There is a legend out there that singer Jackie Wilson lied about his age to get into the Golden Gloves boxing program, and won a championship at age 16. It turns out it isn’t true. (The confusion might stem from the other Jackie Wilson, a serious boxer who was 50-2 before getting dropped by Sugar Ray Robinson.) Jackie Wilson the singer did fib about the age, and he did box, but his mother found out and read him the riot act, and that was it for his boxing career.
But it was the beginning of the most criminally under-appreciated career in modern music. Jackie Wilson has been called “the most significant influence on James Brown”, “the Black Elvis”, and “the Michael Jackson of his time”, but who he really was was Jackie Wilson: Mr. Excitement. And it all sprang from the ring.
Jack Leroy Wilson grew up in a Detroit ghetto and had to learn to fight to survive. Yeah, yeah, old story—but it’s true. He started hanging around a gym to learn how to move, how to tag and how not to get tagged himself. He showed promise, but it’s not like this is a case of “boxing’s loss was music’s gain”. It was more like this: boxing, for Jackie Wilson, was the only school that ever taught him anything. The sad thing was that boxing taught him just as many bad lessons as it ever did good ones. His fistic training was both his salvation and his damnation.
Okay, fine, so boxing didn’t give him that voice. Damn, that voice! Jackie Wilson had the rock era’s earliest intimate voice. You hear that voice and you know the man. This is what Billy Ward and the Dominoes thought when the 19-year-old Wilson dropped by the Fox Theater in Detroit and demanded an audition to replace their lead singer, the legendary Clyde McPhatter, who had just split for a solo career. The kid said he was better than McPhatter, and they scoffed; he sang a couple of songs, and they stopped scoffing. He was hired on the spot. (The kid answers the bell.)
No, he didn’t turn the Dominoes into the greatest group of all time—they had already had their moment in the sun. But his solo career sure started with a bang: he took a few songs written by another former boxer, Berry Gordy, Jr., and turned them into hits. “Reet Petite” went #11 R&B in October ‘57; “To Be Loved” went #22 pop in April ‘58; “Lonely Teardrops” was #1 R&B, #7 pop in November ‘58; Gordy started Motown Records in ‘59. You do the math. (The kid comes out punching . . . and makes his cornerman rich.)
So no, don’t give boxing credit for that voice. But boxing gave him that nose, though. Have you ever seen that nose? That’s the nose of a boxer. And his body was that of a boxer, too—lean and ready, responsive, a tool. His moves onstage? Pure gym, baby: as the man himself said, “The steps I do onstage and the way I move my hands are all things left over from my boxing days.” He perfected the stage show, regularly cutting everyone who ever tried to best him live. Listen to Elvis Presley talking about Billy Ward and the Dominoes on The Million-Dollar Quartet CD—after demonstrating Wilson’s vocal style and dance moves to Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, he talks about Wilson doing a version of “Don’t Be Cruel” that brought down the house: “Much better, boy, much better than that record of mine . . . Man, he sung the hell outa that song. I was on the table, man, [thinking] Get him off, get him off!” (The kid jabs, the kid weaves, the kid’s got a hell of a hook. Watch that kid.)
Jackie Wilson attacked the microphone, shadowboxed with the audience, doing acrobatic moves before anyone had ever even seen James Brown try. Beverly Lee of the Shirelles is quoted in Ted Fox’s excellent history Showtime at the Apollo as saying of Wilson, “He was like a very slinky powerful leopard onstage. There was nothing he couldn’t do out there. He was very sexy.” Even after James Brown’s classic Live at the Apollo album, Wilson set a new box office record there in 1963. (The kid has become the crowd favorite.)
The hits kept coming for Jackie Wilson. Many critics see him as a two-headed monster because he was able to hit it in soul mode and full-on orchestral pop style. His biggest hit record was a double-sided thing of beauty, with the world-beating testifyin’ blues “Doggin’ Around” on one side and the operatic crooner “Night” on the other. But I see Wilson another way: as a ring technician who knows that you can’t always pick your opponent. He learned early to be able to slug it out with the bruisers (“Passin’ Through”, “Please Tell Me Why”) and float with the fancy-handed experts (“A Woman, a Lover, a Friend”, “Danny Boy”). And on most of his greatest songs you can hear both sides of Jackie Wilson. On “Baby Workout”, the greatest least-known song of the 1960s, he soars, he begs, he stutter-steps, he swings harder than Sinatra and plays loverman better than Cooke and prays like Aretha Franklin—all in service of a dance song about, as far as I can tell, working out. It’s brilliant, and I will always hate the Beatles for ruining the day when songs like this could hit the Top 5 on both charts simultaneously. (The only one that can beat the kid…is the kid himself.)
But if Jackie Wilson was a sweet scientist onstage, he ended up just being a pug backstage. He ended up embodying all the cliché behavior that fighters always seem to end up embodying. His longtime manager Nat Tarnopol had extensive Mafia ties, and Brunswick Records was a side-venture for the mob. This led to dubious contacts and more dubious decisions—the guy crapped out albums right and left and worked his ass off without ever getting rich, and his house was seized for non-payment of taxes. He ran around with women whether or not he was married to them; one of his girlfriends finally shot him, and he carried the bullet around in his body for the rest of his life. He descended into drugs and alcohol just like any washed-up former champ. He was finally just as poorly-off as any of the guys he used to watch in the gym when he was learning the same moves that had made him famous all those years ago. (The kid’s lookin’ pretty rocky heading into the late rounds. Should we throw in the towel?)
But just as things looked their worst, Jackie Wilson battled back. He made a deal with the “record executives” at Brunswick and got clear of Tarnopol. This started him on the comeback trail, as he was able to hook up with Chicago’s Carl Davis, who actually cared about music. His big oh-that’s-where-he’s-been singles of the mid-‘60s, “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)” and “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher and Higher)”, were huge monster amazing slices of soul music that will last forever, but they were also his last gasp on the charts. He drifted further into chemical hell, got better enough to join a Dick Clark oldies tour in the 1970s, and then had a heart attack onstage in 1975. Like a tough old gym rat, he hung on for another nine years, but he never got out of his hospital bed again, and died in 1984.
Lesser singers have huger reputations; lesser entertainers are aped relentlessly; lesser personalities have TV movies and biopics made about them all the time. But some day, Jackie Wilson will be recognized as a superb gloveman who wasn’t afraid to mix it up in the corners, only to be brought down by the same habits he acquired when he was learning to harness his amazing gifts. It’s sad—he coulda been a contender.