Jackie Wilson - Biography

Soul music historian Robert Pruter once called Jackie Wilson “the most tragic figure in rhythm and blues.” How tragic? The one-time star spent the last eight years of his life as a virtual vegetable, a largely forgotten man whose contorted, brain-damaged body was shuffled from one nursing home to another while the IRS pursued him for over $200,000 in back taxes. At the same time, two women, each claiming to be Wilson’s wife, battled over his estate. Also tragic was that Wilson’s association with Berry Gordy Jr., co-author of his first five hits, should have turned out to be so brief. Had the singer been brought into Gordy’s creative stable at Motown, instead of being kept in servitude at Brunswick Records for his entire 18-year solo career, he might have been spared the indignities that marred much of his post-Gordy output.


Wilson was one of the most glorious entertainers ever to command a stage. He was a vocal and physical gymnast who executed graceful spins, slides, and splits as his powerful, ringing tenor soared through it all. He was greatly inspired by blues shouter Roy Brown and by Clyde McPhatter, the latter of whom he would come to replace as lead singer of Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Other influences of Wilson’s in his formative years were vaudeville entertainer Al Jolson and opera star Mario Lanza.


Jack Leroy Wilson was born in Detroit on June 9, 1934. Known as “Sonny” to his family and friends, Wilson grew up singing at Detroit’s Russell Street Baptist Church. He boxed for a brief period in his younger years, and, during the late 1940s he became a member of the local Ever Ready Gospel Singers. He made his recording debut in 1952 with a couple of singles for Dizzy Gillespie’s Dee Gee label, one being “Danny Boy,” an old Irish song that would become a staple of his supper club act.


In 1953, having learned that the inimitable McPhatter was planning to leave The Dominoes, Wilson seized an opportunity. He showed up at the audition claiming that he could out-sing McPhatter. It seemed like a tall claim, but after hearing the teenager belt out a couple of numbers, Ward took Wilson on the road and McPhatter showed him the ropes for a couple of weeks before leaving to form The Drifters. Wilson spent four years as The Dominoes’ lead tenor and was featured on such hits as “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” (1953 Federal), the #2 R&B hit “Rags to Riches” (1953 King), and “St. Therese of the Roses” (1956 Decca).


Billy Ward began steering his group away from its R&B roots, both on records and for personal appearances. Rather than playing African American venues, as The Dominoes had early on, they became mainstays in Las Vegas. It was in the lounge of the Las Vegas Hilton that Elvis Presley first saw Wilson perform with the group, and the rock & roll superstar became a friend and diehard fan of the R&B vocalist, who was only seven months the elder of Presley.


Wilson was unhappy with the pop path down which Ward had led The Dominoes and decided to leave the group in 1957, to pursue a career as a solo artist. Al Green, who ran the prestigious Flame Show Bar in Detroit and also managed such stars as Johnnie Ray and LaVern Baker, became Wilson’s manager. He took Wilson to New York City to sign with Bob Thiele at Decca Records but, the night before the signing, Green suddenly died. Green’s assistant, Nat Tarnopol, took over Wilson’s management the very next morning and, with Wilson present, signed the contract. Decca placed the singer on its Brunswick subsidiary label. Tarnopol would not only remain Wilson’s manager for the rest of his career, but he would eventually come to own half, then all of Brunswick.


Wilson’s first single, “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl in Town),” was penned by struggling Detroit songwriters Berry Gordy Jr. and Roquel “Billy’ Davis (who was operating under the pseudonym, “Tyran Carlo”). Cut in New York with pop arranger Dick Jacobs, the infectious up-tempo tune found Wilson parodying Presley. It entered Billboard’s pop chart in November 1957 but rose only as high as #62 and failed to penetrate the trade magazine’s R&B chart. In the UK, however, the song rose to #6 on the New Musical Express chart and, when reissued in 1986, climbed to #1 on that nation’s Record Retailer chart. Part of the popularity it gained was due to an animated video featuring a clay model of the late vocalist.


The next four Wilson releases between 1958 and 1959 were written by Gordy and Davis—“To Be Loved,” which went to #22 on the pop charts; the #1 R&B hit “Lonely Teardrops”; “I’ll Be Satisfied,” which cracked the top 20 on the pops; and the #6 R&B/#20 pop hit, “You Better Know It.” Even though his presence was felt, the cha-cha-imbued Lonely Teardrops (1959 Brunswick) was the only Wilson record that Gordy actually produced. 


Gordy parted company with Tarnopol in 1959 in a dispute over royalties and proceeded to launch Motown. Jacobs, in collaboration with Tarnopol, remained Wilson’s primary producer for the next seven years. Wilson maintained a strong chart presence only through 1960, however, hitting #1 on the R&B charts with “You Better Believe It,” #3 on the R&B’s with “Talk That Talk,” climbing again to the top of the R&B charts with “Doggin’ Around” (1960), and registering a #4 hit on the pop charts with “Night” (1960). He would also put out “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend,” (# R&B, 1960), the minor hit “Am I That Man” and “Alone at Last” (#8 pop, 1960).


Wilson performed “You Better Know It” in the 1959 motion picture Go, Johnny, Go!, which starred influential disc jockey Alan Freed. “Doggin’ Around,” written by former Midnighters’ guitarist Alonzo Tucker but credited to a relative of Tarnopol’s, was the bluesiest of Wilson’s hit singles and was included on his fourth album, Jackie Sings the Blues (1960 Brunswick). The flip side, “Night,” an adaptation of the aria “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” from Saint-Saens’ Samson & Delilah, showcased Wilson’s operatic side.


Songs such as “Night,” “Alone at Last” (based on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B Flat), and 1961’s “My Empty Arms” (an adaptation of “Vesti La Giubba” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci) were indicative of the direction Tarnopol was taking Wilson in order to appeal to white record buyers and club audiences. Par for this course, the singer recorded his tenth album, Jackie Wilson at the Copa (1962 Brunswick) was recorded in Manhattan’s Copacabana.


Wilson spent the better part of the 1960s vacillating between soul and pop, and his career slowed down between 1961-1970. In that time, he managed to score six Top 10 R&B hits—1961’s “The Tear of the Year” and “I’m Coming Back to You,” 1963’s #1 R&B hit “Baby Workout,” 1966’s “Whispers (Getting’ Louder),” 1967’s #1 R&B smash “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” and 1970’s “(I Can Feel Those Vibrations) This Love Is Real”—as compared to his ten hits in the two-year span between 1958 and 1960. Produced by Carl Davis at Brunswick’s then-recently-opened studio in Chicago, “Higher and Higher” would be Wilson’s biggest hit since “Lonely Teardrops.” Ironically, the song was co-written by Roquel “Billy” Davis and utilized a moonlighting rhythm section from Motown made up of keyboardist Johnny Griffith, guitarist Robert White, bassist James Jamerson, and drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen.


Wilson and Tarnopol had a serious falling out around the time “Higher and Higher” became a hit. Carl Davis claimed that Wilson felt Tarnopol was paying him insufficient royalties for the song, which led to the fight. Others said that associates of Tarnopol hung Wilson out the window of a high-rise hotel and threatened to drop him if he didn’t agree to renew his contract with Brunswick. Either way, Wilson began booking his own engagements as a way of depriving Tarnopol of his manager’s cut, but the venues got increasingly smaller as time went on. By the early ’70s, Wilson was almost exclusively relegated to the oldies circuit.


On September 25, 1975, while wailing “Lonely Teardrops” during a Dick Clark oldies show at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Wilson suddenly grabbed his chest, dropped to his knees, and fell on the floor. The 42-year-old singer had suffered a massive heart attack. After coming out of a three-month coma, he showed little response to therapy and hung on for another eight years in a vegetative state. He finally died on January 21, 1984, at an assisted living facility in Medford, New Jersey at 49 years old. The following year, The Commodores paid tribute to Wilson- as well as the recently departed Marvin Gaye- in their last major pop hit "Night Shift."


Wilson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.


Two biographies of the late singer have been published: Lonely Teardrops: The Jackie Wilson Story by Tony Douglas (1997 Sanctuary Publishing Limited) and The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson by Doug Carter (1998 Heyday Publishing).


Forty-four of Wilson’s songs, hits as well as album tracks, are compiled on the 2-CD The Ultimate Jackie Wilson (2006 Brunswick). Single-disc anthologies include 20 Greatest Hits (2002 Brunswick) and the 24-song The Very Best of Jackie Wilson (2004 Ace). Seventeen of Wilson’s performances with The Dominoes, plus “Danny Boy” and one other song from his 1952 session for Dee Gee, are gathered on The Essential Masters with Billy Ward and His Dominoes (2004 Varese Sarabande).


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