Saturday, January 21, 2006

SOULOBIT: Wilson Pickett

The soul legend Wilson Pickett died on Thursday night.

Born in 1941 into a Prattville, Alabama family which already had ten children, Wilson started, like so many other soul giants, singing in church. In his case, it was Baptist Church choirs; when he moved to Detroit with his father in 1955 (he had fled his cruel mother's home years earlier) he formed The Violinaires. The gospel band achieved a degree of success - they supported Sam Cooke on national tours - but Pickett was aware that you could make a living from music, or praise the lord in song, but not both, and in 1959 he quit to take up a position in the Falcons.

The Falcons were already a going concern when he came onboard, singing alongside Eddie 'Knock On Wood' Floyd on doo-wop numbers. In 1962 their breakthrough soul hit I Found Love brought Pickett's songwriting and vocal range to wider attention, most notably that of producer Robert Bateman. Bateman's instinct that Pickett's future lay in a solo career seemed misplaced at first, as a trio of singles across two labels flopped.

His faith proved itself, though, in 1964. A transfer to Atlantic, and recording sessions in the Stax Studios alongside Booker T Jones and Steve Cropper allowed Pickett to find himself; by 1965 he had recorded In The Midnight Hour, the song which would become both his theme and his pension scheme. He never quite enjoyed the full fruits of his work, though, as he shared the writing credit with Steve Cropper. As artists as wide ranging as Chris Farlowe, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Jam made their own covers of the songs, Pickett fought - unsuccessfully - to get Cropper's credit removed.

Pickett continued to work at Stax, laying down an impressive number of songs - 634-5789, Ninety-Nine and One-Half; relocating to Atlantic's own Fame studios produced Mustang Sally, Funky Broadway and Land of a Thousand Dances. Working into the 1970s, Pickett tried to build a wider fanbase by stunt covers (Hey Jude and - painfully - a take on the cartoon Archies' Sugar Sugar), but he never felt comfortable enough flattening himself down in the way Stevie Wonder managed to become a Billboard chart regular. The rise of disco squeezed him in his soul market and Pickett's career went into something of a hibernation.

Meanwhile, drugs and misery made his life less than comfortable - he spent too much time in the back of police cars and overnight in cells; memorably getting arrested for driving a car through the lawns of the Englewood mayor's house (he threw some death threats into the mix for good measure); less amusingly, he was charged with domestic violence in the same year.

A first comeback beckoned in 1991, when the film The Commitments appeared to offer his music a first induction into the soul pantheon (as defined by the sort of people who don't really like soul.) However, while the film spun off its own tribute bands, Pickett remained stuck hoofing round amongst the converted. He did pick up an actual induction into the Hall of Fame that year, but that won't pay the bills.

It was also back to the charge room, too, as in 1993 he was convicted for drunk driving - he'd knocked down an 86 year-old man. He wound up with a year's jail sentence for that.

A second comeback in 1999, with It's Harder Now, was more successful critically if not financially. Pickett's private life also started to quieten down - he had been due to marry again sometime in the next year.

Solomon Burke summed up the sense of loss: "We've lost a giant, we've lost a legend, we've lost a man who created his own charisma and made it work around the world."

Pickett, who was 64, died following a heart attack.

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