Friday, November 25, 2016

The Wicked Pickett

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's always been considered a soul man, but his style of music, particularly his vocals, are distinctive because they owe a considerable debt to the gospel groups he grew up singing with.  He was in a group called the Violinaires for four years, but he saw artists like Sam Cooke who moved from gospel to secular music with much success and he joined the vocal group The Falcons in 1959 at 18 years of age.  At the time Pickett joined The Falcons, they included Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice in their line-up, and Pickett co-authored "I Found A Love," a big hit in 1962 which featured an amazing vocal from Pickett and guitar work from the legendary Robert Ward.

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."

Though he didn't have hits after the mid 70's, he continued to tour and perform to receptive crowds, who loved his old songs and were impressed that he was still as potent a performer as he ever was.  Pickett continued working until he became ill in 2004.  Throughout his career, he battled personal problems....he had a short temper and was arrested on several occasions.  He also battled the bottle, hitting an 86-year-old in Englewood, CA in 1993, who eventually died from his injuries, which led Pickett to receive a one-year sentence in jail.  Despite those issues, Pickett remained popular, receiving induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.  Here he is during the 1999 ceremony with Bruce Springsteen, still getting it done.

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.

Recommended Listening

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.

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