Jack Leroy "Jackie" Wilson Jr. (June 9, 1934 ??? January 21, 1984) was an American singer, and performer, and a 1987 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee. Known as "Mr Excitement" , Wilson was important in the transition of rhythm and blues into soul. He was a master showman, and as one of the most dynamic singer and performers in R&B and Rock history. Gaining fame in his early years as a member of the R&B vocal group The Dominoes, he went solo in 1957 and recorded over 50 hit singles that spanned R&B, pop, soul, doo-wop and easy listening. During a 1975 benefit concert, he collapsed on-stage from a heart attack and subsequently fell into a coma that persisted for nearly nine years. By the time of his death in 1984, he had become one of the most influential soul artists of his generation.
In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Jackie Wilson #68 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Early years and career
Jack Leroy Wilson Jr. was born in Detroit, Michigan, the only son of Jack Sr. and Eliza Mae Wilson. Growing up in the rough Detroit area of North End, Wilson joined a gang called the Shakers and often found himself in trouble. He dropped out of high school at age 15, having already been sentenced to juvenile detention twice. After the second time, however, he discovered boxing and performed in the amateur circuit in the Detroit area. His record in the Golden Gloves was 2 and 8. After getting married and becoming a father at 17, Wilson gave up boxing for music, forming a group that included cousin Levi Stubbs, who later went on to lead the Four Tops (two more of Wilson's cousins, Hubert Johnson and Levi's brother Joe, later became members of The Contours). He was soon discovered by talent agent Johnny Otis, who assigned him to join a group called the Thrillers. That group would later be known as The Royals (who would later evolve into R&B group, The Midnighters, but Wilson wasn't part of the group when they changed their name and signed with King Records). After recording a few sides with Dizzy Gillespie's record label, he joined The Dominoes after a successful audition to replace Clyde McPhatter, who had left to join The Drifters. Wilson was the group's lead singer for over a year producing the pop hit, "St. Therese of the Roses", before he began a solo career in 1957.
In 1957, Wilson signed a solo contract with Brunswick Records, a subsidiary division of Decca, and released his first single, Reet Petite, which became a modest R&B success (but many years later, would become a huge international smash). The song was written by another former boxer named Berry Gordy, Jr., who co-wrote it with partner Roquel Davis. Soon the duo composed and produced a sizable collection of hit singles for Wilson, including "To Be Loved", "That's Why", "I'll Be Satisfied" and his late-1958 single, "Lonely Teardrops". The latter single became a No. 7 pop smash, and established him as an R&B superstar known for his extraordinary multi-octave vocal range.
Due to his fervor when performing, with both his dynamic dance moves and singing, he was soon christened "Mr. Excitement", a title he would keep for the remainder of his career. His stagecraft in his live shows inspired Michael Jackson, and Elvis Presley among others. His powerful ,electrifying live performances never failed to bring audiences to a state of frenzy. Wilson also admitted he was influenced by Presley too, saying "???A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man???s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.???
In 1958, Davis and Gordy left Wilson after royalty disputes escalated between them and his manager, Nat Tarnopol. Davis soon became a successful staff songwriter for Chess Records, while Gordy used the money earned from his work with Wilson to form Motown Records in his native Detroit. Meanwhile, convinced that Wilson could venture out of R&B and rock and roll, Tarnopol had the singer record operatic ballads and easy listening material. Wilson scored hits as he entered the sixties with the No. 15 "Doggin' Around", the No. 4 ballad "Night", and "Baby Workout", another Top 10 hit (No. 5), which he composed with Midnighters member Alonzo Tucker. Top 10 hits continued with "Alone At Last" (No. 8) and "My Empty Arms" (No. 9) in 1960 and 1961, respectively.
Also in 1961, Wilson recorded a tribute album to Al Jolson, You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet, which included the only album liner notes he ever wrote: ". . . to the greatest entertainer of this or any other era . . . . I guess I have just about every recording he's ever made, and I rarely missed listening to him on the radio. . . . During the three years I've been making records, I've had the ambition to do an album of songs, which, to me, represent the great Jolson heritage. . . . This is simply my humble tribute to the one man I admire most in this business . . . . to keep the heritage of Jolson alive."Clips
Following the success "Baby Workout", Wilson experienced a lull in his career between 1964 and 1966 as Tarnopol and Brunswick Records released a succession of unsuccessful albums and singles. Despite the lack of sales success, he still made artistic gains as he recorded an album with Count Basie, as well as a series of duets with rhythm and blues legend Laverne Baker.
In 1966, he scored the first of two comeback singles with Chicago soul producer Carl Davis with "Whispers (Gettin' Louder)" and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," a No. 6 Pop smash in 1967, which became one of his final pop hits. This was followed by "I Get the Sweetest Feeling",which, despite its modest initial chart success in the U.S. (Billboard Pop #34), has since become one of his biggest international chart successes, becoming a Top 10 hit in England twice, in 1972 and in 1987, and a Top 20 hit in the Dutch Top 40 in The Netherlands, and has spawned numerous cover versions by other artists such as Edwin Starr,The Men's Club , Will Young, Erma Franklin (Aretha's sister) , and Liz McClarnon.
A key to his musical rebirth was that Davis insisted that Wilson no longer record with Brunswick's musicians; instead, he would record with legendary Detroit musicians normally employed by Motown Records. The musicians participated on Wilson's recordings due to their respect for Davis and Wilson.
By 1975, Wilson and the The Chi-Lites were Brunswick's only significant artists left on the aging label's roster. Until then, Wilson continued to record singles that found success on the R&B chart, but found no significant pop chart success. His final hit, "You Got Me Walkin'", was released in 1972.
Wilson was shot and wounded by one of his girlfriends, Juanita Jones, on , 1961. It was alleged that Jones shot Wilson in a jealous rage when he returned to his apartment with another woman, fashion model Harlean Harris, an ex-girlfriend of Sam Cooke. To protect Wilson's reputation, his management supposedly concocted a story that Jones was an obsessed fan who threatened to shoot herself, and that Wilson's intervention resulted in his being shot. The story was accepted, and no charges were brought against Jones. Freda Hood, Wilson's first wife, with whom he had four children, divorced him in 1965 after 14 years of marriage. He married Harris in 1967, but they separated soon after. Wilson later met and lived with Lynn Crochet, with whom he had two children. He was with Crochet until his heart attack in 1975. However, as he and Harris never officially divorced, Harris took the role of Wilson's caregiver for the singer's remaining nine years. Wilson was a convert to Judaism.
Wilson suffered a massive heart attack while playing a Dick Clark show at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey on September 29, 1975, falling head-first to the stage while singing the line from his hit "Lonely Teardrops": "My Heart is Crying". The blow to the head left him comatose and for the next eight years and four months, he was in a vegetative state until his death at age 49. Al Green and Elvis Presley were some of the few artists who regularly visited the bed-ridden Wilson.
According to the 2005 biography, Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops, he received a well-publicized funeral attended by approximately 1,500 relatives, friends and fans. He is interred in the Westlawn Cemetery in Wayne, Michigan.
In 1987, a segment on Jackie Wilson on ABC's 20/20 featured the complicated legacy and tragic demise of Wilson. Both Harlean Harris and Lynn Crochet were interviewed, and the segment implied that Tarnopol took unfair advantage of his dual role as Wilson's manager and president of Brunswick Records. Charges that Tarnopol swindled Wilson out of most of his earnings were not pursued after Tarnopol's death.
Tributes and legacy
In 1985, the soul/funk band, The Commodores recorded "Nightshift" in memory of Wilson and soul singer Marvin Gaye, who both died in 1984. Reaching No. 1 R&B and No. 3 pop in the US, it was the group's biggest post-Lionel Richie hit.
Van Morrison also recorded a tribute song called "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)" on his 1972 album Saint Dominic's Preview. This song was later covered by Dexys Midnight Runners. When the track was performed on the British TV show Top of the Pops, a picture of Wilson was intended to be used in the background - but an intentional joke by the band and the production staff meant that a picture of darts player Jocky Wilson was used instead.
Michael Jackson honored Jackie Wilson at the 1984 Grammy Awards. Jackson dedicated his Album of the Year Grammy for Thriller to Wilson, saying, "In the entertainment business, there are leaders and there are followers. And I just want to say that I think Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer...I love you and thank you so much."
Jackie Wilson is mentioned in the song "Gone But Not Forgotten" sung by artist TQ, which is a song dedicated to the memory of famous musicians who have died. The lyric goes "..and Jackie, will you teach me how to glide across the stage?"
Wilson is mentioned in the rap song "Thugz Mansion" by Tupac Shakur. The lyric is:
"Seen a show with Marvin Gaye last night,
It had me shook, sippin' peppermint schnapps
With Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke."
Until Jackson's comments, Wilson's recording legacy had been dormant for almost a decade. Tarnopol owned Wilson's recordings due to Brunswick's separation from MCA, but the label had essentially closed down, essentially deleting Wilson's considerable recorded legacy. But when Jackson praised Wilson at the Grammys, interest in the legendary singer stirred, and Tarnopol released the first Wilson album (a two-record compilation) in almost nine years through Epic Records, Jackson's label at the time. Through Tarnopol's son, Wilson's music has become more available.
Wilson scored a posthumous hit when "Reet Petite" reached number one in the United Kingdom in 1986. This success was likely due in part to a new animated video made for the song, featuring a clay model of Wilson, that became hugely popular on television. The following year he hit the UK charts again with "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" (No.3), and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" (No.11).
Rita Coolidge covered "Higher and Higher" in 1977; her version reached No. 2 on the US pop charts, earning a gold record.
In 1999 , Jackie's original version of "Higher and Higher" and "Lonely Teardrops" were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame,and both are on Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Wilson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987; that same year, he was portrayed in the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba by Howard Huntsberry.
In 1988, his version of "To Be Loved" was featured in the movie Coming to America, when Akeem and Lisa were falling in love. Akeem (Eddie Murphy) later came back home singing the song loudly (and poorly), waking up and infuriating his neighbors.
In 1989, "Higher and Higher" was featured heavily in the film Ghostbusters II, the soundtrack album of which featured a cover version of the song by Howard Huntsberry.
In 1992, Wilson was portrayed in the ABC miniseries by Grady Harrell in The Jacksons: An American Dream .
In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #68 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
In 2007, Wilson's music will be featured in a film adaptation of Irvine Welsh's book Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance.