Wilson Pickett was one the biggest soul stars of the 60s yet is often overlooked and taken for granted. I’ve a bunch of his singles, from early sides on Double L (‘Baby Call On Me’) and Verve (‘Let Me Be Your Boy’) to the humongous hits for Atlantic (you know the ones) but rarely pay him much mind. There’s probably an element of unconscious soul snobbery at work here; Wilson wasn’t an obscure and underappreciated talent and he didn’t die with early promise unfulfilled; instead, he worked his way up, hit it big then floundered through the decades with decreasing artistic reward. Pickett also inadvertently provided fodder for karaoke nights and wedding bands everywhere and while ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ still packs an almighty punch I never want to hear ‘Mustang Sally’ again.
Tony Fletcher’s new biography, In The Midnight Hour, succeeds in turning the spotlight back to Wilson Pickett y’all. Although the first Pickett biography his story reads a familiar one as with unerring predictability his life plays out as the archetypal 60s soul star. If reads like a work of unoriginal fiction and a cliché, it was Pickett, more than most, who established it as he walked toe-to-toe with the progression of black American music during a sizable chunk of the second half of the 20th century.
From growing up poor in Prattville, Alabama, to Pickett’s father moving to work in the motor trade in Detroit, to young Wilson singing gospel, joining the more R&B-focussed Falcons in Detroit, recording in New York, sessions at Stax in Memphis and Muscle Shoals back in Alabama, huge success with the trappings that bought, to helping switch attention to the soul of Philadelphia, to performing in Africa, Pickett carried the flame. Then came the downward spiral. Pickett struggled to find a place in the music business when soul shifted from hitting hard in the guts and deep in the heart to the disco era, skittering across emotions and dancefloors.
As Pickett’s star waned his descent into drink, drugs and increased violence escalated alarmingly and stays in prison beckoned. “It’s very difficult to get somebody who’s been to the top of mountain to accept that they’ve living on the hillside,” offers Jon Tiven who attempted to help get Pickett back on track in the 90s.
As always with Tony Fletcher, he put the miles in to interview as many associates as possible to compile a thorough account of his subject. There are plenty of anecdotes telling of Pickett’s greatness: his dynamic stage presence, the way he commanded the studio, his artistry, charisma and humour. And, of course, that voice and that scream. Jerry Wexler said James Brown screamed but Wilson Pickett screamed in tune.
On the other side of the coin was The Wicked Pickett, a nickname earned from pinching the mini-skirted behinds of secretaries in the Atlantic Records offices. If we recoil at such practices nowadays it was small fry compared to what was to come. Fletcher asserts “for most southern blacks of the era, harsh physical discipline was accepted as a rite of passage” and harsh physical discipline was something Pickett took from his childhood and delivered in adult life. It makes grim reading and when added to beating women and his children, pulling a gun on his brother, serving up a saucer of cocaine to his 14-year-old son and a bunch of other assholery it’s hard not to feel when his bass player rips a towel rail off a wall to smash Pickett in the head, breaking the bone behind his left eye, that he didn’t have it coming. If this was a movie a little cheer may've gone up in the cinema.
If such passages make uncomfortable reading, Fletcher’s analysis and descriptions of Pickett’s music are enthralling and redress the balance. Such is Fletcher’s enthusiasm he does what any good music biographer should, and sends the reader back to the records. For my part I bought the first five Wilson Pickett albums (check out the Original Album Series, five CDs for little more than a tenner) and have listened with fresh, excited ears. I like him more now and although still not the biggest fan of that sock-it-to-me chuggy-chugging brand of soul, gems aplenty have surfaced. ‘Jealous Love’ and ‘I’ve Come A Long Way’ alone from 1967’s excellent I’m In Love are new favourites and have, at last, given me a fuller and fairer assessment of the Wicked (sometimes very wicked) Pickett. Oh yeah, he also turned 'Hey Jude' into a decent record so he definitely wasn't all bad.
In The Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett by Tony Fletcher is out now, published by Oxford University Press.