Jack Leroy "Jackie" Wilson (June 9, 1934 – January 21, 1984) was an American soul and R&B singer, born in Detroit, Michigan. His energetic stage and singing style earned him the title "Mr. Excitement" and he scored major hits with “Lonely Teardrops” and “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher” in 1959 and 1967, respectively. Although several of his hits were written by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr., Wilson never joined the Motown group, a fact many believe contributed to his relative lack of success in his later career.
Wilson led a troubled life due in part to his habitual womanizing. He nearly died after being shot by a jealous lover in 1961 and was arrested on morals charges in 1967. He suffered a major heart attack while performing in 1975 and remained hospitalized for the rest of his life due to resulting brain damage, finally dying at the age of 49 in 1984. Despite the moderate degree of his success, he was much admired by his fellow rock and R&B performers, receiving many tributes from them over the years.
Wilson was the only surviving child of Jack and Eliza Mae Wilson. He began singing at an early age and by his teens had formed a gospel quartet, the Ever Ready Gospel Singers Group. Although the group was popular in local churches, Jackie's religious roots didn't run deep enough to keep him out of trouble. Growing up in a rough section of Detroit, he was reportedly a frequent truant and belonged to a gang called The Shakers. While still a teen, he was twice confined at the Lansing Correctional Institute, where he learned how to box, becoming a Detroit Golden Gloves champion at sixteen. He dropped out of school in the same year.
Wilson hoped to be a professional boxer, but when his parents would not allow this, he began singing in local Detroit clubs. In 1951 he married Freda Hood, and a daughter was born the next month. He sang in a group that included this cousin, Levi Stubbs—future lead singer of the Four Tops. He also recorded—as "Sonny Wilson"—a few solo tracks for Dee Gee label, owned by Dizzy Gillespie.
After gaining a solid local reputation, Wilson auditioned successfully for the popular Billy Ward & the Dominoes in 1953, replacing Clyde McPhatter, who had left Ward's band to form The Drifters. The group had several moderate hits with Wilson, including “You Can't Keep a Good Man Down.” Previously the group had scored a major R&B hit with Sixty Minute Man (1951).
Wilson's solo career began with in 1957 with the exuberant “Reet Petite,” written by the then-unknown Berry Gordy, Jr. While Gordy went on to tremendous success with Motown Records, Wilson would remain with the Brunswick label throughout his career.
Wilson had his first top 40 hit in 1958 with “To Be Loved.” At the end of that year he had a major success with “Lonely Teardrops.” Like “Reet Petite,” the song was written by Gordy, and it went to number seven. A popular gospel-esque dance tune perfectly matched to Wilson's "golden" tenor voice, it became his signature tune, bringing his unique singing style to a wide audience. That same year saw Wilson release his first LP, titled He's So Fine.
“Lonely Teardrops” helped Wilson cross over from R&B to the pop mainstream. His dynamic stage personality earned him the nickname "Mr. Excitement," and his performance of “Lonely Teardrops” on the Ed Sullivan Show is considered one of the show's classics. Two more Berry Gordy songs—“That's Why (I Love You So)” and “I'll Be Satisfied”—became hits for Wilson in 1959.
In 1960 Wilson scored two additional R&B number one hits with “Doggin' Around” and “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend.” He also experimented rather unsuccessfully with semi-operatic records such as Danny Boy and Night, as well as Johnny Mathis-style pop ballads. Returning to his uptempo "Mr. Excitement" style with “Baby Workout,” he scored another hit in 1963.
Wilson's career began to suffer, however, in the mid-1960s. He managed a revival with “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” in 1967 charting at number six pop and number one R&B. The comeback was short-lived, however, and Wilson rarely charted in the 1970s. Considering Wilson's ample singing and stage performing talents, many analysts speculate that he might have gained much greater success in the late 1960s and early 1970s had he joined the Motown Records stable along with so many other local Detroit performers, rather than remaining with the Brunswick label.
Although married to Frida Hood since 1951, Wilson was a notorious womanizer. He was shot and seriously wounded by one of his lovers, Juanita Jones, on February 15, 1961. Wilson remained hospitalized for more than a month, and found himself in serious financial trouble when he was released. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seized his family home and his wife soon filed for divorce. Their marriage was annulled in 1965. In March 1967, Wilson was arrested in South Carolina on morals charges after he and a friend were discovered in a motel with two 24-year-old white women. Later that year he married Harlean Harris, an old girlfriend with whom he had a son in 1963, and to whom he remained married until his death. Wilson reportedly converted to Judaism sometime in his adult life, but little is known about the circumstances of his conversion.
On September 29, 1975, while performing on stage in New Jersey, Wilson suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to a nearby hospital after several minutes without breathing. He remained comatose for three months, and although he eventually regained consciousness, never fully recovered. Some of his medical costs were reportedly paid for by Elvis Presley. Wilson never uttered another word, but clung to life for eight additional years, remaining hospitalized until his death at the age of 49 in 1984.
Wilson is interred in the Westlawn Cemetery in Wayne, Michigan.
All links retrieved August 5, 2013.
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