January 21, 1984 – Jack Leroy “Jackie” Wilson, Jr. was born on June 9th 1934 in Detroit. Jackie often visited his maternal family in Columbus, Mississippi and was greatly influenced by the choir at Billups Chapel. Growing up in the rough Detroit area of Highland Park, Wilson joined a gang called the Shakers and often found himself in trouble. Wilson’s father was frequently absent, as he was alcoholic and usually out of work. Wilson began singing at an early age, accompanying his mother, once a choir singer, to church. In his early teens Jackie joined a quartet, the Ever Ready Gospel Singers, which became a popular feature of churches in the area. Jackie was not very religious, but enjoyed singing and used the money he and his group earned performing to buy cheap wine which he began drinking at the age of nine. Jack Sr. and Eliza separated shortly after Jackie turned nine.
Wilson dropped out of high school at the age of 15, having already been sentenced to detention in the Lansing Corrections system for juveniles twice. During his second stint in detention, he learned boxing and started performing in the amateur circuit in the Detroit area at the age of 16. His record in the Golden Gloves was 2 and 8. After his mother forced him to quit boxing, Wilson got married to Freda Hood and became a father at 17. It is estimated that he fathered at least 10 other children prior to getting married and was forced to marry Hood by her father. He gave up boxing for music, first working at Lee’s Sensation club as a solo singer, then forming a group called the Falcons (not to be confused with The Falcons Wilson Pickett was part of), that included cousin Levi Stubbs, who later went on to lead the Four Tops (two more of Wilson’s cousins, Hubert Johnson and Levi’s brother Joe, later became members of The Contours). The other members joined Hank Ballard as part of The Midnighters. including Alonzo Tucker & Billy Davis, who would work with Wilson several years later as a solo artist. Tucker and Wilson collaborated as songwriters on a few songs Wilson recorded.
Jackie Wilson was soon discovered by talent agent Johnny Otis, who assigned him to join a group called the Thrillers. That group would later be known as The Royals (who would later evolve into R&B group, The Midnighters, but Wilson wasn’t part of the group when it changed its name and signed with King Records). LaVern Baker, Little Willie John, Johnnie Ray and Della Reese were acts managed by Al Green (not to be confused with R&B singer Al Green, nor Albert “Al” Green of the now defunct National Records). Al Green owned two music publishing companies, Pearl Music and Merrimac Music, and Detroit’s Flame Show Bar where Wilson met Baker.
After recording his first version of “Danny Boy” and a few other tracks on Dizzy Gillespie’s record label Dee Gee Records under the name Sonny Wilson (his nickname), Wilson was eventually hired by Billy Ward in 1953 to join a group Ward formed in 1950 called The Dominoes, after Wilson’s successful audition to replace the immensely popular Clyde McPhatter, who left the Dominoes and formed his own group, The Drifters. Wilson almost blew his chance that day, showing up calling himself “Shit” Wilson and bragging about being a better singer than McPhatter.
Billy Ward felt a stage name would fit The Dominoes’ image, hence Jackie Wilson. Prior to leaving The Dominoes, McPhatter coached Wilson on the sound Billy Ward wanted for his group, influencing Wilson’s singing style and stage presence. “I learned a lot from Clyde, that high-pitched choke he used and other things…Clyde McPhatter was my man. Clyde and Billy Ward.” Forties blues singer Roy Brown was also a major influence on him, and Wilson grew up listening to The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots, Louis Jordan and Al Jolson.
Wilson was the group’s lead singer for three years, but the Dominoes lost some of their stride with the departure of McPhatter. They were able to make appearances riding on the strength of the group’s earlier hits, until 1956 when the Dominoes recorded Wilson with an unlikely interpretation of the pop hit “St. Therese of the Roses”, giving The Dominoes another brief moment in the spotlight. Their only other post-McPhatter/Wilson successes were “Stardust”, released July 15, 1957, and “Deep Purple”, released October 7, 1957. In 1957 Wilson set out to begin a solo career, leaving the Dominoes and collaborating with cousin Levi and got work at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar. Later, Al Green worked out a deal with Decca Records, and Wilson was signed to their subsidiary label, Brunswick.
His solo career began with 1957’s “Reet Petite,” written by the then-unknown Berry Gordy, Jr. and recorded on the Brunswick Records label. His dynamic stage performances earned him the nickname “Mr. Excitement” and his performance of “Lonely Teardrops” on the Ed Sullivan Show is considered one of the show’s classics.
Due to his fervor when performing, with his dynamic dance moves, singing and impeccable dress, he was soon christened “Mr. Excitement”, a title he would keep for the remainder of his career. His stagecraft in his live shows inspired James Brown, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, as well as a host of other artists that followed. Presley was so impressed by Wilson that Elvis made it a point to meet him, and the two instantly became good friends. In a photo of the two posing together, Presley’s caption in the autograph reads “You got you a friend for life.” Wilson was sometimes called “The Black Elvis”. Reportedly, when asked about this Presley said, “I guess that makes me the white Jackie Wilson.” Wilson also said he was influenced by Presley too, saying “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.”
Wilson’s powerful, electrifying live performances rarely failed to bring audiences to a state of frenzy. His live performances consisted of knee-drops, splits, spins, back-flips, one-footed across-the-floor slides, removing his tie and jacket and throwing them off the stage, a lot of basic boxing steps (advance and retreat shuffling) and one of his favorite routines, getting some of the less attractive girls in the audience to come up and kiss him. “If I kiss the ugliest girl in the audience,” Wilson often said, “they’ll all think they can have me and keep coming back and buying my records.” Having women come up to kiss him is one reason Wilson kept bottles of mouthwash in his dressing room. Another reason was probably his attempt to hide the alcohol on his breath.
He recorded over fifty hit singles in a repertoire that included R&B, pop, soul, doo-wop and easy listening before lapsing into a coma following a collapse on stage during a 1975 benefit concert. By the time of his death in 1984, he had become one of the most influential soul artists of his generation.
He had been in care ever since suffering the heart attack in 1975. His medical costs were paid for by Elvis Presley and soul singer Al Green was one of the very few artists who regularly visited a bed-ridden Jackie Wilson.
He was 49 years old when he died on 21 January 1984 at age 49.
A two-time Grammy Hall of Fame Inductee, Jackie was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Jackie Wilson No.68 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.