In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett
(Oxford University Press)
US: Jan 2017
Tony Fletcher’s biography of Wilson Pickett is unsurprisingly titled after the great soul singer’s biggest hit and one of the enduring classics of ‘60s black pop. But that’s the only predictable thing about the book, a vivid, detailed, and insightful portrait of a complex and often deplorable man.
Fletcher, a British-born author of books about the Smiths, Keith Moon, and R.E.M. who relocated to New York in the ‘80s, brings a solid grasp of music theory, an investigative reporter’s tenacity, and a fan’s enthusiasm, tempered with critical discernment and a social vision, especially when he’s writing about race and racism. He grasps the full measure of Pickett’s talent—the man was a world-class singer who could make something soulful (and erotic) out of a pop trifle like “Sugar Sugar”. In my opinion, which Fletcher seems to share, he was as great, possibly even greater, than James Brown. (His scream certainly was more epic.)
But Fletcher never gives him a pass on his emotional cruelty and physical violence. The title of David Ritz’s excellent biography of Marvin Gaye, Divided Soul, fits Pickett, too; he could be generous, loving, and fun to be around, but at other times, and increasingly so as his career declined, his nickname “Wicked Pickett” was all too apt.
Fletcher presents Pickett’s life as a three-act drama: Rise (1941-1972); Fall (1973-1996), and Redemption (1997-2006). The singer was born in 1941 in a two-room shack in rural Alabama to a family of sharecroppers. His father, Wilson Pickett, Sr., was a heavy drinker, a habit he acquired and, as Fletcher writes, “he adopted his mother’s temper, her quick resort to anger and even violence.” His mother beat him and his siblings; on one occasion, she fractured his arm with a piece of wood. Years later, reproached about the beatings he gave his son, the singer replied that he was just doing what had been done to him as a child.
Fletcher doesn’t treat the abuse only as symptomatic of the Picketts’ family pathology but notes its social origins, quoting one of Pickett’s sisters, who observes “it wasn’t uncommon for that type of thing to happen in the South. Not only for our family but for a lot of families. They were under so much stress and it builds up and every now and then it would just release, in fits of rage and anger.” Fletcher comments that few of the parents who resorted to extreme discipline “considered that routine violence, the use of the switch and the whip, had been introduced and imposed on them through slavery.” The beatings, however, never extinguished Pickett’s rebelliousness; as a child, he was a “mean little boy” and the “whuppins”, as his family called the frequent thrashings, only made him more defiant.
What Fletcher somewhat euphemistically calls “strict discipline” went along with strict church attendance, at Jericho Baptist, an institution that provided high-drama preaching, often from visiting ministers, religious and secular schooling to children, a charity for the indigent and, most important for the young Pickett, music. Fletcher observes that the Baptist faith practiced at Jericho was more restrained than Pentecostal services, where worshippers would “fall out” (become prostrate with religious ecstasy) and speak in tongues. Jericho’s services were less histrionic but no less fervent, and the type of gospel music performed there influenced—“determined” might be more accurate—Pickett’s performing style, which was “foot-stomping rather than convulsing”.
The teenage Wilson was captivated by gospel music but he decided he’d rather sing in vocal quartets than in church choirs. Male gospel quartets, which grew out of the Jubilee and barbershop styles that were popular early in the 20th century, were a major influence on the R&B vocal groups that emerged mid-century in northern cities. Pickett, though devoted to gospel, hardly was averse to secular sounds; the blues caught his ear, and he taught himself to play harmonica and guitar. But gospel stylings and vocal techniques, as well as the music’s emotional fervor, would be the core of Pickett’s art, from his earliest performances and recordings to the end of his career.
At only 15 years old Pickett, handsome and charismatic, as well as talented and ambitious, made some changes to his life. Like so many other Southern blacks fed up with poverty, limited prospects, and vicious Jim Crow racism, he left Alabama for Detroit, where he moved in with his father and his stepmother. When he arrived in the Motor City in 1956, “everywhere the young Wilson turned… there was music”. R&B singers like Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson, and Little Willie John were getting established in Detroit and would go on to become nationally famous. Pickett’s peers at Northwestern High School included such future Tamla and Motown recording stars as Mary Wells, Florence Ballard (the Supremes), and Melvin Franklin (the Temptations).
Berry Gordy had yet to found his music empire when Pickett arrived on the Detroit scene. Fortune Records, owned by whites, was recording “any vocal hopeful with a dollar or two”. Joe Von Battle, a record store owner, was recording blues and gospel artists in a studio at the back of his store. He also recorded sermons by Baptist ministers, including Reverend C.L. Franklin, a hugely popular preacher who, far from hiding his love for secular music, especially the blues, proclaimed his admiration, praising his favorite artists and attending their shows. Pickett would come into Franklin’s orbit when he befriended the reverend’s precociously talented daughter, Aretha. He sang for Franklin’s congregation at the New Bethel Baptist Church and with several vocal groups before the Violinaires, an established six-piece outfit, recruited him.
Singing with the Violinaires, and competing against other gospel singers, he honed his artistry, as he often acknowledged. Pickett, says Fletcher, “was always clear that the strength of his voice—the ability to hold that tuneful scream, to split the notes of an octave like a mystical throat singer, and to do so without damaging the vocal cords… was due to consistent and constant training over the years”.
That vocal prowess, combined with his good looks and sexual magnetism, as well as great ambition and drive, eventually would take him from the Violinaires—and gospel music. At 18, however, Pickett couldn’t depend on music for his livelihood, and he had no other steady employment. Moreover, he had a wife and daughter to support. Poverty weighed on him—the young couple went on public assistance—and he responded to stress the way he would later in life: with violence. On one night, his stepmother intervened when she overheard a fight between Pickett and his wife, who said he had beaten her. The couple reconciled but soon separated for good, finally divorcing in 1986.
Pickett left the Violinaires to join the Falcons, an R&B outfit founded by singer Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”) that is generally considered the first soul group. Pickett, despite his misgivings about leaving gospel, auditioned for the group. When the lead singer abruptly quit, Pickett was hired, despite mutual doubts: the other Falcons thought his churchy, roof-raising style was “too black”, and Pickett felt the band’s sound was “corny” pop. But as a Falcon, Pickett earned an income, gained visibility, and came into his own as a performer, so much so that James Brown fired the group from a tour when his audiences responded a little too enthusiastically to Pickett for his liking.
The Falcons had a hit with “I Found a Love”, written by Pickett and featuring him on lead vocal. Based on a Pentecostal hymn, the searing ballad came to the attention of Atlantic Records vice-president and legendary A&R chief Jerry Wexler, who coined the term “rhythm and blues” to replace the previous marketing category “race records”. Thus began an artistically fruitful, if often contentious relationship, between Pickett and Wexler.
Atlantic bought distribution rights to “I Found a Love”, and although the record didn’t burn up the pop charts, it reached the R&B Top 10, giving Pickett his first hit. He soon informed the other Falcons that he was leaving the band, which subsequently broke up.
But Pickett’s recording career didn’t catch fire until he went to record in Memphis for Stax Records, the soul label founded by two white people, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. In 1965, Pickett, with Stax’s integrated house band, cut the record that would be his greatest hit and his signature song for the rest of his career. “In the Midnight Hour” inspires some of Fletcher’s best, most perceptive writing. Noting that “more than fifty years later” the record “remains impervious to the thought of improvement”, he explains why it works so brilliantly. His musical exegesis is, in fact, an object lesson in how to use technical language without alienating the lay reader. Behind the deceptive simplicity of the record lies “masterful musicianship” evident in every aspect, including the rhythm, “driven by [drummer Al] Jackson and [guitarist Steve] Cropper, who hammer home the second and fourth beats in tandem with an almost imperceptible mutual delay, the former with a snare sound so bright that it defies the mono recording, the latter with a sharp, consistent downstroke”.
“In the Midnight Hour” was followed by many other hits—among them, “Mustang Sally”, “634-5789”, and his incendiary cover of “Hey, Jude”—although none had the same impact as Pickett’s breakthrough. He became an international superstar, performing to adoring fans in Europe and, in 1971, in Africa, as the headliner of the Soul to Soul revue that also featured Ike and Tina Turner, the Staple Singers, and Roberta Flack. That triumph, coming when Pickett was only 30-years-old, turned out to be the peak not only of his international popularity but of the decade itself; the early ‘70s would be the beginning of a long downward slide, in his career and personal life.
He recorded one last great album, Don’t Knock My Love, in 1971. But his brand of gospel-based soul fell out of favor in the disco era, and the hits stopped coming. His alcoholism was exacerbated by heavy cocaine use, and he became increasingly violent—toward his male children, his bandmates, and his women. The violence was horrific, sickening his longtime, loyal friends and associates.
Mark Ribot, today a guitarist esteemed for his genre-crossing versatility, briefly was a member of Pickett’s touring band and he witnessed the abuse. “You know why guys beat women? Because they fucking can,” he tells Fletcher. “That’s why employers beat employees when they can. I’ve worked with black bandleaders and white bandleaders who are respectful, courteous, and generous human beings—and then I’ve worked with Wilson Pickett.”
Pickett’s last years were a slo-mo disaster movie, with the fallen star arrested for domestic abuse, drunk driving, and weapons possession. In 1991, he failed to show up for his induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame; later in the decade, he served two jail terms. After he was released from prison in the late ‘90s, he struggled to re-start his career, performing mainly in casinos and on cruise ships to mostly white audiences. Although he remained an alcoholic, he evidently curbed his once-lavish cocaine use.
He recorded an album, It’s Harder Now, that won him his best reviews in years and a 2000 Grammy Award nomination. But Pickett’s hoped-for comeback fell through when he didn’t win the Grammy and refused to tour to promote the album. He made his last public appearance in 2004 and, suffering from multiple ailments (bulimia, diabetes, and kidney disease among them), he died two years later, at 64.
Pickett’s life brings to mind some old questions. Can bad people make great art? Does great art somehow redeem the failings of the person who made it? The answer to the first is obvious: they do, all the time. (Think of, for example, Ezra Pound, an ardent anti-Semite, or Picasso, a serial abuser of women). The answer to the second, however, is trickier. Great art is thought to be ennobling; it supposedly can uplift us, morally and spiritually. If it can have that effect on those of us experiencing it, doesn’t that mean artists themselves are a special breed, whose flaws and misbehavior ultimately are irrelevant in light of their accomplishments? The answer has to be no, if for no other reason than the question itself confuses aesthetic quality and personal morality. One of the best things about Tony Fletcher’s biography of Wilson Pickett is that it raises, and forces you to think about, these very questions.
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