Wilson Pickett

Wilson Pickett (March 18, 1941 ??? January 19, 2006) was an American R&B/rock and roll and soul singer and songwriter known for his raw, raspy, passionate vocal delivery.


A major figure in the development of American soul music, Pickett recorded over 50 songs which made the US R&B charts, and frequently crossed over to the pop charts as well. Among his best known hits are "In The Midnight Hour" (which he co-wrote), "Land of 1,000 Dances", "Mustang Sally", and "Funky Broadway".


The impact of Pickett's songwriting and recording led to his 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Early life


Pickett was born March 18, 1941 in Prattville, Alabama, and grew up singing in Baptist church choirs.


He was the youngest of 11 children and called his mother "the baddest woman in my book", telling historian Gerri Hirshey: "I get scared of her now. She used to hit me with anything, skillets, stove wood ??? (one time I ran away and) cried for a week. Stayed in the woods, me and my little dog." Pickett eventually left to live with his father in Detroit in 1955.


Early musical career (1955-1964)


Pickett's forceful, passionate style of singing was developed in the church and on the streets of Detroit, under the influence of recording stars such as Little Richard, whom he later referred to as "the architect of rock and roll.


In 1955, Pickett became part of a gospel music group called the Violinaires or bernadette. The group accompanied The Soul Stirrers, The Swan Silvertones, and The Davis Sisters on church tours across the country. After singing for four years in the locally popular gospel-harmony group, Pickett, lured by the success of other gospel singers of the day, including Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and others who left gospel music in the late 1950s for the more lucrative secular music market, joined the Falcons in 1959.


The Falcons were one of the first vocal groups to bring gospel into a popular context, thus paving the way for soul music. The Falcons also featured some notable members who went on to become major solo artists; when Pickett joined the group, Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice were also members of the group. Pickett's biggest success with The Falcons came in 1962, when "I Found a Love," (co-authored by Pickett and featuring his lead vocals), peaked at #6 on the R&B charts, and at #75 on the pop charts.


Soon after recording "I Found a Love," Pickett cut his first solo recordings, including "I'm Gonna Cry," his first collaboration with Don Covay, an important figure in Southern soul music. Around this time, Pickett also recorded a demo for a song he co-wrote, called "If You Need Me." A slow-burning soul ballad featuring a spoken sermon, Pickett sent the demo to Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records. Wexler heard the demo and liked it so much, he gave it to one of the label's own recording artists, Solomon Burke. Burke's recording of "If You Need Me" became one of his biggest hits (#2 R&B, #37 pop) and is now considered a soul standard, but Pickett was crushed when he discovered that Atlantic had given away his song. "First time I ever cried in my life," Pickett would later recall, notwithstanding the time as a child he cried for a week cited above. Pickett's version of the song was released on Double L Records, and was a moderate hit, peaking at #30 R&B, #64 pop.


Pickett's first big success as a solo artist came with "It's Too Late," an original composition (not to be confused with the Chuck Willis standard of the same name). Entering the charts on , 1963, it eventually peaked at #7 on the R&B charts, and at #49 pop. This record's success convinced Wexler and Atlantic to buy his contract from Double L Records in 1964.


Rise to stardom: In The Midnight Hour (1965)


Pickett's Atlantic career began with a self-produced single, "I'm Gonna Cry", which stalled at a lowly #124 on the national charts. Looking to boost Pickett's chart chances, Atlantic next paired him with famed producer Bert Berns and established songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. With this team, Pickett recorded "Come Home Baby," a pop duet with New Orleans singer Tammi Lynn, but this single failed to chart completely.


Pickett's breakthrough came at Stax Records' recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee, where he recorded his third Atlantic single, "In the Midnight Hour" (1965), perhaps his best-remembered hit, peaking at #1 R&B, #21 pop {US}, and #12 hit {UK}.


The genesis of "In the Midnight Hour" was a recording session on , 1965, in which producer Jerry Wexler worked out a powerful rhythm track with studio musicians Steve Cropper and Al Jackson of the Stax Records house band, which also included bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn. (Stax keyboard player Booker T. Jones, who usually played with Dunn, Cropper and Jackson as Booker T. & the MG's, did not play on any of the Pickett studio sessions.) Wexler said to Cropper and Jackson, "Why don't you pick up on this thing here?" He performed a dance step. Cropper later explained in an interview that Wexler told them that "this was the way the kids were dancing; they were putting the accent on two. Basically, we'd been one-beat-accenters with an afterbeat; it was like 'boom dah,' but here this was a thing that went 'um-chaw,' just the reverse as far as the accent goes." The song that resulted from this encounter established Pickett as a star, and also gave Atlantic Records a bona fide hit.


Stax/Fame years (1965-67)


Pickett recorded three sessions at Stax in May and October 1965, and was joined by keyboardist Isaac Hayes for the October sessions. In addition to "In the Midnight Hour," Pickett's 1965 recordings included the singles "Don't Fight It," (#4 R&B, #53 pop) "634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A,)" (#1 R&B, #13 pop) and "Ninety-Nine and A Half (Won't Do)" (#13 R&B, #53 pop). All but "634-5789" were original compositions Pickett co-wrote with Eddie Floyd and/or Steve Cropper; "634-5789" was credited to Cropper and Floyd alone. All of these recordings are considered soul classics, and show a range of different styles, from the hard-driving "Midnight Hour" and "Don't Fight It," to the more overtly gospel-influenced "Ninety-Nine and A Half" (which borrowed its title from a gospel standard recorded by The Ward Singers) and the pop-soul of "634-5789".


For his next sessions, Pickett would not return to Stax; the label's owner, Jim Stewart, banned all outside productions in December, 1965. As a result, Wexler took Pickett to Fame studios, another recording studio with an even closer association to Atlantic Records. Located in a converted tobacco warehouse in nearby Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Fame was very influential in shaping soul music, and Pickett recorded some of his biggest hits there. This included the highest-charting version ever of the kinetic "Land of 1,000 Dances", which became Pickett's third R&B #1, and his biggest ever pop hit, peaking at #6. The song had previously been a hit for the song's writer, Chris Kenner, and Mexican-American band Cannibal & the Headhunters.


Other big hits from this era in Pickett's career included two other covers: Mack Rice's "Mustang Sally," (#6 R&B, #23 pop), and Dyke & the Blazers' "Funky Broadway," (another R&B #1 for Pickett, as well as #8 pop). The band heard on almost all of Pickett's Fame recordings included keyboardist Spooner Oldham and drummer Roger Hawkins.


Later Atlantic years (1967-1972)


Towards the end of 1967, Pickett began recording at American Studios in Memphis with producers Tom Dowd and Tommy Cogbill, and also began recording numerous songs by Bobby Womack. The songs "I'm In Love," "Jealous Love," "I've Come A Long Way," "I'm A Midnight Mover," (a Pickett/Womack co-write), and "I Found A True Love" were all Womack-penned hits for Pickett in 1967 and 1968. "I'm In Love" was also a return to the soul ballad genre for Pickett; he would continue to record a mixture of ballads, soul and funk for the rest of his career. Pickett also recorded work by other writers during this era; Rodger Collins' "She's Looking Good" and a cover of the traditional blues standard "Stagger Lee" were also top 40 Pickett hits recorded at American in 1967/68. Womack was the guitarist on all these recordings.


Pickett returned to Fame Studios in late 1968 and early 1969, where he worked with a band that featured guitarist Duane Allman, as well as Muscle Shoals stalwart Hawkins and newly recruited bassist David Hood. A #16 pop hit cover of The Beatles' "Hey Jude" came from these Fame sessions, as well as the minor hits "Mini-Skirt Minnie" and "Hey Joe".


Late 1969 found Pickett at Criteria Studios in Miami. Hit covers of The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (#16 R&B, #92 Pop) and The Archies' "Sugar Sugar" (#4 R&B, #25 Pop), as well as the Pickett original "She Said Yes" (#20 R&B, #68 Pop) came from these sessions.


Pickett then teamed up with established Philadelphia-based hitmakers Gamble and Huff for the 1970 album Wilson Pickett In Philadelphia, which featured his next two hit singles, the funk-oriented "Get Me Back On Time, Engine Number 9" (#3 R&B, #14 Pop) and the pop number "Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You" (#2 R&B, #17 Pop).


Following these two big hits, Pickett returned to Muscle Shoals and the Muscle Shoals band, featuring Hood, Hawkins and Tippy Armstrong. This line-up recorded Pickett's fifth and last R&B #1 hit, "Don't Knock My Love, Pt. 1", which also peaked at #13 on the pop charts in 1971. Two further hits followed in '71: "Call My Name, I'll Be There" (#10 R&B, #52 Pop) and "Fire and Water" (#2 R&B, #24 Pop), a cover of a song by Free.


Pickett recorded several tracks in 1972 for a planned new album on Atlantic, but after the single "Funk Factory" reached #11 R&B and #58 pop in June of 1972, he left Atlantic for RCA Records. His final Atlantic single, a cover of Randy Newman's "Mama Told Me Not To Come," was actually culled from Pickett's 1971 album Don't Knock My Love.


Post-Atlantic recording career


Pickett continued to record with some success on the R&B charts for RCA in 1973 and 1974, scoring four top 30 R&B hits with "Mr. Magic Man", "Take a Closer Look at the Woman You're With", "International Playboy" and "Soft Soul Boogie Woogie". However, he was no longer crossing over to the pop charts with any regularity, as none of these songs hit higher than #90 on the Billboard Hot 100.


As the decade continued, the advent of disco put Pickett's soul-based musical style out of step with the then-current trends in R&B, and in pop music in general. In 1975, with Pickett's once-prominent chart career on the wane, RCA dropped Pickett from the label.


Pickett continued to record sporadically with several labels over the following decades, occasionally making the lower to mid-range of the R&B charts. However, after 1974, he never had another pop hit. His last record was issued in 1999, although he remained fairly active on the touring front until he became ill in 2004.


Personal life and honors


Outside of music, Pickett's personal life was troubled. Even in his 1960s heyday, Pickett's friends found him to be temperamental and preoccupied with guns; Don Covay described him as "young and wild". Then in 1987, as his recording career was drying up, Pickett was given two years' probation and fined $1,000 for carrying a loaded shotgun in his car. In 1991, he was arrested for allegedly yelling death threats while driving a car over the mayor's front lawn in Englewood, New Jersey. The following year, he was charged with assaulting his girlfriend.


In 1993, Pickett was involved in an accident where he struck an 86-year-old pedestrian, Pepe Ruiz, with his car in Englewood. Ruiz, who helped organize the New York animation union, died later that year. Pickett pled guilty to drunken driving charges and received a reduced sentence of one year in jail and five years probation. Pickett had been previously convicted of various drug offenses.


Throughout the 1990s, despite his personal troubles, Pickett was continually honored for his contributions to music. In addition to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his music was prominently featured in the film The Commitments, with Pickett as an off-screen character. In 1993, he was honored with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.


Pickett was also a popular songwriter, as songs he wrote were recorded by artists like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, the Grateful Dead, Booker T. & the MGs, Genesis, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hootie & the Blowfish, Echo & the Bunnymen, Roxy Music, Bruce Springsteen, Los Lobos, The Jam and Ani DiFranco, among others.


Several years after his release from jail, Pickett returned to the studio and received a Grammy nomination for the 1999 album It's Harder Now. The comeback also resulted in his being honored as Soul/Blues Male Artist of the Year by the Blues Foundation in Memphis. It's Harder Now was voted Comeback Blues Album of the Year and Soul/Blues Album of the Year.


In 2003, he co-starred in the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of both the 2002 Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals. In 2003, Pickett was also a judge for the 2nd annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists' careers.


Pickett spent the twilight of his career playing dozens of concert dates a year until 2004, when he began suffering from health problems. While in the hospital, he returned to his spiritual roots and told his sister that he wanted to record a gospel album. But, sadly, he never recovered.


Death


Pickett died of a heart attack January 19, 2006 in the hospital near his Ashburn, Virginia home and was buried in Louisville, Kentucky. Pickett's long-time friend, Little Richard, spoke about him and preached briefly at the funeral. Pickett spent many years in Louisville when his mother moved there from Alabama. He is considered an honorary son of the city. His funeral procession was flanked by well wishers welcoming him home.


He was remembered on March 20, 2006, at NYC's B.B. King Blues Club with performances by the Commitments, his long-term backing band the Midnight Movers, soul singer Bruce "Big Daddy" Wayne, and Southside Johnny Lyon in front of an audience that included many members of his family, including two brothers.


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