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).
Jackie goes solo
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.
Slowdown in the 1960s
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.
Tributes and Legacy
- Van Morrison recorded a tribute song called “Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)” on his 1972 album, Saint Dominic's Preview.
- Rita Coolidge covered “Higher and Higher” in 1977; her version outpaced Wilson's original on the U.S. pop charts, reaching number two and earning a gold record.
- Elvis Presley considered Jackie Wilson's version of “Don't Be Cruel” superior to his own, returning four nights in a row to see Wilson performing in Las Vegas.
- In 1985, the soul/funk band The Commodores recorded “Nightshift” in memory of Wilson and soul singer Marvin Gaye, who died in the same year as Wilson. Reaching number one R&B and number three pop in the U.S. it was the group's biggest post-Lionel Richie hit.
- Michael Jackson honored Wilson at the 1984 Grammy Awards when he dedicated his Album of the Year Grammy for Thriller to him.
- Wilson scored a posthumous hit when “Reet Petite” reached number one in the United Kingdom in 1986. This success was due in part to a popular video made for the song, featuring an animated clay model of Wilson. The following year, he hit the U.K. charts again with “I Get the Sweetest Feeling” (No. 3), and “Higher and Higher” (No. 11).
- Wilson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
- “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want to Meet)” (U.S. #62, UK #6), 1957 (re-issue hit #1 in the UK toward the end of 1986)
- “To Be Loved” (U.S. #22, UK #23), 1958
- “We Have Love” (U.S. #93), 1958
- “Lonely Teardrops” (U.S. #7 and R&B #1), 1958
- “That's Why (I Love You So)” (U.S. #13), 1959
- “I'll Be Satisfied” (U.S. #20), 1959
- “You Better Know It” (U.S. #37 and R&B #1), 1959
- “Talk That Talk” (U.S. #34), 1959
- “Night" (U.S. #4) / “Doggin' Around” (U.S. #15 and R&B #1), 1960
- “(You Were Made For) All My Love” (U.S. #12, UK #33) / “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend” (U.S. #15 and R&B #1), 1960
- “Alone at Last” (U.S. #8, UK #50) / “Am I the Man” (U.S. #32), 1960
- “My Empty Arms” (U.S. #9) / “The Tear of the Year” (U.S. #44), 1961
- “Please Tell Me Why” (U.S. #20) / “Your One and Only Love” (U.S. #40), 1961
- “I'm Comin' on Back to You” (U.S. #19) / “Lonely Life” (U.S. #80), 1961
- “Years from Now” (U.S. #37) / “You Don't Know What It Means” (U.S. #79), 1961
- “The Way I Am” (U.S. #58) / “My Heart Belongs to Only You” (U.S. #65), 1961
- “The Greatest Hurt” (U.S. #34) / “There'll Be No Next Time” (U.S. #75), 1962
- “I Found Love” (duet with Linda Hopkins, U.S. #93), 1962
- “Hearts” (U.S. #58), 1962
- “I Just Can't Help It” (U.S. #70), 1962
- “Forever and a Day” (U.S. #82) / “Baby, That's All” (U.S. #119), 1962
- “Baby Workout” (U.S. #5 and R&B #1), 1963
- “Shake a Hand” (duet with Linda Hopkins, U.S. #93), 1963
- “Shake! Shake! Shake!” (U.S. #33), 1963
- “Baby Get It (And Don't Quit It)” (U.S. #61), 1963
- “Big Boss Line” (U.S. #94), 1964
- “Squeeze Her-Tease Her (But Love Her)” (U.S. #89), 1964
- “Danny Boy” (U.S. #94), 1965
- “No Pity (In the Naked City)” (U.S. #59), 1965
- “I Believe I'll Love On” (U.S. #96), 1965
- “Think Twice” (duet with Lavern Baker, U.S. #93) / “Please Don't Hurt Me” (U.S. #128), 1966
- “Whispers (Gettin' Louder)” (U.S. #11), 1966
- “I Don't Want to Lose You” (U.S. #84) / “Just Be Sincere” (U.S. #91), 1967
- “I've Lost You” (U.S. #82), 1967
- “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (U.S. #6 and R&B #1), 1967 (UK re-releases #11 in 1969 and #15 in 1987)
- “Since You Showed Me How to Be Happy” (U.S. #32), 1967
- “For Your Precious Love” (with Count Basie, U.S. #49), 1968
- “Chain Gang” (with Count Basie, U.S. #84), 1968
- “I Get the Sweetest Feeling” (U.S. #34), 1968 (UK re-releases: #9 in 1972; #25 in 1975 as double A-side with “Higher and Higher”; #3 in 1987)
- “For Once in My Life” (U.S. #70), 1968
- “Let This Be a Letter (To My Baby)” (U.S. #91), 1970
- “(I Can Feel Those Vibrations) This Love Is Real” (U.S. #56), 1970
- “Love Is Funny That Way” (U.S. #95), 1971
- “You Got Me Walking” (U.S. #93), 1972
- Boland, S. R. and Linda Bond. The Birth of the Detroit Sound: 1940-1964. Arcadia Publishing, 2002. ISBN 978-0738520339
- Carter, Doug. The Black Elvis—Jackie Wilson. Heyday Publishing, Inc., 1998. ISBN 978-0966942507
- Douglas, Tony. Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops. Routledge, 2005. ISBN 978-0415974301
- Jackie Wilson—Mr. Excitement Retrieved June 18, 2007.
- Jackie Wilson at All Music Guide (allmusic.com). Retrieved June 18, 2007.
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