Wilson Pickett - Biography

By Lee HIldebrand


          "God, you sure are wicked!" a mini-skirted secretary screamed at soul singer Wilson Pickett after he pinched her thigh during a 1966 visit to the New York offices of Atlantic Records. Company vice-president Jerry Wexler bolted from his office, exclaiming, "That's his next album -- The Wicked Pickett!"


           The name stuck, befitting a man whose fierce, leather-lunged vocal style matched an often-combustible offstage personality that some found downright evil.


            Pickett, who scored 17 Top 10 hits on Billboard's R&B chart during his 1982-72 association with Atlantic, was born In Prattville, Alabama, on March 10, 1941. He began picking cotton at age four to help support his mother and her 11 other children. He worked in the fields three days a week and attended school only two. When he moved to Detroit at age 16 to join his auto-worker father, he found himself so far behind in his education that he dropped out of school in the 10th grade.


            Greatly inspired by the screaming hard-gospel style of Julius "June" Cheeks, star lead vocalist with the Sensational Nightingales, Pickett sang with a quartet called the Songs of Zion while still in Alabama. In Detroit, he joined the Violinaires and made one single with them in 1957 for the Gotham label, but he did not solo. He is, however, believed to be the soloist with the Spiritual Five on the 1963 Peacock single "Call Him Up"/"Christ's Blood," although virtually nothing is known about his association with this rather obscure group. Other singers who influenced Pickett were Archie Brownlee of the  Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Clarence Fountain of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.


            By the time the Spiritual Five 45 was issued, Pickett was already a rising R&B star as lead singer of The Falcons, a gospel-styled secular singing group from Detroit that included Eddie Floyd, Mack Rice, and Joe Stubbs (brother of Four Tops lead Levi Stubbs). In 1960, a year after Stubbs was featured on the group's No. 2 R&B hit, "You're So Fine," Stubbs was replaced by a 19-year-old Pickett. He made his R&B debut that year on the group's United Artists single "Pow! You're in Love." It flopped, but the group's 1962 Pickett-led "I Found a Love," issued on the LuPine label in Detroit and picked up for national distribution by Atlantic, found itself at No. 6 on the R&B chart. The Falcons were supported instrumentally on the intense Pickett-penned composition by the Ohio Untouchables, a band from Dayton, led by guitarist Robert Ward, that would evolve into the Ohio Players. 


            Pickett's first solo single, "Let Me Be Your Boy," appeared later in 1962 on the Correc-Tone label. He signed the following year with Lloyd Price's Double L label in New York, only to find his first single for the label, "If You Need Me," written by Pickett and producer Robert Bateman, covered by Atlantic artist Solomon Burke. The cover version shot to No. 2 on the R&B chart, while the original stalled at No. 30. Pickett's follow-up, "It's Too Late," did better, peaking at No. 7 R&B.


            Atlantic purchased the vocalist's contract from Double L in 1964, but his first two New York-made singles for the company failed to click. Impressed by Otis Redding's recordings for Stax/Volt, Pickett suggested to Wexler that he be given the Memphis treatment. "In the Midnight Hour," a composition by Pickett and guitarist Steve Cropper from the singer's initial Memphis session in 1965, became his first of his five R&B chart-toppers. (Now considered a standard, it reached only as high as No. 21 on the pop chart at the time.) Other fruits of Pickett's Stax sessions included the No. 4 R&B, No. 53 pop "Don't Fight It," the No. 1 R&B, No. 13 pop "634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)" (written by Cropper and Eddie Floyd, the former Falcon, then a solo artist at Stax), and "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)."


            Pickett showed up next at Rick Hall's Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he made the No. 1 R&B, No. 6 pop "Land of 1000 Dances" (originally recorded by its composer, New Orleans vocalist Chris Kenner), the No. 6 R&B, No.  23 pop "Mustang Sally" (first recorded by its writer, former Falcon Mack Rice), the No. 19 R&B, No. 29 pop "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" (Solomon Burke cut the original in 1964), a new version of "I Found a Love" that placed at No. 6 R&B, No. 32 pop, and a No. 1 R&B, No. 8 pop cover of Dyke and the Blazers' "Funky Broadway."


            Returning to Memphis in 1967, this time at producer Chips Moman's American Studios, Pickett scored with the No. 4 R&B, No. 45 R&B "I'm in Love" and the No. 6 R&B, No. 24 pop "I'm a Midnight Mover," both written by Bobby Womack (then a session guitarist at American), as well as a No. 7 R&B, No. 15 pop cover version in 1968 of "She's Lookin' Good," a regional hit a year earlier for San Francisco singer-songwriter Rodger Collins.  Back at Fame, Pickett had a No. 13 R&B, No. 23 pop charter with his incendiary reading of The Beatles' "Hey Jude," featuring searing slide guitar by a then-little-known Duane Allman. The next stop on Pickett's Southern soul journey was Miami, where in 1970 he transformed The Archie's bubblegum pop ditty "Sugar Sugar" into a believable burst of soul, placing it at No. 4 R&B, No. 25 pop.    


            A 1970-71 association with Philadelphia producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff resulted in two Top 10 R&B hits-- the No. 3 R&B, No. 14 R&B "Engine Number 9" and the No. 2 R&B, No. 17 pop "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You" -- after which Pickett found himself back in Muscle Shoals recording the No. 1 R&B, No. 13 pop "Don't Knock My Love," the No. 10 R&B, No. 52 pop "Call My Name, I'll Be There," and No. 2 R&B, No. 24 pop "Fire and Water." The latter single, released in late 1971, proved to be the final Top 10 R&B entry of the singer's career.


            Pickett signed a lucrative contract with RCA Victor in 1973, but his new deal turned out to be rather disappointing, with only three singles -- "Mr. Magic Man" (produced by Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford), " "Take a Closer Look at the Woman You're With" and "Soft Soul Boogie Woogie (both produced by Shapiro and Pickett), all from 1973 -- managing to crack the R&B Top 20. Subsequent releases on his own T.K.-distributed Wicket Records (1975-76), the Atlantic-distributed Big Tree label (1978), EMI America (1979-80), Catawaba (1982), and Motown (1987) were even less successful. After a twelve-year hiatus from recording, the singer returned in 1999 with the Grammy-nominated CD It's  Harder Now, produced by Jon Tiven for the Bullseye Blues label. Pickett made his final recording singing the spiritual "Don't You Ever Let Nobody Drag Yo' Spirit Down" as a guest with Linda Tillery and The Cultural Heritage Choir on the CD Say Yo' Business (2001-EarthBeat). Tillery, a committed feminist, found Pickett, famous for his misogynistic attitude toward women, to have been quite pleasant to work with. 


            Even at the height of his career, Pickett was noted for his volatile temperament and fascination with guns. As his fortunes as a recording artist declined, his personal behavior worsened. In 1987, he was arrested for carrying a loaded shotgun in his car and sentenced to two years probation and a $1,000 fine. In 1991, he was arrested for driving his car over the Englewood, New Jersey, mayor's front lawn while allegedly screaming death threats.  In 1992, he was charged with assaulting his girlfriend. In 1993, while driving drunk, he hit an 86-year-old Englewood pedestrian with his car. The man eventually died, and the singer was sentenced to a year in jail and five years probation.  He was arrested in 1997 for cocaine possession.


            Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation two years later. He was featured in the 2003 motion picture documentary Only the Strong Survive.  Pickett stopped performing the following year due to declining health. He died of a heart attack on January 19, 2006, at a hospital near home in Ashburn, Virginia. Little Richard gave a beautiful eulogy at his funeral. 


             Most of Pickett's classic Atlantic albums, including In the Midnight Hour (1965), The Exciting Wilson Pickett (1966), The Wicked Pickett (1967), The Sound of Wilson Pickett (1967), I'm in Love (1968), The Midnight Mover (1968), Hey Jude (1969), Right On (1970), Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia (1970), and Don't Knock My Love (1971), have been reissued on CD. Among the various "best-of" compilations are the Atlantic CDs Wilson Pickett's Greatest Hits (1990), A Man and a Half: The Best of Wilson Pickett (1992), The Very Best of Wilson Pickett (1993), and The Definitive Collection (2006). Twenty of his RCA Victor tracks were compiled in the UK for Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It: Best of the RCA Years (1999-BMG/Camden).

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