A pioneer of the fusion of 1950s doo-wop, rock, and blues styles into the soul music, Jackie Wilson is credited as one of the forefathers of soul. Admired by Elvis Presley, loved by Michael Jackson, respected by Prince and a host of other artists, Wilson was a two-time Grammy Hall of Fame inductee for his contributions to American music.
Before music, Wilson had taken to boxing and registered as an 18-year-old while he was only 16. He nonetheless defeated his opponents emerging champion but his mum fearing for his health pressured him for a change in career choice.
Wilson was born Jack Leroy Wilson Jr. to Jack Leroy Wilson, Sr. and Eliza Mae on June 9, 1934, in Detroit, Michigan. His parents were into music but his alcoholic father was largely absent and without work. By 9, his parents had divorced.
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Early on, Wilson had begun drinking and although he sang on the church circuit, he was not religious unlike his mother who was an excellent church choir singer. Part of the Ever Ready Gospel Singers, he enjoyed money the quartet earned in local churches.
By age 15, Wilson had dropped out of high school having had stints at the Lansing Corrections system for juveniles twice. It was at this facility that Wilson learned to box and compete in the Detroit amateur circuit.
He married Freda Hood and at just 17 had become a dad. Wilson’s good fortune was that he shared the same Detroit ghetto with Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. who also had boxed just as Wilson. It is a bond which served Wilson well later on.
Wilson was discovered by talent agent Johnny Otis while performing. Wilson signed on with manager Al Green who also managed LaVern Baker, Johnnie Ray and Della Reese, as well as, owned Pearl and Merrimac Music publishing companies. In addition, he owned Detroit’s Flame Show Bar, where music personalities often congregated.
Wilson would be hired by Billy Ward in 1953 to join the Dominoes, whose lead man Clyde McPhatter, had left to form the Drifters. Wilson was the group’s lead singer for three years landing hits “St. Therese of the Roses”, “Stardust” and “Deep Purple“. In 1957, Wilson began a solo career, collaborating with his cousin Levi. Al Green would secure a deal with Decca Records, getting Wilson’s signature for its subsidiary label Brunswick.
Green’s sudden death meant his business partner Nat Tarnopol who became president of Brunswick took over as Wilson’s manager. His first single “Reet Petite” (from his first album He’s So Fine), became a modest R&B success. “Reet Petite” was written by Berry Gordy Jr. and partner Roquel “Billy” Davis, as well as, Gordy’s sister Gwendolyn.
The trio composed and produced six additional singles for Wilson including “To Be Loved”, “I’m Wanderin'”, “We Have Love”, “That’s Why (I Love You So)”, “I’ll Be Satisfied” and Wilson’s late-1958 signature song, “Lonely Teardrops“, which peaked at No. 7 on the pop charts, ranked No. 1 on the R&B charts in the U.S., and established Wilson as an R&B superstar known for his extraordinary, operatic multi-octave vocal range. “Lonely Teardrops“, was a major hit in African-American markets and became the vocalist’s first million-seller earning a gold disc by the RIAA.
Wilson was named “Mr. Excitement” for his ability to wow audiences when performing thanks to his dynamic dance moves, impassioned singing and impeccable dress. He quickly became a favorite among female fans and his appearance could whip crowds into hysteria. The fans would rip his clothes off after he jumped into a crowd and he is said to be the first performer to have women throw their panties on stage.
“His knee-drops, splits, spins, back-flips, one-footed across-the-floor slides, removing his tie and jacket and throwing them off the stage, basic boxing steps like advance and retreat shuffling as well as getting less attractive women in the audience to kiss him all made his shows electrifying.”
When not on the road performing, Wilson was a regular on TV, making appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand as well as making a movie appearance in the rock and roll film Go, Johnny, Go!, where he performed his 1959 hit song “You Better Know It”.
The dynamic soul performer during the 1950s and ’60s who successfully crossed over from the rhythm-and-blues charts to pop music, paving the way for a generation of African-American performers in part enjoyed success because of his ability to appeal equally to black and white audiences. Unfortunately, music of his performances preceded the invention of videotape, denying music lovers the chance to see him in action.
Curiously, Gordy used some of the money he earned from the hits he wrote for Wilson to launch the Motown Label and it’s said Wilson’s fusion of smooth pop styles with African-American idioms influenced many of that label’s early successes.
Wilson was shot and seriously wounded by a female fan in 1961, though he made a recovery.
Having married his pregnant girlfriend Freda Hood in 1951, the pair had four children (Jacqueline Denise, Sandra Kay, Jack Leroy Jr, and Anthony Duane). Hood divorced Wilson in 1965, after 14 years of marriage, as she was frustrated with his notorious womanizing.
In 1967, Wilson married his second wife; model Harlean Harris, separating in 1969. He was also involved with Guidry.
Wilson’s 16-year-old son, Jackie Jr, was shot and killed on a neighbor’s porch near their Detroit home in 1970, a development which impacted him gravely. Falling into depression, Wilson remained mostly a recluse in the subsequent years abusing drugs and alcohol to mask the pain.
On September 29, 1975, while performing on stage, Wilson suffered a heart attack or stroke hitting his head while falling. Although his vitals were stabilized, the lack of oxygen to his brain caused him to slip into a coma from which he never properly awakened except for early 1976 when he was able to take a few wobbly steps, but slipped back into a semi-comatose state . After spending eight years in a coma, Wilson died on January 21, 1984, at a hospital in Mount Holly, New Jersey. He was only 49 years old. Elvis Presley paid his medical bills before his own death.
Wilson, possessing repertoire of music ranging from blues, opera, rock and roll, and soul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 after his death.
Three books have been written on his life, Lonely Teardrops, Jackie Wilson: The Man, The Music, The Mob, The Black King of Rock and Roll.
This article has been updated.