Celebrating the Soul of Wilson Pickett

Singer Wilson Pickett, known for hits that included "In the Midnight Hour" and "Mustang Sally," died Thursday in Virginia. He was 64.

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MONTAGNE: Soul singer Wilson Pickett has died. His rough renditions of “In the Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally” were among the many hits that made him famous. Wilson Pickett was 64 when he died yesterday of a heart attack at a hospital near his home in Virginia. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR reporting:

It's been written that when Wilson Pickett sang, Eddie Floyd shivered. Floyd, Pickett and Sir Mack Rice were the Falcons.

(Soundbite of The Falcons music)

The Falcons “I Found a Love” was a hit in 1962. Two years later, Wilson Pickett was signed to Atlantic Records, and producer Jerry Wexler decided to take him to Memphis to record. When they got off the plane, guitarist Steve Cropper was waiting at the airport.

Mr. STEVE CROPPER (Guitarist): Here's a guy, we're about the same height or whatever; and he is just like a very strong individual. He was a very cool guy. So we wound up checking him into the hotel, and I had my guitar and he had his guitar, and we started writing and co-wrote three songs that night; and all three of those songs were chart records. In the Midnight Hour, I'm Not Tired, and the other one Don't Fight It.

(Soundbite of song "Don't Fight It")

BLAIR: Wilson Pickett once said of those days, we did it all together, live. What you hear is what happened when I stepped to the mike. In 1999, he told NPR's Liane Hanson there was something else he loved about recording at the legendary Stax Studios in Memphis.

Mr. WILSON PICKETT (Musician, Singer): The key to the Memphis sound was the horn. And, man, when you heard a Memphis horn, you heard a horn.

(Soundbite of song "In The Midnight Hour")

BLAIR: Those signature horns launched In the Midnight Hour, Pickett's first single for Atlantic Records, and a song whose smoldering sexuality made it an instant hit. Steve Cropper…

Mr. CROPPER: The song is about I'm going to wait until the midnight, that's when everybody is gone to bed; you and are going to do our thing. We're going to learn each other, learn about each other; we're going to have some fun that nobody is around to witness.

(Soundbite of song “In the Midnight Hour”)

BLAIR: Wilson Pickett was a self-described country boy from Prattville, Alabama. His childhood was rough. He talked about being scared of his mother and beaten by his grandfather. Later in life, he spent time in jail for assault. But in these last years, he stayed busy, recording an album in 1999, and touring. He told NPR, he never understood the appeal of the over-produced Pop and R&B that followed him. He said he always liked it when his own songs came on the radio, played next to those others.

Mr. PICKETT: It sounds fresh, like a brand new song. You know, you sit back and say, hey, that was good. Because they got a lot of junk out here, man. You cannot understand this stuff. The producers are doing too much.

BLAIR: Doing too much and yet still trying to capture the spirit and power that Wilson Pickett got just by stepping up to the mic. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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