How Wilson "Wicked" Pickett was his own worst enemy

Wilson Pickett has a strong claim to being the greatest purveyor of Pentecostal-style vocal pyrotechnics on the pop scene.

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In the spring of 1962, a record hit radios across the United States with a sound unlike anything heard outside a black Pente­costal church or gospel revival. Called “I Found a Love”, it was grounded by the rich harmonies of a Detroit vocal group called the Falcons and shimmering guitar. But what electrified listeners was the lead singer: he moaned, preached and, above all, screamed – a virtuosic scream, awesome in volume and ferocity, tempered with uncanny pitch, dynamics and timing.

That singer was Wilson Pickett, and in a new biography, In the Midnight Hour, Tony Fletcher credits his performance with “almost single-handedly creating a template for authentic black soul”. It is easy to come up with alternative contenders: Tina Turner’s rough shout on 1960’s “A Fool in Love” set a solid precedent for the Falcons’ disc, and before that came Dinah Washington, Clyde McPhatter, Ray Charles and, most notably, Sam Cooke, the handsome gospel star whose defection prompted a generation of church singers to switch to worldly music. Pickett toured with a gospel quartet in the late 1950s and Fletcher writes that before he went pop, his “powerful presence and natural good looks made for a regionalised version of the Sam Cooke phenomenon”. His ecstatic fans included Detroit’s reigning teen gospel prodigy, Aretha Franklin.

But if Pickett wasn’t the first, he has a strong claim to being the greatest purveyor of Pentecostal-style vocal pyrotechnics on the pop scene, at least until Franklin cut loose from the more sedate approach of her early Columbia albums. His string of hits – from “In the Midnight Hour”, “634-5789”, “Funky Broadway” and “Mustang Sally” to a passionate reworking of “Hey Jude” – gave many listeners their purest taste of the classic black gospel style.

Purity is a double-edged sword, however. Soul fans and historians often dismiss the records Franklin made before she joined Pickett on the Atlantic label, decrying her aspirations to be a black Barbra Streisand, just as they often ignore Marvin Gaye’s yearning to sing standards and his admiration for Perry Como. But it was that range of tastes and inclinations which helped Gaye and Franklin to shape unique styles and evolve as times and fashions changed.

Pickett, by contrast, stuck to the hard-edged Southern gospel sound of his early models, Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales. Gerri Hirshey, whose soul history, Nowhere to Run, includes a uniquely relaxed and playful interview with Pickett, wrote that he and Cheeks remained close until the latter’s death in 1981, getting together to hang out and harmonise to records from Pickett’s “massive gospel collection”.

Fletcher pays due tribute to Pickett’s gospel roots and his enduring affection for the form, but does not mention this personal relationship with Cheeks, nor does he consider that staying true to the 1950s gospel style may have been a limitation as well as a virtue. In this telling, Pickett was a fertile innovator who bridged the divide between soul and rock, a band leader worthy of comparison with James Brown, and the defining figure in soul music until he left Atlantic in 1972, joined RCA, lost his sense of direction, and then succumbed to the scourge of disco. Pickett was always sure he was the best, and Fletcher shares his apparent inability to understand why Franklin sold so many more albums, or why it was Brown who was named “Soul Brother Number One”.

Although at times Fletcher overstates Pickett’s musical achievements, he recognises a wealth of offstage flaws, noting that virtually everyone described the singer as “his own worst enemy”. Born in 1941 in a two-room sharecroppers’ shack in rural Alabama, Pickett was scarred by physical abuse and poverty (Fletcher suggests, far too late in the book, that he never learned to read) and he remained a difficult loner, subject to extreme mood swings and paranoid rages. Music provided some release, but playful pugnaciousness turned to brutal violence when he was drunk, which was often – and that was before the cocaine. He threatened managers and peers with guns, beat his lovers until they left him, and forced his son to share lines of coke with him when the boy was just 14.

Stories of assaults and abuse are balanced with recollections of Pickett’s warmth and generosity, especially to early peers who were down on their luck. He was particularly close to the songwriter Don Covay and to Bobby Womack, who wrote and played guitar on some of his finest records. His lovers also recall moments of tenderness. But even when things were going well he remained intensely guarded, and one never gets the sense that one knows him, or necessarily would want to.

As the man is elusive, Fletcher doubles down on the music. He traces Pickett’s career session by session, providing meticulous lists of sidemen and relaying insights and anecdotes from collaborators and accompanists from the formative Detroit years through to the last tours in the early 2000s. His descriptions of both process and the end product are exemplary and he analyses important recordings with a musician’s ear. Dissecting Pickett’s career-defining 1965 hit, “In the Midnight Hour”, Fletcher pinpoints the virtuosic minimalism of the Stax studio team:

It’s there in the power of [the drummer] Al Jackson’s opening roll, on a single tom. It’s there in the way [the] trumpet players . . . blaze those initial descending chords, on the last of which one of them breaks off to play the root note an octave higher . . . It’s there in the way that they then vacate the space and let the rhythm section assume responsibility.

Rather than cluttering the narrative, these close listenings underline the collaborative nature of Pickett’s work and the paradox at the centre of his story: loner that he was, he consistently brought out the best in other artists. He seems to have been at his most relaxed and focused in the studio, and even other artists who found him abrasive recall the excitement of a Pickett session. In his first heyday, when he was working with the house musicians at Stax in Memphis and then at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, songs were often written the night before a recording and arrangements were sorted out on the fly. When Atlantic decided to update his sound by assigning him to Gamble and Huff’s “Philly sound” team in 1970, the result was an inspired meeting of their post-Motown production style and his preference for a live, loose feel.

Pickett’s style never changed, so his musical evolution was a matter of who was producing him or accompanying with him in a given period, but his limitations were also his great strength. He remained supremely committed to the old gospel-soul sound, and even when he was backed by a mediocre band or singing second-rate material his performances were often dazzling, his phrasing was always inventive and his voice retained its thrilling power.

Listening to the records with his story in mind, you hear the self-centredness, the anger, the dogged insistence on being the best, the strongest, the fiercest – the Wicked Pickett – but also the deep passion and professionalism that for brief, focused moments drew people around him and inspired them to give their all. It isn’t a pleasant or satisfying story, but it resulted in some of the most spectacular records in the American popular canon; and Pickett seems never to have cared whether people liked him, as long as they recognised his greatness. 

 In the Midnight Hour by Tony Fletcher is out now. Elijah Wald’s books include “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll: an Alternative History of American Popular Music” (Oxford University Press)

This article appears in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On