Wilson Pickett (March 18, 1941 – January 19, 2006) was an American Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll and soul singer known for his passionate vocal delivery. He recorded some of the most powerful Rhythm and Blues music of the twentieth century. Gifted with a powerful voice that exuded raw, unpretentious energy, Pickett brought his training as a gospel singer to the R & B field in the early 1960s and went on to become a major star.
A pioneer in the development of soul music, Pickett's work between 1963 and 1973 left a legacy of dance records that remain among the most requested by DJ's today. Among his hits were "Midnight Hour," "634-5789," "Mustang Sally," and "Land of a Thousand Dances."
In the mid-to-late 1960s, Pickett's work at the Stax studio in Memphis, Tennessee and the Fame studio at Muscle Shoals, Alabama featured some of the industry's best back-up bands, generating a powerful musical chemistry and creating recordings widely recognized as among the best ever produced. The impact of Pickett's records resulted in his 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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.
Pickett's forceful, passionate style of singing was developed in the church and on the streets of Detroit. In 1955, Pickett became part of a gospel music group called the Violinaires. 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 popular gospel-harmony group, Pickett then left gospel music for the more lucrative secular music market, lured by the success of other former gospel singers of the day such as Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin.
Pickett's first major commercial break came when he joined The Falcons in 1959. One of the first vocal groups to bring the gospel style into a popular context, The Falcons also featured other members who went on to become major solo artists, including Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice. Pickett's biggest success with The Falcons came in 1962, when "I Found a Love," (co-authored by Pickett and featuring his intense 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-style recitation. Pickett sent the demo to Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records. Wexler heard the demo and liked it so much that 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 and is now considered a soul standard, but Pickett was crushed when he discovered that Atlantic had given his song to another singer. Pickett's version of the song was released on Double L Records, and was also a moderate hit, peaking at #30 R&B, #64 pop.
Pickett's first major success as a solo artist came with "It's Too Late," another original composition. Entering the charts on July 27, 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 Pickett's contract from Double L Records in 1964.
Pickett's Atlantic career began poorly with a self-produced version of "I'm Gonna Cry," which failed to chart. Pickett then recorded "Come Home Baby," a pop duet with New Orleans singer Tammi Lynn, but this single also failed to chart. Despite these setbacks, Pickett's was clearly destined for commercial success. His voice possessed unequaled passion and power—replete with screams, moans, and hollers—yet maintaining amazing control and musicality. His inevitable breakthrough came at the Stax Records studio in Memphis, where he recorded his third Atlantic single, "In the Midnight Hour" (1965), his best-remembered hit, peaking at #1 R&B, #21 pop.
The genesis of "In the Midnight Hour" was a recording session on May 12, 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 played with Dunn, Cropper, and Jackson as Booker T. & the MG's, did not play on any of the Pickett studio sessions.) The song that resulted from this encounter established Pickett as a star and also gave Atlantic Records a huge hit. It is considered one of the most superb rock recordings ever produced.
Pickett recorded three sessions at Stax in May and October of 1965. Keyboardist Isaac Hayes joined 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" (#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 that Pickett co-wrote with Eddie Floyd and/or Steve Cropper; "634-5789" was credited to Cropper and Floyd alone. All these recordings are considered soul classics, and show a range of styles, from the hard-driving "Midnight Hour" to the pop-soul of "634-5789," and the more overtly gospel-influenced "Ninety-Nine and A Half," which borrowed its title from a gospel standard recorded by The Ward Singers.
For his next sessions, Pickett would not return to Stax, because the label's owner, Jim Stewart, banned productions for outside labels in December 1965. As a result, Wexler took Pickett to Fame studios, a studio with a closer association to Atlantic. Located in a converted tobacco warehouse in nearby Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Fame was immensely influential in shaping soul music. The band heard on most of Pickett's Fame recordings included keyboardist Spooner Oldham and drummer Roger Hawkins.
Pickett recorded some of his biggest hits at Muscle Shoals, including the highest-charting version ever of the kinetic "Land of 1000 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 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, which reached #8 as a pop hit.)
Toward the end of 1967, Pickett began recording at American Studios in Memphis with producers Tom Dowd and Tommy Cogbill. He recorded numerous songs written by Bobby Womack. The songs "I'm In Love," "Jealous Love," "I've Come A Long Way," "I'm A Midnight Mover" (co-written by Pickett) and "I Found A True Love" were all Womack-penned hits for Pickett in 1967 and 1968. "I'm In Love" represented a return to the soul ballad genre for Pickett. With his voice damaged by more than a decade of gospel and soul singing often punctuated by some of the most powerful musical screams on record, he would continue to record a mixture of ballads, soul and funk for the rest of his career.
Pickett returned to Fame studios in late 1968 and early 1969, where he worked with a band that featured guitarist Duane Allman. A top 40 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 hits, Pickett returned to Muscle Shoals and recorded his 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).
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.
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. None of his post-1974 RCA recordings hit the charts, and in 1977 RCA dropped Pickett from the label.
Pickett continued to record sporadically with several different labels over the following decades, occasionally making the lower rungs of the R&B charts. His last record was issued in 1999. Remaining fairly active into the twenty-first century on the touring front until he became ill in 2004, Pickett devoted his later life to embodying the notion of soul at its ferocious, unbridled best.
Pickett's personal life was troubled, especially after his success began to wane. Even in his 1960s heyday, Pickett's friends found him to be temperamental and preoccupied with guns, although he stayed out of serious trouble with the law during his years of success. However, 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. After several other brushes with the law, in 1993, he was convicted of drunk driving and sentenced to one year in jail after hitting an 86-year-old man with his car.
Throughout the 1990s, despite his personal problems, Pickett was continuously honored for his contributions to music. He spent the twilight of his career playing dozens of concert dates a year until 2004, when he began suffering from health problems. He told his sister, while he was in hospital, that he wanted to record a gospel album when he recovered.
Pickett died of a heart attack January 19, 2006, in the hospital near his Ashburn, Virginia home and was laid to rest next to his mother in Louisville, Kentucky. Rock and Roll pioneer Little Richard gave the eulogy and preached briefly at the funeral. His funeral procession was flanked by well wishers welcoming him home.
Wilson Pickett recorded some of the most moving and powerful soul music ever brought to market, pioneering the gospel-influenced R & B genre along with such greats as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke. His "Midnight Hour" remains one of the most danced-to songs even today, and has been widely covered. His unique singing talent made him hard to imitate, but he influenced a generation of soul singers who looked to him as one of the masters of his art.
Although best known for his singing, Pickett was also a popular songwriter. His songs were recorded by artists such as 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, Ani DiFranco, among others.
In his later career, Pickett's contributions began to be widely recognized. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and 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. He is considered an honorary son of the city of Louisville.
Pickett received a Grammy nomination for the 1999 album It's Harder Now. In 2000, he was 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, Pickett co-starred in the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary "Only the Strong Survive," a selection at both the 2002 Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals.
He was remembered on March 20, 2006, at NYC's BB King Blues Club with performances by the Commitments, his long-term backing band the Midnight Movers, and others.
|Release date||Title||Chart Positions|
|US Hot 100||US R&B||UK|
|1962||"If You Need Me"||#64||#30|
|1963||"It's Too Late"||#49||#7|
|1963||"I'm Down to My Last Heartbreak"|
|1963||"My Heart Belongs to You"|
|1964||"I'm Gonna Cry"|
|1964||"Come Home Baby"|
|1965||"In the Midnight Hour"||#21||#1||#12|
|1965||"Don't Fight It"||#53||#4||#29|
|1966||"634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)"||#13||#1||#36|
|1966||"Ninety Nine and a Half (Won't Do)"||#53||#13|
|1966||"Land of 1000 Dances"||#6||#1||#22|
|1967||"Everybody Needs Somebody to Love"||#29||#19|
|1967||"I Found a Love - Pt. 1"||#32||#6|
|1967||"You Can't Stand Alone" (A-Side)||#70||#26|
|1967||"Soul Dance Number Three" (B-Side)||#55||#10|
|1967||"I'm in Love" (A-Side)||#45||#4|
|1967||"Stagger Lee" (B-Side)||#22||#13|
|1968||"Jealous Love" (A-Side)||#50||#18|
|1968||"I've Come a Long Way" (B-Side)||#46|
|1968||"She's Looking Good"||#15||#7|
|1968||"I'm a Midnight Mover"||#24||#6||#38|
|1968||"I Found a True Love"||#42||#11|
|1968||"A Man and a Half"||#42||#20|
|1969||"Born to Be Wild"||#64||#41|
|1969||"You Keep Me Hangin' On"||#92||#16|
|1970||"Sugar, Sugar" (A-Side)||#25||#4|
|1970||"Cole, Cooke, and Redding" (B-Side)||#91||#11|
|1970||"She Said Yes"||#68||#20|
|1970||"Get Me Back On Time, Engine Number 9"||#14||#3|
|1971||"Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You"||#17||#2|
|1971||"Don't Knock My Love - Pt. 1"||#13||#1|
|1971||"Call My Name, I'll Be There"||#52||#10|
|1971||"Fire and Water"||#24||#2|
|1973||"Mr. Magic Man"||#98||#16|
|1973||"Take a Closer Look at the Woman You're With"||#90||#17|
|1974||"Soft Soul Boogie Woogie"||#20|
|1974||"Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It"||#68|
|1979||"I Want You"||#41|
|1980||"Live With Me"||#95|
|1987||"Don't Turn Away"||#74|
|1987||"In the Midnight Hour" (re-recording)|
|1988||"Love Never Let Me Down"|
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