Wilson Pickett brought the gruff, throaty power of his gospel-trained voice to bear on some of the most incendiary soul music of the Sixties.
Some of his best work, including “In the Midnight Hour” and “634-5789,” was cut in the mid-Sixties at Stax studios in Memphis and released on Atlantic Records. Pickett also connected with the crew of house musicians at Muscle Shoals, where, beginning in 1966, he cut such memorable soul smashes as “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally” and “Funky Broadway.” Pickett enjoyed a steady run of hits on Atlantic, leaving behind a legacy of some of the deepest, funkiest soul music ever to emerge from the South.
Wilson Pickett was born on March 18, 1941, in Prattville, Alabama. He sang in the town’s Baptist church as a boy. Then, in 1955, his family moved to Detroit. He began singing in a local gospel-harmony group, the Violinaires. Then, around 1959, he crossed over into secular music, joining the Falcons. In addition to Pickett, the Falcons included future soul stars Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice. The Falcons’ gospel-influenced R&B style gave shape to the Detroit soul scene of the early Sixties, and their biggest hit, “I Found a Love,” spent 16 weeks on the R&B chart, peaking at Number Six. The success of that record eventually led to Pickett’s signing to Atlantic Records.
Nicknamed “the Wicked Pickett” for his boasting, uninhibited style, the talented singer came into his own during his 1965 sessions at Stax, arranged by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler. Pickett collaborated with Booker T. and the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper on “In the Midnight Hour,” one of the most enduring soul classics of all time. The song was a Number One R&B smash and Pickett’s first Top 40 pop hit. Its success signaled a new era of soul, in which the focus shifted to the looser, funkier sounds of the South. It also launched a string of raucous hits by Pickett, including “Don’t Fight It,” “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” and “634-5789.”
When he began recording at Muscle Shoals, Pickett continued to score hits. “He reminded me of a black leopard – you know, look but don’t touch, he might bite your hand,” Muscle Shoals engineer Rick Hall said. Pickett’s gleeful swagger and raw sexuality- - qualities particularly evident on 1968’s “I’m a Midnight Mover,” one of his biggest pop/R&B hits -- anticipated the boasting persona adopted by rappers in subsequent decades.
In the early Seventies, Pickett collaborated with the Philadelphia-based production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. He cut the album In Philadelphia (1970) and scored such sizable hits as “Engine Number 9” and “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” in the emerging Philly-soul style, which would become a cornerstone sound of that decade. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Pickett remained a viable hitmaker well into the Seventies. His 1971 album, Don’t Knock My Love, yielded four charting singles, including the title track, a Number One R&B hit. Subsequently, Pickett recorded for other companies, including RCA and Motown, and even founded his own Wicked label in the mid-Seventies.
Pickett remained active on the touring and recording fronts into the 21st Century. In 1993, he received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and in 2003, he starred in the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary Only the Strong Survive. Then, in 2004, Pickett began to suffer from various ailments and slowed down his career activity.
Wilson Pickett died of a heart attack on January 19, 2006, in Virginia. He was 64 years old.