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Hard Hitting Blues: Baby Workout: Jackie Wilson

Mark Desrosiers

His tragic career will always be offered as an object lesson in power and greed (not to mention the fate of the black man in entertainment).

By 1975, Jackie Wilson was nothing more than an oldies act. Despite one of the most powerful voices and hyperactive physiques in the business, he was no longer able to put his name on a hit record. Sure, some awe-struck kids like Prince Rogers Nelson and Michael Jackson would still go to his gigs (and take notes). But the man's career had to be put on life support by the ubiquitous Dick Clark, who featured him in a package tour called the Good Ol' Rock 'n' Roll Revue. In September 1975, Jackie slid out onstage at Camden, New Jersey and kept his audience burning with high-energy versions of hits like "I'll Be Satisfied", "Whispers", and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher". Towards the end of his climactic signature tune, "Lonely Teardrops", Jack leapt high into the air, and fell abruptly backwards. "My heart is cryin', cryin'" -- those were his last words. His head hit the stage with a loud crack. Dick Clark rushed to his side, yelled "Is there a doctor in here?" to the stunned audience, then began sobbing over the unconscious singer's motionless body. Jackie Wilson blinked twice, and rolled his eyes up in his head. He remained in a coma for eight years until, in January 1984, he stopped taking nourishment and passed away.

Sometimes the worst tragedies are the ones that creep forward slowly. Jackie Wilson -- a man who could throw a punch like Sonny Liston, who could out-sing and out-dance the entire Motown stable, whose enthusiasm for food and sex were epic -- he spent his last eight years a vegetable. But the bigger tragedy was his career itself. Just like Sonny Liston, Jackie's gifts -- his voice and body -- were owned by the mob.

Jackie was a banger from the outset, and his entire singing career is best viewed in this light. The shifty teenage pugilist who would enthrall the rough wine-soaked members of Detroit's Shaker Gang with soaring renditions of "Danny Boy". In exchange, they would jump in and protect his pretty face when the fists started flying He thought with his fists, and his dick, allegedly getting a score of girls pregnant by the time he turned sixteen. Running and fighting, and occasionally stopping to sing, he became a local hero, and indeed the pride of the Shaker Gang. He was in and out of jail, but only when he landed in the Lansing Correctional Institute at age sixteen would he take boxing seriously. Joe Louis was Detroit's hometown hero, and countless boys were yearning to follow in his footsteps.

The connection between music and boxing was always very intimate in everyone's minds. Whenever people thought of Sonny Liston, they thought of his jumping rope to the tune of "Night Train" (always "Night Train"), a bigger and badder mess of footwork and jazz you had never seen. For years, Jackie Wilson claimed to have trained as a professional boxer, a competitor in the Detroit Golden Gloves, a welterweight champion, and finally (briefly) a pro boxer. He did box, yes. But according to Jack Douglas' exceptionally well-researched biography Jackie Wilson: The Man, The Music, The Mob, the stories of his welterweight championship, and of his brief pro career, were fictions. Still, boxing was always central to his identity, and it's easy to see why: it taught him to dance. By all accounts, the man couldn't dance a lick with a partner, and always fled the dance floor. But to see him glide out onstage, twirling, flipping, diving throwing the mike around without missing a note -- he was shadow-boxing for the masses. His body -- often quite drunk -- combined a precise, trained choreography with a stunning sense of physical intuition. He always seemed to know exactly how to manipulate an audience with his movements. The girls saw it was time to start tearing off his clothes once he leaned back, back, back into his rope-a-dope until he was practically laying supine on the stage. Elvis Presley watched and learned. So did James Brown.

His first big break as Clyde McPhatter's replacement in Billy Ward and the Dominoes (the whole north side of Detroit erupted in joyous riots) made him famous. But he wanted more. In order to get that fame, you had to make some connections. You couldn't get over on talent alone, not back then. So through a complex set of circumstances, he ended up hooking with Nat Tarnopol, another up-and-comer whose business instincts were eventually dosed with ruthless greed. Tarnopol owned Jackie, and the mob owned Tarnopol. This unhappy symbiosis would result in some brilliant tunes, sure, but also a legacy of frustration and bitterness.

"Jackie Wilson opened his mouth and out poured that sound like honey on moonbeams, and it was like the whole room shifted on some weird axis". That's Dick Jacobs, Jackie's musical director and producer at Brunswick, describing the recording sessions for "Reet Petite", the finest song you ever wanted to hear in 1957. Jackie's voice was a wonder of nature, an instrument whose intuitive range and control were the perfect match for his acrobatic body. He would hit the high C and quickly tumble straight down to a soulful growl. On "Reet Petite" he grabs hold of the funky syncopation and never lets go, rolling his R's and sending his voice out on wave after wave of swooping calisthenics. Co-written with a young Berry Gordy, Jr., the song began Jackie's early hit-making run of Gordy tunes ("Lonely Teardrops", "To Be Loved", "That's Why (I Love You So)", "I'll Be Satisfied") which juiced up the late fifties with an early taste of Detroit soul.

Although he loved the blues and gospel records that sustained him through his youth, he soon became captivated by Mario Lanza, Sammy Davis Jr., and Al Jolson. This odd melting pot of influences was doubtless the source for the frustrating genre-jumping randomness of his later catalog. He loved his voice, and he would use it where it sounded most powerful and pretty. Opera or gospel, Christmas carols or rock 'n' roll -- he tried it all. This is why such oddball singles as "Danny Boy" and the operatic "Night" later became canonic centerpieces of his recording career. The modern ear hears his early Brunswick records with a sense of astonishment that such a brilliant voice could be backed with a tacky baroque array of screeching singers, blorting trombones, and cocktail drums. Sometimes it all works -- "Baby Workout" actually sounds like shadowboxing, mostly because of the punchy instrumental backing. But often those early songs sound horribly dated, an effect that sometimes makes his voice seem mannered rather than spirited. Partly this was the fault of Dick Jacobs, who for all his talents was still mentally stuck in the '40s. But it was also the fault of Nat Tarnopol, who had his eye on the accounting ledger whenever he told Jackie what to do.

In terms of musical quality, Jackie Wilson's life changed forever when a warrant for his arrest kept him from recording in New York City. Instead, he recorded in Chicago with Carl Davis, who would soon transform Brunswick Records into an excellent little soul and funk label. Davis's first coup was to get the Motown studio band the Funk Brothers down to Chicago as moonlighting backing musicians. He paid them cash, of course, but always more than union scale. This is why such magical songs as "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher", "Whispers", and "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" have that unmistakable "Motown feel" even though they were recorded for Brunswick. Nobody can forget the opening bass notes of "Higher and Higher", for example, and indeed the song remains one of James Jamerson's finest performance on that funky instrument.

"Higher and Higher" briefly revived Jackie's flagging career in 1967, and indeed it's the one song most we always associate with his voice (even though the Dells recorded it first). But he never saw a penny from it. This was the last straw, and sometime in 1967 he tried to take control of his own career by refusing to renew his contract with Brunswick, and trying to sever all connections with Nat Tarnopol. Allegedly Tarnopol's thugs corrected this new sense of independence by holding Jackie out a high-rise window, while Jackie -- pleading for his life -- used his one free hand to sign a renewal of his Brunswick contract. This was how business was conducted in the world of Nat Tarnopol, and the image of the self-assured acrobatic genius singer Jackie Wilson being held out that window -- pale as a ghost and panicking -- is what you should remember when you get frustrated by his uneven recording catalog.

Jackie Wilson was a scrapper. He would perform with a broken jaw, cracked ribs, a gun to his head. He never missed a note, always knew his steps, even when he was three sheets to the wind (which was often). By 1975, he was mostly cleaned up, and off the bottle. So many find it odd that he fell on his head during that sad Camden performance in 1975. He had allegedly eaten a huge meal just before the show, unusual for a man who insisted on never eating anything for six hours before he went onstage. He was, by this time, a very obedient man, and it's possible he was told to eat before the show. Some suggest he was poisoned by that meal. Whatever happened, though, he was no longer profitable to Nat Tarnopol or Brunswick Records. And it's very likely that, whether he wanted to or not, he took a dive on 29 September 1975.

The world forgot he existed by 1984, and even his death was overshadowed by the tragic murder of Marvin Gaye three months later. Still, the Commodores recorded the beautiful tribute song "Night Shift" (also a tribute to Gaye), and people like Prince and Michael Jackson gave props to his pioneering performance style. In 1986, "Reet Petite" and "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" were reissued in Britain (with funky new videos), and became unexpected hits. When you listen to his records now, you can hear a characteristic vocal trademark in almost all of them, a tendency to make his voice swoop towards his emotions, rather than dig under them, like the great blues singers of the past did. His punches aimed for the head, not the gut, in other words. His tragic career will always be offered as an object lesson in power and greed (not to mention the fate of the black man in entertainment). But nobody will ever sing like him, a man whose energy and spirit departed mid-song to curse him with eight long years of motionless silence.

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