Wilson Pickett: Land of 1,000 Dances - The Complete Atlantic Singles Vol. 1
In the first of a three-part set, the highly fertile artistic period of one of soul music's most powerful voices is lovingly chronicled.
An unassailable soul kingpin deservedly mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett enjoyed a healthy stream of critical and commercial success from the mid-‘60s to the early ‘70s. He was highly productive and somewhat successful before and after this period, but his golden, can’t-miss era coincides nicely with his tenure at Atlantic Records (1964-1973). Reissue label Real Gone Music has acknowledged this by releasing Land of 1,000 Dances: The Complete Atlantic Singles Vol. 1, the first in a three-volume set chronicling this fruitful period in Pickett’s career.
“Complete Singles” means just that -- every Atlantic single, including b-sides, is chronologically assembled in the set. This first volume includes 11 singles -- 22 tracks resulting in a highly entertaining peek at an astonishingly soulful three-year span. After singing in a variety of gospel groups over the previous ten years, and moving on to the gospel-influenced-yet-secular group the Falcons, Pickett’s solo career began with a couple of earnest yet commercially spotty singles before “I’m Gonna Cry” kicked off the Atlantic era. While not exactly a commercial breakout -- it peaked at 124 on the pop charts and didn’t even hit the R&B charts -- the single is important in that it lays the groundwork for a good deal of what makes up Pickett’s sound. The A-side is a joyful, bouncy celebration (despite the title), while its flip side, “For Better or Worse”, is a soul-wrenching ballad that gives Pickett the opportunity to show off his impassioned shouting while backed by galvanizing horns, a sympathetic coterie of backing vocalists, and some quasi-garage band rhythm guitar. It works as a fitting template of mid-‘60s soul music inspired by gospel but with a secular edge. In other words, Wilson Pickett 101.
The next single was a bit of a good-intentioned misfire: Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler brought in producer/arrangers Bert Berns and Teacho Wiltshire to rein in Pickett’s sound with the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil-penned “Come Home Baby” (with Pickett’s own “Take a Little Love” as the B-side). Furthermore, the tracks were duets, with Tami Lynn serving as Pickett’s female foil. The songs are decent, but attempts to give Pickett’s raw emotion a Brill Building makeover essentially fell flat and the single failed to chart.
Clearer heads prevailed when Pickett was dispatched to Memphis to begin recording for Atlantic-distributed Stax Records, backed by Booker T. and the MG’s -- the mighty Stax house band, which included legendary guitarist Steve Cropper (co-writer of many of Pickett’s singles). This was a match made in heaven and Pickett thrived in this raw, Southern soul element. The first fruits of this collaboration, “In the Midnight Hour", arguably Pickett’s signature song, topped the R&B charts and hit a respectable 21 on the pop charts. The mid-tempo swagger, the beefy horns and Pickett’s insistent wailing all helped carve out a distinctive sound. Wicked Pickett was on a roll.
Subsequent singles continued along the same lines: the funky, confident “Don’t Fight It". The rollicking, irresistible, horn-spiked “634-5789” (which contains one of Pickett’s greatest, simplest declarations: “No more lonely nights will you be alone / all you gotta do is pick up your telephone”). The rousing party-starter “Land of 1,000 Dances” (whose na-na-na-na-na chorus has become an indelible part of the soul-rock vernacular). The bold, tight funk of “Mustang Sally”.
It’s important to note that, while “complete singles” sets are often diminished by the lesser quality of the B-sides, that’s rarely the case in this collection. None of the singles seem like throwaways destined to remain unnoticed. “You’re So Fine” is one of the more obvious examples of the care taken to produce quality on both sides of the 45. The sheer joy elicited by Pickett on this track is infectious, as is “Nothing You Can Do", the strutting, up-tempo Bobby Womack-penned B-side to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” (a Solomon Burke cover that bested the original version’s chart performance). It’s obvious that Pickett never approached his art in a half-assed manner.
While there are a few covers and remakes in this collection (including Pickett’s own compositions, often co-written by Cropper), one of the more interesting ones is Pickett’s own cover of a song he recorded with the Falcons in 1962. “I Found a Love” is given new life and extended over two sides of a single (essentially broken in half and split up). While the Falcons’ version was a raw, transcendent slice of gospel-powered R&B, Pickett keeps the spirit of that original recording alive five years later, taking advantage of the longer run time by riffing on the cathartic subject of true love in a soulful, heart-on-the-sleeve style that was Pickett’s bread and butter during this highly fertile period.
This first of three volumes is, not surprisingly, a goldmine of essential soul music by a man whose musical talent kicked open the doors of raw, emotional rhythm and blues. If it seems incomplete, wait for the next two volumes, where we’ll get to hear “Funky Broadway", “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You", “I’m in Love", his stellar covers of “Sugar Sugar” and “Hey Jude” (for my money, the best Beatles cover ever recorded), among many others. Pickett’s Atlantic era is one hell of a ride. This is just the first leg of the trip.