing. The real big time didn’t arrive until he cut the seminal album In the Midnight Hour for Atlantic in 1965. Including contemporary compilations there were a further eleven Atlantic releases and the period between 1964 and 1971 is his heyday. He always played with the best Southern rock, soul and country cats and the presence of producers like Wexler, Dowd and Rick Hall established an instantly recognisable sound.
Third album, The Exciting Wilson Pickett, is a must-hear. As well as Chris Kenner’s New Orleans classic “Land of a Thousand Dances” there’s a timely take on Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’”, a brilliant reading of Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” and the epic “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)” that really put the whole concept of funky grooves out there. Working both at Muscle Shoals and the Stax set-up in Memphis Pickett was on top of his game and obviously loving his talent.
The hits still flowed on The Wicked Pickett: “Mustang Sally” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” were also hugely popular in Europe, particularly in the nightclubs of London and Paris where the Mods and Modernists acquired their hardcore fascination with US R&B.
“Funky Broadway:” (1967) is integral to the Pickett story since it’s the first example of a charting single with the word “Funky” in the title and also arguably beats even James Brown to the initial essence of the musical form. If that was now The Sound of Wilson Pickett then he would take a left turn with the I’m in Love album, whose title track was another hit, this time penned by Bobby Womack. Showcasing the tender side of Pickett, as did “She’s Lookin’ Good”, one senses Wilson had decided to move away from roots and embrace the progressive rock and soul movement. It was a natural enough diversion and the albums The Midnight Mover and Hey Jude contain many highlights. Indeed “Hey Jude itself has been cited as the launching pad for the Allman Brothers Band and thus the entire history of Southern Rock. It’s a stellar four-minute moment in soul history and essential discovery time.
Right On (1970) is another Criteria Studios, Miami, Florida, Southern delight but it sold quite poorly and raised a few eyebrows when it was discovered to contain covers of The Supremes “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and The Archies’ bubblegum confection, “Sugar Sugar”. On the other hand Wilson’s version of “Hey Joe” is hardly shabby and the hidden gem, “Sweet Inspiration” (written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham), makes it worth discovering.
Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia (working with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) also predates another genre: the whole Philly progressive sound exemplified here by “Run Joey Run”.
A move to RCA in 1973 resulted in a more fallow period. Pickett’s last major hit was for Atlantic – “Don’t Knock My Love – Pt.1” – and his crossover appeal waned even though the R&B crowd stayed loyal.
He returned to Fame and Muscle Shoals for the old school soul disc A Funky Situation but the reviews were unkind and his self-styled “cornbread” vocals didn’t chime with the era. Now we can appreciate him in his full glory. Try the Original Album Series for a 5-CD journey through his mid-sixties period. The Definitive Wilson Pickett has a remastered sound and fully lives up the title.
As an erudite article in the Encyclopedia of Alabama has it, his music and songs and above all that goose bump voice have given us radio staples, standards for cover bands, a well of material for hip hop samplers and a culturally relevant soundtrack to the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Ain’t that the gospel truth.