DAVE DAVIES, host:
Wilson Pickett was one of the male singers who defined 1960s soul, along with Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and James Brown. Rough where Cooke and Gaye were smooth, urban where Redding was country, and lush where Brown was spare, Pickett made a huge impact, then seemed to have vanished. Now Rhino Handmade has released "Funky Midnight Mover," a six-disc collection of Pickett's recordings for Atlantic, where he spent most of his career.
Rock historian Ed Ward has this review.
(Soundbite of song, "I Found a Love")
ED WARD: Pickett was born in 1941 in Alabama, the grandson of a preacher. But as a teenager, he fled the cotton fields to Detroit, where his father had moved earlier. He loved to sing and frequently went to Dayton, Ohio, where he performed a bit with a gospel group, the Violinaires.
When an up-and-coming Detroit vocal group, the Falcons, lost their lead singer in 1961, Pickett auditioned for them and they snapped him up. His familiarity with Dayton got the Falcons a club gig there, and they introduced "I Found a Love," a song Pickett had written with the Falcons bass singer, Willie Schofield. The response was so good that the group headed over to Cincinnati to record it at King Records, taking the Ohio Untouchables, the band that had been backing them. They were so powerful, they overloaded the microphones. But the song became a huge hit in early 1962.
It was a rich moment. Among the other Falcons were Eddie Floyd and Mack Rice, who became important singers and songwriters, and the leader of the Untouchables was guitarist Robert Ward, a blues master who left soon afterwards for a solo career, leaving the rest of the band to eventually become the Ohio Players.
Pickett always had big ambitions, and he soon went solo, recording for a number of labels, most notably Lloyd Price's Double L. Jerry Wexler, at Atlantic Records, heard Pickett's version of "If You Need Me," and had Solomon Burke record it. Oddly, Atlantic made no effort to sign Pickett himself until mid-1964, and even then his records didn't do very well.
It wasn't until May 1965 when Wexler had the inspiration to try Pickett out in front of the Stax house band in Memphis that they found the magic formula. Sitting in the studio with white guitarist Steve Cropper, Pickett found that the kid knew his gospel, and after fooling around for a while with something the Violinaires used to do, they made history.
(Soundbite of song, "In the Midnight Hour")
Mr. WILSON PICKETT (Singer-Songwriter) (Singing) I'm gonna wait till the midnight hour. That's when my love comes tumbling down. I'm gonna wait till the midnight hour when there's no one else around. I'm gonna take you girl and hold you and do all the things I told you. In the midnight hour. Yes I am. Oh, yes I am.
WARD: Writing songs with Steve Cropper and two ex-Falcons, Mack Rice and Eddie Floyd, both of whom were now working for Stax, Pickett scored two more smash hits, "634-5789" and "Ninety-Nine and a Half Won't Do," before record company politics dictated that he move to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for the next sessions.
Pretty much all of the music from this period is excellent, with top-notch songwriting, playing and, of course, singing. The biggest hit was the song Pickett's best remembered for written by Mack Rice, who also recorded the original version, and given its title by Aretha Franklin, another Detroiter, who played keyboards on Rice's version. Pickett, however, turned it into something else, as 1966 turned into 1967.
(Soundbite of song, "Mustang Sally")
Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) Mustang Sally, I guess you better slow your mustang down. Oh Lord. What I said now. Mustang Sally, now baby, oh Lord, guess you better slow your mustang down. Oh yeah. Youve been running all over the town now. Oh, I guess I'll have to put your flat feet on the ground.
WARD: Then, in January of 1969, he did something totally unexpected.
(Soundbite of song, "Hey Jude")
Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) Hey Jude, dont make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better. Remember to let her in your heart, then you can start to make it better. Hey Jude, dont be afraid. You were made, made to go out and get her. The minute you let her under skin, then you begin to make it better.
WARD: He'd been hanging out with Fame Studios' new guitarist, a tall blond kid from Florida named Duane Allman, and somehow this guy had convinced him to listen to the Beatles. Even more remarkably, when "Hey Jude" was released early in 1969, it did well on both the soul and the pop charts.
By 1970, though, squabbling between Atlantic and various studios reached such a pitch that the company decided to record Pickett in the new hot place, Philadelphia, and packed him off to work with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The change did him good. The album Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia contained two more smash hits..
(Soundbite of song, "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You")
Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) Girl try to remember when we didn't have no shoes. We stuck together just me and you. It took a long time to get what we got today. Now you wanna give it all up for another guy. Baby, I'm telling you don't let the green grass fool you. Don't let it change your mind.
WARD: "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You" and "Engine Number 9" were Pickett's last two hits on Atlantic, though. Two years later he left for RCA, where he had moderate success. And then in 1977 he signed with a label Atlantic distributed called Big Tree. Disco was what was happening, and time hadn't been kind to Wilson Pickett, who was now carrying a reputation as a dangerous person to be around. The sessions were mostly uninspired, and buried in his last album was a song that maybe told too much about what was going on in his life.
(Soundbite of song, "Lay Me Like You Hate Me")
Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) Lay me like you hate me. Girl you so mean. You tease, you twist my mind. You lay body down with such ease. Girl I dont know about you. Oh, the changes you been putting me through. So you lay me like you hate me.
WARD: It was 1978, and Pickett just couldn't make it happen any longer. He continued to tour and occasionally to record, but his reputation for violence made club owners wary of booking him, and his records didn't sell. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, but himself in jail a year later for fatally injuring a pedestrian with his car. He went back on the road after his release, but health problems laid him low, and he died in 2006 of a heart attack.
DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in the South of France. He reviewed "Funky Midnight Mover," a collection of Wilson Pickett's Atlantic recordings on Rhino Handmade.
You can hear several tracks from the album at nprmusic.org. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download podcast of our show at freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of song "Knock on Wood")
Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) I don't want to lose this good thing...