Wilson Pickett 1941 - 2006 RIP
The Wicked Pickett!!
Goddamn.... I’m in bed last night, just about ready to turn off the TV, turn over and float away to dreamland, when I saw the name Wilson Pickett start to roll by on the “crawl” at the bottom of the screen. My immediate reaction was “Cool! Pickett’s up to something and will be back in the mix in no time”. Then I realized that they were talking about him in the past tense, and then the words “died of a heart attack” finished the crawl. Goddamn (I’ll say it again...) Nobody brought it harder than the Wicked Pickett. I don’t remember the exact time I first heard Wilson Pickett sing, but it was probably in the early 70’s on WCBS-FM in New York City. The tune was Pickett’s epic reworking of Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances” and it absolutely blew my mind. It’s the record that set me on the road to soul music obsession, and remains today one of the greatest soul 45s ever made. But you could say that about any side on Wilson Pickett’s Greatest Hits. When I say that hearing Pickett blew my mind, I couldn’t be more serious. His voice cut like a razor, erupting from his records in a controlled scream that left its mark on millions of listeners and dozens of his contemporaries (I can think of no other soul singer as widely imitated as Pickett). When Pickett broke with ‘In the Midnight Hour’ in 1965, things changed in a very real way. Though he was known to some for his work with the Falcons (“I Found a Love”), this is the track that kicked open the door and let the world know that Wilson Pickett was someone to be reckoned with. He was a uniquely powerful singer, and was capable of writing his own material. He wrote or co-wrote nine of the twelve tracks on his first Atlantic LP ‘In the Midnight Hour’, many of the collaborations with none other than Steve Cropper. The title track remains today one of the most covered soul tunes of all time, redone by all manner of vocalists and instrumentalists in the ensuing 40 years. Opening with heavy drums and trademark Memphis horns, Pickett’s vocal is brilliant, sounding like dynamite exploding in a very small space. Just when it seems like he has complete control, his voice frays at the edge releasing the tiniest bit of a scream. The band pounds out the downbeat providing the foundation on which Pickett manages to build excitement without ever rushing the tempo. The importance of Atlantic Records decision to record Pickett at Stax studios in Memphis cannot be underestimated. If ever a voice was made to be wrapped in the Stax sound, Pickett’s was it. Between 1965 and 1967 (after which he started to record at Muscle Shoals) Pickett and the Stax rhythm section recorded some of the most spellbinding music of the 60’s. If anyone hadn’t “gotten” Pickett after ‘In the Midnight Hour’, his second LP for Atlantic, ‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett’ took care of that. Including “634-5789 (Soulsville USA)”, “Ninety Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” and his cover of Don Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” (all incredibly strong songs) it opened with the strongest of all, “Land of 1000 Dances”. No matter how many times I hear “Land of 1000 Dances” it never loses any of its power. When Pickett charges in with “ONE TWO THREE!!” it’s like he’s grabbing you by the collar and shaking you, and then he does it again “ONE TWO THREE!!” and you’re all like Whoa dad.... Then the bass player rolls in, followed by the drummer (going 150mph) and then the whole band with Pickett at the wheel with the “AWRIGHT”s and the “UNHH”s and he starts to drop the verse and your head is spinning and your arms and legs are jerking and Chris Kenner is up in heaven, knocked flat on his ass wondering what the hell happened to his song. You really have to map the progression from Kenner’s 1963 original – taken at a rollicking but comparatively soporific pace – on to the East LA brown eyed soul of Cannibal and the Headhunters (enter NAH NAH NAH NAH NAH NANA NAH NANA NAH NANA NAH) with things still on the slow and steady tip, and then Pickett and his Memphis pals get a hold of the thing and proceed to stuff it full of TNT, hand grenades, nitroglycerin, Tabasco sauce and sweat, and going like a house on fire commit it all to what must have been asbestos coated tape. It’s still hard to imagine how anyone managed to dance to this record without ending up rolling on the floor like a charismatic possessed by the fire of Godawmighty, limbs akimbo, going “BOOGITY BOOGITY BOOGITY!!!”. The tempo of the record is unbelievable, and the back up singers joining Pickett on the “NAH NAH NAH”s make the whole affair sound like cavalry charge, with Pickett swinging his sword at the front of the pack.
When Pickett said
"You know I feel alright? Hah! I feel pretty good y'all!"
..he said it all. “Land of 1000 Dances” remains today no less than a transcendent experience. How many aspriring soul men (or women) heard it explode from their radio (or saw him perform it live) and just thought to themselves “Fuck this shit...I’m going to barber college.”, walking away from music forever. It’s like the stories you used to hear about fledgling tenor men going to hear John Coltrane and returning home and throwing their saxophone in the garbage. Pickett was that good. He went on to record tons more quality soul and funk, charting regularly into the early 70’s. After that, the world kind of passed him by. He continued to perform, but the era of explosive soul power had been replaced by one of scented candles and quiet storms. In the 1991 movie adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel ‘The Commitments’, Wilson Pickett – though never seen – manages to be a major character in the film. It speaks volumes about the power of his music, and soul music in general.