January 19, 2006 – Wilson Pickett was born March 18th 1941 in Prattville, Alabama and sang in Baptist church choirs in his young years. He was the fourth 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 under the influence of recording stars such as Little Richard, whom he referred to as “the architect of rock and roll.
In 1955, Pickett joined gospel music group 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, lured by the success of gospel singers who moved to the lucrative secular music market, joined the Falcons in 1959.
By 1959, Pickett recorded the song “Let Me Be Your Boy” with Florence Ballard and The Primettes as the background. The song is the B-Side from his single from 1963 “My Heart Belongs To You”.
The Falcons were an early vocal group bringing gospel into a popular context, thus paving the way for soul music. The Falcons featured notable members who became major solo artists; when Pickett joined the group, Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice were members. Pickett’s biggest success with The Falcons was “I Found a Love”, co-authored by Pickett and featuring his lead vocals. While only a minor hit for the Falcons, it paved the way for Pickett to go solo. Pickett would later achieve a solo hit with a re-recorded two-part version of the song, included on his 1967 album The Sound of Wilson Pickett.
Soon after recording “I Found a Love”, Pickett cut his first solo recordings, including “I’m Gonna Cry”, in collaboration with Don Covay. 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, Pickett sent the demo to Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records. Wexler gave it to the label’s recording artist, Solomon Burke, Atlantic’s biggest star at the time. Although Burke admired Pickett’s performance of the song, his recording of “If You Need Me” would become one of his biggest hits and is considered a soul standard, but Pickett was crushed when he discovered that Atlantic had given away his song. However, when Pickett—with a demo tape under his arm—returned to Wexler’s studio, Wexler asked whether he was angry about this loss, but denied it saying “It’s over”. “First time I ever cried in my life”. Pickett’s version was released on Double L Records, and was a moderate hit.
Pickett’s first significant success as a solo artist came with “It’s Too Late,” an original composition (not to be confused with the Chuck Willis standard of the same name). Entering the charts on July 27, 1963, it peaked at number 7 on the R&B chart; the same name would be used for Pickett’s debut album, which was released in the same year. Compiling several of Pickett’s single releases for Double L, It’s Too Late showcased a raw and primitive soulful sound that foreshadowed the singer’s performances throughout the coming decade. The single’s success convinced Wexler and Atlantic to buy Pickett’s recording contract from Double L Records in 1964.
Pickett’s Atlantic career began with the self-produced single, “I’m Gonna Cry”. Looking to boost Pickett’s chart chances, Atlantic paired him with record producer Bert Berns and established songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. With this team, Pickett recorded “Come Home Baby,” a duet with singer Tami Lynn, but this single failed to chart.
Pickett’s breakthrough came at Stax Records’ studio in Memphis, Tennessee, where he recorded his third Atlantic single, “In the Midnight Hour” (1965). This song was Pickett’s first big hit, peaking at number 1 R&B and number 12 (UK). It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
The genesis of “In the Midnight Hour” was a recording session on May 12, 1965, at which Wexler worked out a powerful rhythm track with studio musicians Steve Cropper and Al Jackson of the Stax Records house band, including bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. (Stax keyboard player Booker T. Jones, who usually played with Dunn, Cropper and Jackson as Booker T. & the M.G.’s, did not play on Pickett studio sessions.) Wexler said to Cropper and Jackson, “Why don’t you pick up on this thing here?” He performed a dance step. Cropper explained in an interview that Wexler told them that “this was the way the kids were dancing; they were putting the accent on two. Basically, we’d been one-beat-accenters with an afterbeat; it was like ‘boom dah,’ but here was a thing that went ‘um-chaw,’ just the reverse as far as the accent goes.”
Pickett recorded three sessions at Stax in May and October 1965, and was joined by keyboardist Isaac Hayes for the October sessions. In addition to “In the Midnight Hour,” Pickett’s 1965 recordings included the singles “Don’t Fight It,” “634-5789 and “Ninety-Nine and A Half (Won’t Do)”. All but “634-5789” were original compositions which Pickett co-wrote with Eddie Floyd and/or Steve Cropper; “634-5789” was credited to Cropper and Floyd alone.
For his next sessions, Pickett would not return to Stax, as the label’s owner, Jim Stewart, decided to ban outside productions in December 1965. Wexler took Pickett to Fame Studios, a studio with a closer association to Atlantic Records. Located in a converted tobacco warehouse in nearby Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Pickett recorded some of his biggest hits. This included the highest charting version of “Land of 1,000 Dances”, which was Pickett’s third R&B #1, and his biggest pop hit, peaking at #6. it was a million selling disc.
Other big hits from this era in Pickett’s career included two covers: Mack Rice’s “Mustang Sally”, and Dyke & the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway”. Both tracks were million sellers. The band heard on most of Pickett’s Fame recordings included keyboardist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins, and bassist Tommy Cogbill.
Near the end of 1967, Pickett began recording at American Studios in Memphis with producers Tom Dowd and Tommy Cogbill, and began recording songs by Bobby Womack. The songs “I’m In Love,” “Jealous Love,” “I’ve Come A Long Way,” “I’m A Midnight Mover,” (a Pickett/Womack co-write), and “I Found A True Love” were Womack-penned hits for Pickett in 1967 and 1968. Pickett recorded works by other songwriters in this era; Rodger Collins’ “She’s Looking Good” and a cover of the traditional blues standard “Stagger Lee” were Top 40 Pickett hits recorded at American. Womack was the guitarist on all recordings.
Pickett returned to Fame Studios in late 1968 and early 1969, where he worked with a band that featured guitarist Duane Allman, Hawkins, and bassist Jerry Jemmott. A #16 pop hit cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” came out of the 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” and The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”, and the Pickett original “She Said Yes” 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, “Engine No.9” and “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You”, the latter selling one million copies.
Following these two hits, Pickett returned to Muscle Shoals and the band featuring David Hood, Hawkins and Tippy Armstrong. This line-up recorded Pickett’s fifth and last R&B #1 hit, “Don’t Knock My Love, Pt. 1”. It was another Pickett recording that clocked up sales in excess of a million copies. Two further hits followed in 1971: “Call My Name, I’ll Be There” and “Fire and Water” a cover of a song by Free.
Pickett recorded several tracks in 1972 for a planned new album on Atlantic, but after the single “Funk Factory” in June 1972, he left Atlantic for RCA Records. His final Atlantic single, a cover of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” was culled from Pickett’s 1971 album Don’t Knock My Love.
In 2010, Rhino Handmade released a comprehensive compilation of these years titled “Funky Midnight Mover – The Studio Recordings (1962–1978)”. The compilation included all originally issued recordings during Pickett’s Atlantic years along with previously unreleased recordings. This collection sold online only via Rhino.com.
Pickett continued to record with 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” (a re-recording of a song he had previously recorded for Atlantic), and “Soft Soul Boogie Woogie”. However, he was failing to cross over to the pop charts with regularity, as none of these songs reached higher than #90 on the Hot 100. In 1975, with Pickett’s once-prominent chart career on the wane, RCA dropped Pickett from the label. After being dropped, he formed the short-lived Wicked label, where he released one LP Chocolate Mountain. In 1978, he made a disco album with Big Tree Records titled Funky Situation, which is a coincidence as, at that point, Big Tree was distributed by his former label, Atlantic. The following year, he released an album on EMI titled I Want You.
Pickett continued to record sporadically with several labels over the following decades, occasionally making the lower to mid-range of the R&B charts, but he had no pop hit after 1974. His last record was issued in 1999, although he remained fairly active on the touring front until falling ill in 2004.
Pickett appeared in the 1998 film Blues Brothers 2000, in which he performed “634–5789” with Eddie Floyd and Jonny Lang. He was previously mentioned in the 1980 film Blues Brothers, which features several members of Pickett’s backing band, as well as a performance of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.”
A huge figure in the development of American soul music, Pickett recorded over 50 songs which made the US R&B charts, and frequently crossed over to the US Billboard Hot 100. Among his best known hits are “In the Midnight Hour”, “Mustang Sally”, “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Funky Broadway”. The impact of his songwriting and recording led to his 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He died of a heart attack at age 64 on 19 January 2006.