MELISSA BLOCK, host:
You could say the best pop singers fall into two groups. First, there's the fairly small club of singers who consistently produce hits. Then there's an even smaller elite: the singers that the other singers look up to. Jackie Wilson was one of those.
As part of our 50 Great Voices series, NPR's Peter Overby tells us why Jackie Wilson was a singer's singer.
PETER OVERBY: This is the Jackie Wilson song most people know, from 1967, the Motown house band moonlighting behind him.
(Soundbite of song, "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher")
Mr. JACKIE WILSON (Singer): (Singing) Your love keeps lifting me higher than I've ever been lifted before. So keep it up, quench my desire, and I'll be at your side forever more.
OVERBY: But this only hints at the vocal power and the onstage presence that inspired a succession of other influential entertainers, including Van Morrison in 1972, with what may be the most exuberant tune he's ever written.
(Soundbite of song, "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)")
Mr. VAN MORRISON (Singer): (Singing) Jackie Wilson said...
OVERBY: And if Van Morrison was influenced by Wilson's records, a Jackie Wilson show was just something else. This clip, from the old ABC TV show "Shindig," gives at least a hint.
(Soundbite of television program, "Shindig")
Mr. WILSON: (Singing) Baby, work out...
OVERBY: Really, you had to see it. Philly soul singer Teddy Pendergrass did when he was a kid. In 2001, Pendergrass told WHYY's FRESH AIR how Wilson lay down and rolled himself off the edge of the stage.
Mr. TEDDY PENDERGRASS (Singer): He rolled off onto the floor, and to see the ladies run through the guardrails and just lay on top of him and appear to make mad, passionate love to him in the middle of the floor, at whatever time it was that morning, to me it was just - my jaws dropped. I said, my God.
OVERBY: And Wilson did all this while delivering nearly flawless vocals. He had impeccable timing and an awe-inspiring falsetto. In his first hit, "Reet Petite," he needed just 45 seconds to run through most of the vocal tricks of 1957.
(Soundbite of song, "Reet Petite")
Mr. WILSON: Well, look about, look about, look about, look about, ooh, whee. Look about, look about, look about, ooh, whee. Ooh, ah, ooh, ah, ooh, whee. Well, she's so fine, fine, fine, she's so fine, f-f-f-fine...
OVERBY: Jackie Wilson came from Detroit. In 1953, he got his first big break, singing lead for the R&B vocal group Billy Ward & the Dominoes. We'll let someone else pick up the story.
Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Musician): Billy Ward and his Dominoes. There was a guy out there that was doing a takeoff on me, "Don't Be Cruel."
OVERBY: Elvis Presley, of course, in "The Million Dollar Quartet Session," telling Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and some other musicians about seeing Wilson perform.
Mr. PRESLEY: Much better than that record of mine. I went back four nights straight and heard that guy do that. He'd shake his head and say...
Mr. PRESLEY (Singing) I don't want no other love. Baby, it's just you I'm thinkin' of. He'd say: Mmmmm, well then don't stop thinkin' of me.
Mr. PRESLEY: Shhh. Man, he sung the hell out of that song. Man, I was on the table, looking at him.
OVERBY: It probably won't surprise you but away from the bandstand, Jackie Wilson's life wasn't so good: alcohol, drugs, broken marriage, a teenage son killed in a neighborhood shooting. His own life almost ended by a jealous woman with a gun. All this is in "The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart Is Crying, Crying)," a play that was written by Jackie Taylor, director of the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago.
Ms. JACKIE TAYLOR (Director, "The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart Is Crying, Crying)"): It told about the womanizing and the drugs and the difficulties that he had, but it also talked about the heights that Jackie Wilson was able to achieve, what he did in changing the sound and feel of music.
OVERBY: Maybe even changing it more than his fans wanted. He cut a bluesy rendition of "Danny Boy" in 1965. It didn't sell. Ditto with a tribute album to vaudeville singer Al Jolson. And there's this...
Ms. TAYLOR: He loved opera, but it was hard enough just being a black singer, let alone a black opera singer.
(Soundbite of song, "The Night")
Mr. WILSON: (Singing) Here comes the night.
OVERBY: "The Night" came out in 1960. It got up to number four on the Billboard Hot 100. Wilson cracked the pop top 10 just six times, but on the R&B charts, 15 of his songs made the top 10. One of his fans was Michael Jackson. In 1984, when Jackson collected seven Grammy Awards for his album "Thriller," he stopped the applause to pay tribute.
Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Musician): Some people are entertainers, and some people are great entertainers. Some people are followers, and some people make the path and are pioneers. I'd like to say, Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer.
(Soundbite of applause)
OVERBY: Wilson had died just five weeks earlier, after almost nine years in a coma. In 1975, as he was singing "Lonely Teardrops" in an oldies revue, he had a heart attack onstage. A lot of Wilson's records havent aged all that well, but something like "I Just Can't Help It," from 1962...
(Soundbite of song, "I Just Can't Help It")
Mr. WILSON: (Singing) I can't help it. I can't help it. Loving you, baby, is what I need...
OVERBY: You can practically see Jackie Wilson down at the edge of the stage, reaching out, his vocals locked in with the rhythm section. Maybe he'll roll himself off into the audience, just so the women can run to help him. Peter Overby, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.