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Unquestionably one of the most dynamic performers in the history of rock-n-roll, Jackie Wilson was an early superstar of R&B thanks to such explosive hits as "Reet Petite," "Lonely Teardrops," "Baby Workout" and "(Your Love is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher)." His multi-octave voice and high-energy stage performances made him one of the most popular music acts of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and had a profound influence on Elvis Presley, James Brown and Michael Jackson, each of whom drew from Wilson for their own historic careers. An ill-advised foray into mainstream pop, as well as numerous personal issues, helped to torpedo Wilson's career in the mid-'60s, though he resurfaced at the end of the decade with the bona fide soul classic "Higher and Higher." He remained a staple of oldies shows until suffering a heart attack in 1975, which left him semi-comatose until his death in 1984. For decades after his passing, Wilson's best work remained a high water mark for R&B performers, who strove to emulate his volcanic energy and limitless vocal skill.Born Jack Leroy Wilson on June 9, 1935 in Detroit, MI, he was the only son of Jack Wilson, Sr., and his wife, Eliza Mae Wilson. He endured a harsh...
Unquestionably one of the most dynamic performers in the history of rock-n-roll, Jackie Wilson was an early superstar of R&B thanks to such explosive hits as "Reet Petite," "Lonely Teardrops," "Baby Workout" and "(Your Love is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher)." His multi-octave voice and high-energy stage performances made him one of the most popular music acts of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and had a profound influence on Elvis Presley, James Brown and Michael Jackson, each of whom drew from Wilson for their own historic careers. An ill-advised foray into mainstream pop, as well as numerous personal issues, helped to torpedo Wilson's career in the mid-'60s, though he resurfaced at the end of the decade with the bona fide soul classic "Higher and Higher." He remained a staple of oldies shows until suffering a heart attack in 1975, which left him semi-comatose until his death in 1984. For decades after his passing, Wilson's best work remained a high water mark for R&B performers, who strove to emulate his volcanic energy and limitless vocal skill.
Born Jack Leroy Wilson on June 9, 1935 in Detroit, MI, he was the only son of Jack Wilson, Sr., and his wife, Eliza Mae Wilson. He endured a harsh childhood in a tough section of Detroit called North End; Jack Sr. was a chronic alcoholic and absentee father who introduced his son to liquor at the age of nine. Jackie rarely attended school, preferring instead to run with a local gang called the Shakers, which twice landed him in detention at the Lansing Correctional Institute for juveniles. There, he learned to box, and after leaving school at 15, began fighting on the amateur circuit, eventually amassing a respectable Golden Gloves record. His mother begged him to give up his new profession, and he returned to his first love of singing, which he had begun as a child at church. In 1951, he began singing with the Falcons, a vocal group that included three of his cousins: future Four Tops frontman Levi Stubbs, as well as Sonny Woods and Lawson Smith. The quartet played mostly house parties, where they would split a $5 performance fee. Wilson gladly accepted the miserly payment, as it helped him to provide for his wife, childhood friend Freda Hood, whom he had married after discovering that she was pregnant with his child.
Bandleader and talent agent Johnny Otis discovered the Falcons at a talent show, and merged them with another of his finds, a vocal group called the Thrillers. The act would retain Woods and Smith, but not Wilson, when it signed a recording contract with King Records, after which they would change their names to the Royals before joining Ballard as his backing group, the Midnighters. Undaunted, Wilson recorded two versions of the time-worn ballad "Danny Boy" for Dizzy Gillespie's Dee Gee Records, which caught the attention of Billy Ward, leader of the popular R&B vocal group The Dominoes. Their lead tenor, Clyde McPhatter, was leaving the act to form his own group - the phenomenally successful Platters - but stayed long enough to coach Wilson on how to properly perform his parts. McPhatter would have a huge influence on Wilson's singing, most notably in the dramatic vocal swoops from tenor to falsetto that earmarked many of his subsequent solo hits.
Wilson's tenure in the Dominoes was marked by a downward turn in their commercial fortunes; his only chart hits with them were pop covers of the standards "St. Therese of the Roses" in 1956 and "Stardust" and "Deep Purple" in 1957. His dramatic style was gaining some followers, as noted on the famed Million Dollar Quartet session at Sun Records, where Elvis Presley praised Wilson for his version of "Don't Be Cruel." By 1957, Wilson had left the Dominoes to reteam with Levi Stubbs. Music publisher and talent manager Al Green (no relation to the '70s soul singer) was impressed by Wilson's performance at the Flame Show Bar, a club he owned in Detroit, and brokered a deal to record as a solo artist for the Decca Records subsidiary, Brunswick Records.
Green would not live to see Wilson sign the contract, and his partner, Nat Tarnopol, took over as the singer's manager. Wilson's first solo single was 1957's "Reet Petite," a high-energy number that gave an inkling of Wilson's vocal dynamics. The song was co-penned by songwriter Berry Gordy, Jr., with his sister Gwendolyn and partner Billy Davis, who would go on to pen several more singles for Wilson between 1957 and 1958, including "To Be Loved" and "I'll Be Satisfied." In 1958, Wilson and Gordy scored their breakout hit with "Lonely Teardrops," an effervescent up-tempo number that shot to No. 1 on the R&B charts on the strength of Wilson's muscular, near-operatic range. The song also broke the Top 10 on the pop charts, and minted Wilson as a star with crossover appeal to both black and white audiences. Wilson's best showcase was his live performances, where he unleashed a barrage of gymnastic dance moves and audience exhortations while tearing through his songs with a fervor matched by few other artists. Presley became an ardent fan and friend to Wilson, and borrowed heavily from his stage show, as did an up-and-coming soul singer from Georgia by the name of James Brown. Wilson's astonishing performances earned him his enduring nickname - "Mr. Excitement" - which he bore through the rest of his career.
Off-stage, however, Wilson's career was in turmoil. Gordy and Davis quit as Wilson's primary songwriters over royalty conflicts with Tarnopol; Gordy would use some of his earnings from Wilson's songs to launch his own label, Hitsville, USA, which would become Motown Records, while Davis enjoyed a successful career as a songwriter and producer for Chess Records. Wilson handed over the reins of his career to Tarnopol, who had not only power-of-attorney over his client, but chose the direction of his music. He believed that Wilson's true talent lay outside the boundaries of R&B and pop, and teamed him with veteran big band arranger Dick Jacobs for the majority of his singles between 1957 and 1966. The result was a wide-ranging collection of songs that encompassed everything from ballads and classical material to the pop and R&B that had made him a star. For a while, the new direction mined chart gold, with the 1960 ballad "Night" hitting No. 1 and the relentless "Baby Workout" rising to No. 15. But Jacobs' insistence on heavy string arrangements on each song alienated some of his core fans, and experiments like Nowstalgia You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet (1961), an ill-advised tribute album to Al Jolson, were outright failures.
Wilson's personal life also reached rock bottom during this period. He was a notorious philanderer who carried on multiple affairs while still married to Freda Hood, and on more than one occasion, was accused of forcing himself on fans and fellow performers like Patti LaBelle. In 1961, one of his girlfriends, Juanita Jones, shot Wilson twice as he was returning to his apartment in Manhattan with another paramour, Harlean Harris. He preserved his reputation by presenting the incident to the press as the work of a deranged fan, but the shooting would eventually lead to Hood divorcing Wilson in 1965. He would subsequently marry Harris, but separate soon thereafter. Troubles with the IRS also led to the seizure of his family's home in Detroit; when his earnings were made public, Wilson was shown to have earned over $200,000 a year, but high living and contractual entanglements had left him bankrupt.
To stem the tide of bad fortunes, Tarnopol sent Wilson back into the studio, but the record-buying public largely ignored the results. His lush, overripe production and delivery were out of step with the youthful soul emerging from Motown and other labels, and efforts to present him as an "all-around entertainer" by teaming him with Count Basie and R&B star LaVern Baker did little to improve his standing. However, he experienced a dramatic comeback in 1966 after collaborating with Chicago R&B producer Carl Davis, who had been instrumental in shaping the careers of soul singers like Jerry Butler and Major Lance. Davis replaced the string arrangements with the Funk Brothers, the legendary studio musicians who performed on nearly all of Motown's greatest songs, and scored a Top 10 hit for Wilson with "Whispers (Gettin' Louder)." Its follow-up, the soaring "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," reached No. 6 on the pop charts, and would serve as both a late-career signature song and his final significant hit in the United States. Wilson also remained exceptionally popular in Europe, particularly in the U.K., where his songs consistently landed in the Top 10.
Wilson continued to perform and record into the 1970s, scoring two final hits on the R&B charts with 1970's "(I Can Feel These Vibrations) This Love is For Real" and "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" in 1972. He then fell into regular rotation on the oldies circuit, where he continued to impress audiences with his energetic routines. Off-stage, however, his life was shambles: his only son, Jackie Wilson, Jr., was shot and killed in 1970, which sent his father into a period of deep depression and substance abuse. On Sept. 29, 1975, Wilson suffered a massive heart attack on stage while performing at the Latin Casino near Cherry Hill, NJ. He was rushed to a hospital where he lingered in a coma for three months before emerging alive, but with significant brain damage that robbed him of his ability to speak. Wilson would cling to life for another eight years before dying on January 21, 1984.
Over the next two decades, his prodigious talent would receive effusive praise from a vast array of artists and institutions. Van Morrison paid tribute with his 1972 song "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)," which evoked the boundless energy of Wilson's early sides. Michael Jackson also hailed him during his Grammy acceptance speech for Album of the Year for Thriller in 1984, which prompted Tarnopol to reissue his best work in a two-CD compilation that sparked renewed interest in his catalog of hits. The Commodores scored one of their biggest hits with 1985's "Nightshift," which paid tribute to both Wilson and Marvin Gaye, who had also died in 1984. The following year, "Reet Petite" returned to the top of the U.K. pop charts thanks to a video that featured an animated rendition of Wilson. Both "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" followed suit with Top 20 placement in the U.K., the same year that Wilson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was portrayed by actor-singer Howard Hunstberry in the Ritchie Valens biopic "La Bamba" (1987).
By Paul Gaita
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CAST: (feature film)
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