At a time when R&B had come into its own, gaining popularity on the national pop charts, it took a left turn. From the smooth grooves of late 50s doo wop and early 60s soul came a group of artists pushing the rhythmic bounds of the songs. The words became their own dances, jumping and grinding through the air like crazed battle cries. Among the drivers of this out-of-control machine was Wilson Pickett, the wild man from Alabama: his hits for Atlantic and Stax helped shape what would become the funk sound of the 70s.
A voice like his is not learned; he came out howling and growling on March 18th, 1941. Growing up in Prattville, AL
, he sang in the church choir. His parents were divorced and his relationship with his mother was strained, so when he was young, he moved up to Detroit to live with his father. The streets tainted his angelic cry with an other worldly snarl. Joining local gospel group The Violinaires, Pickett soon found himself touring the country with other gospel favorites The Soul Stirrers. Inspired by Sam Cooke and others who had left the gospel field for a prosperous pop career, Pickett left the Violinaires and joined The Falcons in 1959.
Wilson stayed with The Falcons through 1962, having chart success with “I Found A Love”. The song reached #6 on the R&B charts and #75 on the pop charts, leading to an eventual phone call from Atlantic Records. His first solo contract came from Lloyd Price at Double L Records. With them, he recorded “If You Need Me” and “It’s Too Late”. The former was sent to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records as a demo. Pickett’s plan was only half successful: Wexler loved the song! Loved it so much that he gave it to one of his artists, Solomon Burke, to record. In fact, it went on to become Burke’s biggest hit and a soul standard, much to Pickett’s disappointment. He was hoping to get a contract for himself out of that demo, but it didn’t come until 1964.
1964 saw Atlantic Records buy out Pickett’s contract from Double L. From this point, Wicked Pickett’s career took a severe upturn. In 1965, after some false starts at other studios with conflicting producers, He was brought down to Stax Studios in Memphis, TN. The pairing of Pickett with Stax’ golden boy, Steve Cropper, and Donald “Duck” Dunn brought about the hits “In The Midnight Hour”, “Don’t Fight It”, “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)” and “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)”. When asked about the first 1965 Stax session, Wexler said,
“Finally I got an idea – not for a song but for a trip: me and Pickett to Memphis, whose freshness just might give us the edge. And instead of trying to provide material, I urged him – with local genius Steve Cropper – to create his own. I put the two of them in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and the simple exhortation -“Write!”- which they did. When we got in that beat up old movie theater on East McLemore, the place was rocking, the speakers nearly blown by the power of Wayne Jackson’s punctuated horns. One of the songs was “In The Midnight Hour”. I loved the lyric and the gospel fervor; Cropper inspired Pickett’s truest passion. Originally from Prattville, Alabama, the Wicked One was back home, raising hell.”
Wexler’s exhortation, Cropper’s intuition and Pickett’s inspiration proved a fruitful combination. “In The Midnight Hour” reached #1 on the R&B charts, #21 on the Pop charts and #12 on the UK charts. There were a total of three sessions at Stax in 1965, and although successful, Wexler never sent Wilson back to Memphis. Atlantic’s owner, Jim Stewart refused to allow any more outside sessions in December, 1965. All recording needed to be done in-house or with a studio closely affiliated with Atlantic Records. With this in mind, Wexler sent Pickett to Fame Studios, in Muscle Shoals, AL. If the recordings at Stax were considered successful, the recordings at Fame could be considered more so. “Land Of 1000 Dances”, “Mustang Sally” and “Funky Broadway” were all cut between 1966-1967, all hitting high on the charts. Each recording further cemented the Wicked One’s sexual appeal, every note drove him further out on the road of earth shaker. Each song has a different flavor, from dripping sexual swagger to gospel-infused cry to powerhouse pop. Each song pulled in a little more from the raw motion of funk rhythm. By 1968, Pickett was recording at American Studios, back in Memphis. He was working with producers Tom Dowd and Tommy Cogbill and was recording a string of songs by writer Bobby Womack. These sessions produced another Pickett favorite, “I’m a Midnight Mover”, which cracked the R&B Top 10.
Over the next few years, Pickett recorded at multiple studios around the South, still churning out hits. In 1970, he moved up to Philadelphia to record Wilson Pickett In Philadelphia. Two more hits followed, infusing more of the Philadelphia funk sound, “Get Me Back On Time, Engine #9″ and “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You”. He continued recording for Atlantic until 1972, when he moved over to RCA Records. Throughout the 70s and 80s he was in and out of the studio, touring consistently, although less frequently as time went on.
He is known as The Wicked Pickett, and he came by that moniker honestly. It had as much to do with his temperamental nature as with his soul-scratching tenor voice; the man had an attitude, he was reckless and he was not to be messed with. Along with a successful recording career he had several scrapes with the law, including drug charges, domestic violence disputes and even hollering death threats to the mayor of Englewood, NJ while driving over his lawn, in 1991. No one can say Pickett had it easy; no one can say he didn’t make some terrible choices. He died of a heart attack on January 19, 2006 and was buried in Louisville, KY. Among the funeral attendees was Little Richard, who spoke kind words about his long time friend.
A wild ride from beginning to end, the life of Wilson Pickett was dotted with supreme highs and degenerative lows. Everyone recognizes his voice as the rumbling beneath every instinct, both carnal and sublime. His songs carry us to the highest mountain and then sweep us down through the dark valley of mystery and shadow. It’s really unique to find an artist that can transport you, body and soul, into another place and time. The Wicked Pickett did that, whether by our own choice, or by sheer force.
*Wexler quote came from Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Jerry Wexler and David Ritz, pp. 175-176.