Book Review: The Soul of Wilson Pickett

Sep 4, 2017

Observing Wilson Pickett pinch a mini-skirted stranger leaning across a desk, a woman in the room uttered “you’re so wicked”; “the Wicked” Pickett would become a long-standing name as well as album title. No doubt the rhyming label aided longevity; learn of this and other useful trivia regarding the great soulful screamer in the newly released biography, In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Picket, written by Tony Fletcher.

The young Wilson (b. 1941) was introduced to music in the rural black Church. He took to gospel singing early; in an interview he explains how he watched “. . . these big ole girls just getting carried away by it all and hollerin’, lettin’ it all loose.” From this Wilson acquired “… the sound that I would use as my whole basis of vocalizing.”

Wilson left Alabama for good at age fifteen; author Fletcher explains, “Unlikely to finish his schooling at Autauga (County Training School), with too great a voice for the church choirs and gospel quartets of Prattville, and lacking for the discipline of a father figure … increasingly standing up to his mother … it made sense to let him go.” The agrarian economy was controlled by the white man, the segregated school was inferior, and Wilson’s personality was confrontational. The Civil Rights Movement had been born in Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr. inspiring Rosa Parks to resist giving up her bus seat. It was time for Wilson to go.*

During the mid-1950s in Detroit, Pickett sang and toured with The Violinaires, a regional non-recording gospel group. But, he was living in poverty with a young family. According to testimony by his sister Bertha and others, being that he was singing to a drunken audience on Sunday morning in churches that included the Rev. C. L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church, he might as well scream rock ‘n roll to heathens for a few bucks. He soon became a member of the Falcons, a vocal group that included Eddie Floyd and Mack Rice. Wilson’s skills on the ballad recording “I Found a Love” were noticed by Atlantic Records and led to a succession of pop hits, beginning in the mid-1960s.  
 

After a few failures recording in New York City, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler moved Pickett to the Stax Records sound studios in Memphis to capture a truer southern soul sound. "In the Midnight Hour" (Pickett/Cropper) reached number one on the R&B chart in 1965.  A decision to appeal to the contemporary dance craze “the jerk,” and capture the white audience, explains the hard emphasis on the downbeat. A live recording in Los Angeles with Stax artists Booker T. Jones and George Jackson advanced its popular appeal.  

The next dance tune was “Land of a Thousand Dances” (Chris Kenner), recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Struggling to find a suitable tempo, an impatient Pickett let out with a scream, “One-two-THREE--the horns came together and blared out a resounding opening chord. Pickett again screamed, One-two-THREE setting up the bass for its descending introduction. “The following one hundred and fifty seconds were furious and frenetic… this was a straight-to-tape recording… Pickett’s delivery, meanwhile, was riotous, raucous, damn-near Pentecostal.” The line “my little Lucy” was a reference to Wilson’s little sister, who taught him some dance moves (and does rhyme with Watusi). Drummer Roger Hawkins accelerated the drum beats to 175 bpm from the written version of 134 bpm—the song became the hot dance tune of 1966. Pickett was to stay hot with these monaural recordings.

“Mustang Sally” (Mack Rice) had been the B-side for the Young Rascals hit “Good Lovin.” Fletcher writes, “After Pickett sang, ‘You’ve been running all over town now,’ keyboardist Spooner Oldham held a high note, then offered what he called ‘my representation of what it would sound like if I drove a Harley Davidson motorcycle through the studio.’… and a female backing chorus let out a collective ‘whoop-whoop.’” This rendition became the model for hundreds of rock group covers of “Mustang Sally.”

Keep the hits coming! Serving as a replacement for Bobby Womack in a Fame recording session, slide guitarist Duane Allman confidently suggested to Pickett they work up a version of Paul McCartney’s “Hey, Jude.” In an interview archived in the Rock and Roll Museum, Pickett declared, “He stood right in front of me, as though he was playing every note I was singing. And he was watching me as I sang, and as I screamed, he was screaming with his guitar.” Within a couple of weeks, the record was finding serious airplay. An attempt at duplicating success with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” (Mars Bonfire) proved a “leap too far… Pickett’s singing about ‘heavy metal thunder’ was profoundly unconvincing, and black audiences, in particular, recoiled,” writes Fletcher. Surprisingly, Pickett was to have a hit with the bland “Sugar, Sugar” (Barry and Kim).  He could cover white rock, but Fletcher agreed that … it led him into a commercial and creative cul-de-sac”.

The story of Wilson’s musical journey from gospel to rhythm & blues to soul to funk to disco no-man’s land comes from published memoirs by sister Louella and daughter Veda, previous magazine and book interviews, and recollections from the wonderful musicians who are full of praise and some revelations (“he was his own worst enemy”). Along with the aforementioned dance hits—you can add “634-5789” (E. Floyd/S. Cropper) and “Funky Broadway” (Dyke Christian) to the above listing--came two prison incarcerations and the volatile tastes of music fans. “The Wicked” Pickett was truly a soulful survivor.

Fletcher, Tony. 2017. In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett. New York: Oxford University Press.

(*EDITOR’S NOTE: The chronology of the early days of Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery include several other arrests for civil disobedience on city buses.  Parks’ refusal to give up her seat in December 1955 sparked the year-long boycott, led by a young minister new in town, Martin Luther King, Jr.)