When Wilson Pickett died back in 2006 at the age of 64, it took a few people by surprise because even though the Wicked Pickett’s popularity and chart success occurred some 35 – 40 years previously, if you happened to see him perform in recent years, he was still as powerful and potent a voice as he was in his 60’s and 70’s heyday. Usually, when you see a performer who is that far past his salad days, their voice has started to fail and they don’t have those old moves like they used to, but Wilson Pickett was still pretty much at the top of his game before he was forced to retire in late 2004 due to health issues.
Before I started listening to the blues, I was deep into southern soul of the Memphis/Stax/Hi/Atlantic variety. In the early 80’s, I dug into the catalogs of several veteran soul men…..Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, James Carr, Solomon Burke, James Brown, Ray Charles, Al Green, Otis Clay, O.V. Wright, Joe Tex, and Wilson Pickett. While I liked all of those artists immensely, it was the music of Wilson Pickett that seemed to grab me and refuse to let me go.
As I’ve written over the years here at FBF, during this period in my life, I was looking for something extra from the music I listened to…….rock and R&B…..something that would hold my attention. Readers who lived during the 80’s may have had the same feeling that I did. Both rock and R&B still had their nice moments, but there was a stagnancy that was setting in……maybe due to all the computerized music and sterile production values of most recordings.
When I started listening to old soul tunes, strictly on impulse because I found a discount-priced set of “Best of” cassettes from Atlantic Records by Redding, Sam & Dave, and Booker T & the MGs one day in a record store when I was in college, I got a little hop in my step because that was more like what I needed. When I found one of these “Best of’s” from Pickett a few weeks later, I knew I was on the right track, and I eventually found my way to the blues. Although I was familiar with Wilson Pickett's name.....he had done a memorable Schiltz Malt Liquor commercial back in the early 70's that is one of the all time classics.....I didn't know about much of his music. That little cassette of ten songs was enough to convince me that he was something special.
|Pickett backed by a young Jimi Hendrix - NYC, 1966|
Most music fans are familiar with at least a couple of Pickett's hit songs of the 60's and early 70's - "In The Midnight Hour," "634-5789," "Land of 1000 Dances," "Don't Fight It," etc.... These hits were recorded at Stax Records, even though Pickett was a part of Atlantic Records. Stax decided not to record outside artists in late 1965, so Pickett moved to Muscle Shoals and Fame Studios, where he recorded another batch of hits, which included "Mustang Sally," and "Funky Broadway." A couple of years later, Pickett moved to American Studios in Memphis and had more hits, including several written by Bobby Womack ("I'm A Midnight Mover," "I'm In Love"). He also recorded the blues standard "Stagger Lee" at American.
|Pickett with Duane Allman|
Later hits included a dazzling cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude," with guitar from a budding session guitarist named Duane Allman. Allman convinced a reluctant Pickett to record the song, which became a Top 20 pop hit in 1969. He also covered the Archies, yes the Archies, in late '69. "Sugar Sugar" also made the charts. In 1970, he teamed up with the legendary Gamble and Huff for "Engine No. 9" and "Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You."
Though Pickett continued to record in the early 70's, he enjoyed little chart success after 1974. After that, he recorded sporadically, cutting a disco album in the late 70's, and eventually settling in during the late 80's for a decent album with Motown and later, he recorded his final album, It's Harder Now, for Bullseye Blues in 1999, which was nominated for a Grammy and several BMA's at the time. Amazingly, his voice sounded as great as it did in the 60's add 70's. he was still able to hit those high notes just like back in the day and was as energetic and fiery as before. Around the same time, Pickett had a memorable appearance in Blues Brothers 2000, performing "634-5789" with Eddie Floyd and Jonny Lang. Incidentally, one of the show-stopping tunes in the first Blues Brothers movie was a Wilson Pickett song, "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love."
Wilson Pickett's connection to the blues is anything but tenuous. If you listen to the music, you're are more than likely to hear blues bands of all ages and caliber cover a Wilson Pickett tune.,,,,"Mustang Sally," anybody? What about "Midnight Hour" or "Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You," or "Engine No. 9?" Though he was considered a soul singer, his vocals and his songwriting showed a definite blues influence. To these ears, he's as close to a blues singer that I've ever heard in a soul singer.
If you find any of Pickett's individual albums, or his work with the Falcons, they are uniformly good, especially the Atlantic recordings. The later recordings from the mid-70's on are a bit more hit and miss, but have some excellent songs as well. Pickett sounds great in all of them all the way to his final release in 1999, It's Harder Now. The best way to get started, though, is to check out one, or both, of these collections, which cover his years with Atlantic. Though there is a collection of his RCA highlights (Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings), we're still waiting for a comprehensive set that goes from the beginning to the end of his career.
The Very Best of Wilson Pickett (Atlantic/Rhino Records) 1993: This may very well be the only Wilson Pickett recording you will ever need. All of his most popular recordings are here from his days with Atlantic, from "I Found A Love" with The Falcons to his mid 60's/early 70's soul classics. These 16 tracks are the epitome of soul music.
A Man And A Half - The Best of Wilson Pickett (Atlantic/Rhino Records) 1992: If you want to hear more, this two-disc set will certainly satisfy. A mind-boggling 44 tracks of classic soul music, including the 16 from the above set. This is as definitive a set as we have for Wilson Pickett for now.