Born Jack Leroy Wilson, 9 June 1934, Detroit, Michigan
Nicknamed 'Mr. Excitement', Jackie Wilson was a hugely influential singer who bridged the gap between 1950's R&B and 1960's soul, thanks to an unbelievable vocal range and one of rock's greatest stage shows. A dynamic mover, he oozed sex appeal and draws many parallels with Elvis Presley, none the least of which was the disappointing way they could sometimes waste their voices on average material. Reared in Highland Park, an enclave of Detroit, the church-trained Wilson joined The Ever Ready Gospel Singers at the age of twelve. He showed promise as an amateur boxer (boxing taught him to dance !), but gave up the sport at the urge of his mother. Singing seemed a more promising career. Johnny Otis, then a talent scout for King-Federal, discovered Wilson at a talent show in 1951, but King boss Syd Nathan would not sign him. In 1952 Jackie had two obscure singles released on Dizzy Gillespie's Dee Gee label in Detroit under the name Sonny Wilson. His break came in April 1953 when he replaced Clyde McPhatter as lead singer in Billy Ward's Dominoes, although his four year-stint with them wasn't the group's most successful period. Their biggest hit with Wilson on lead was "St. Therese Of the Roses" (# 13 pop in 1956). Elvis Presley witnessed the Dominoes in Las Vegas and was mesmerized by Wilson's antics.
It was Jackie's cousin Roquel 'Billy' Davis who realized that Wilson was destined for bigger things. Davis found him a new manager, Al Green (not the soul singer), who helped Jackie to go solo and got him signed to the Brunswick label, a Decca subsidiary. However, Green suddenly died on December 18, 1957 and Nat Tarnopol, who did not have any management experience, became Wilson's manager. His influence on Wilson would be immense and often negative, as Tarnopol came under the control of a music industry mobster called Tommy Vastola. Wilson's first record for Brunswick, the gimmicky "Reet Petite", was co- written by Billy Davis (under the pseudonym Tyran Carlo) and future Motown boss Berry Gordy. Aimed at the crossover market, it only reached # 62 on the pop charts in the USA, but in the UK it was a much bigger hit, peaking at # 6 in late 1957.
The next five solo hits for Wilson, in 1958-59, were all written by the team of Billy Davis (as Tyran Carlo), Berry Gordy and Berry's older sister Gwen Gordy : "To Be Loved" (# 22 pop, # 7 R&B), "We Have Love" (# 93 pop), "Lonely Teardrops" (# 7 pop, # 1 R&B), "That's Why" (# 13 pop, # 2 R&B) and "I'll Be Satisfied" (# 20 pop, 6 R&B). "You Better Know It" (# 37 pop, #1 R&B), featured in the film "Go Johnny Go" (1959), was Jackie's own composition.
The year 1960 yielded two Top 10 pop hits in the shape of "Night" (# 4) and "Alone At Last" (# 8), both based on classical pieces, by Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky respectively. Luckily, these excursions into operatic excess didn't last too long, though Brunswick and Tarnopol tended to drag him to the middle of the road. Wilson was shot and seriously wounded by a jealous female in 1961, though he made a recovery.
After the Top 10 hit "Baby Workout" (# 5, 1963), Jackie developed a harder, more soulful approach, fusing elements of gospel, pop and R&B. But during the golden era of soul music it seemed that his incredible virtuosity was over- shadowed : he had 30 more pop hits between 1962 and 1972, but only seven of these made the Top 40. In 1966 , Brunswick moved their studios to Chicago, to be run by famed Okeh producer Carl Davis. He helped revive, albeit briefly, Wilson's career by collaborating with him on earthier, more contemporary soul material than he had been getting in previous years, particularly on the hit "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher" (# 6, 1967).
His later career was mostly limited to the nostalgia circuit. While performing on a Dick Clark oldies show at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in September 1975, Wilson suffered a heart attack on stage whilst singing "Lonely Teardrops". He lapsed into a coma, suffering major brain damage, and lived a vegetable-like existence in hospital until his death over eight years later, on January 21, 1984. Due to continued litigation among his family members, he was buried in an unmarked grave.
A sad end to an eventful career. But his chart career did not die with him. In 1986, a reissue of "Reet Petite" went to # 1 in the UK and Holland, followed by reissues of "I Get the Sweetest Feeling"(# 3 UK) and "Higher And Higher" (# 15 UK). A new generation of record buyers had discovered Wilson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In terms of vocal power (especially in the higher registers), few could outdo Jackie Wilson. He was also an electrifying on-stage showman. But there is a consensus of sorts among critics that he was something of an underachiever in the studio, due to the sometimes inappropriately pop-based material and arrangements that he used.
At present Bobby Brooks Hamilton (allegedly Jackie's son) and Si Cranstoun are successful performers in Wilson's style.
More info :
Recommended listening : There are many compilations on the market. The best overview is probably "The Very Best Of Jackie Wilson" on Ace 913. http://www.acerecords.co.uk/content.php?page_id=59&release=873 24 tracks from 1957-1972. Released in 1994.
Acknowledgements : Richie Unterberger (All Music Guide), Tony Douglas, John Broven, Shaun Mather.
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/jwilson.htm
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