Although Wilson Pickett referred to Little Richard as “the architect of rock and roll,” there’s no doubt he was formidable and distinguished as a singer, songwriter and performer, as well as, a major figure in the development of American soul music.
Pickett born March 18, 1941 recorded over 50 songs, which made the US R&B charts. Many of the songs crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100. Tunes such as “In the Midnight Hour”, “Land of 1,000 Dances”, “Mustang Sally”, and “Funky Broadway” quickly became fan favorites, especially between 1963 and 1972.
But the man born in Prattville, Alabama before the secular fame, began life as a singer in Baptist church choirs. Life was tough having to struggle for resources with 11 other siblings.
Of a mother he called “the baddest woman in my book,” he informed 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.”
Against that backdrop, he made a dash for the auto city of Detroit aged 16 where his father lived in 1955.
That year he joined the Violinaires, a gospel group. The Violinaires played with another gospel group on concert tour in America. After singing for four years in the popular gospel-harmony group, Pickett moved to the lucrative secular music market and joined the Falcons in 1959.
Pickett’s forceful, passionate style of singing made him stand out helping define soul music of the 1960s. He introduced the Southern black church and gospel ways in his craft to the delight of those who pay to see him. It was even said he testified rather than sang, preached rather than crooned while his delivery was marked by the fervor of religious conviction, despite the song being secular.
Pickett is credited with introducing the aggressive style of rhythmic style of soul music backed by excellent studio bands at the Stax Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and The Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals Alabama.
Pickett went solo and signed with Lloyd Price’s Double L Records, where he wrote and recorded “If You Love Me” and “It’s Too Late.”
“In 1964, Pickett signed with Atlantic Records, and did his early recordings in the Stax studio in Memphis, Tennessee with Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper of The MGs. Cropper co-authored three of his early hits, “In the Midnight Hour” and “Don’t Fight It” from his debut album The Exciting Wilson Pickett that established him as a major soul star. The album also included “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do),” “She’s So Good to Me,” and “Land of a 1,000 Dances,” all recorded at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals.”
In 1969, Pickett had a major hit with The Beatles “Hey Jude,” followed in 1970 by “Sugar, Sugar.” Later in 1970, Pickett worked with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. The result was two crossover hits “Engine Number Nine,” and “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.”
After crossover hits “Don’t Knock My Love – Part 1″ and “Fire and Water”, Pickett left Atlantic for RCA, with minimum success. Pickett later recorded for several record companies, including his own Wicked Label, but failed to have any more hits.
For fans, who preferred their soul on the rawer side, Pickett was their man. His hits also ignited popular dances and were covered by many artistes.
His last big hit was “Fire and Water,” in 1972 although he continued to be active on the tour circuit before retiring in late 2004 due to ill health. He passed away on January 19, 2006, following a heart attack.
Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, in recognition of his impact on songwriting and recording.