Ah, the midnight hour - a time for sneakin', peepin', cheatin', love-makin', and heartbreakin'... And who better to sing about it than the man known as ‘The Wicked Pickett,' a nickname the Alabama-born soul man earned as much for his offstage antics as for his tougher-than-homemade-grits, churchif-ied vocal style. Wicked, indeed, because Wilson Pickett could sing his feet off with a kind of raw earthiness that few other male singers would ever commit to tape. Hear him yelp and holler his way through his late '66 hit "Mustang Sally" with no-holds-barred approach that was the essence of the Pickett sound. Wicked, also, because of his tempestuous personality, tough manner, sharp tongue...and his way with the ladies. Stories of Pickett's extra-curricular activities are folklore in the world of ‘60s R&B: suffice it to say that the wicked one was quite the ladies' man, with a persona that matched his music, an always-interesting mix of saint and sinner....
As hardcore as Pickett's gospel-etched vocalizing may have been, he actually did manage to enjoy some measure of mainstream success during his eight years with Atlantic Records. While some of his later recordings - like a strange but somewhat successful 1970 version of the Archies' pop hit "Sugar, Sugar" - had none of the pure funkiness of his earlier recordings for Atlantic, Pickett was nonetheless considered one of the company's major artists until the label itself began broadening its musical spectrum, delving more into the rock and pop arenas.
Born in Prattsville, Alabama in 1941, Pickett had arrived at Atlantic after a few years in Detroit as a member of the vocal group The Falcons. He had moved to the Motor City with his father in 1955 and joined the fledgling team (whose ranks included future ‘Knock On Wood' man Eddie Floyd and songwriter/artist Mack Rice) in '61. A year later, with Pickett's rough'n'ready lead vocals out front, The Falcons were on the charts with "I Found A Love." It didn't take Pickett long to decide that he was ready for his own stint in the spotlight as a solo artist: he cut some sides for Double L, the Detroit label that had released The Falcons' hit and sent one of the songs, "If You Need Me" to Atlantic in hopes of getting a deal with the company.
Legend has it that Atlantic exec Jerry Wexler loved the song but rather than sign Pickett, he gave the tune to Solomon Burke to record. When Double L got wind of Atlantic's plans, they released Pickett's version just one week after Burke's record hit the streets. With its greater resources, Atlantic gave Burke the bigger hit but when Pickett's follow up, "It's Too Late" started to make chart inroads, Wexler bought his contract and Wilson Pickett became an Atlantic recording artist in 1964.
Initial sessions with New York producer Bert Berns were less than successful so Pickett journeyed south to Memphis to record at the studios of Stax Records. The label - which had a distribution deal with Atlantic - had already enjoyed chart action with records by Booker T. & The MGs, Rufus Thomas, his daughter Carla Thomas, The Mar-Keys and others. The double whammy of a dynamite rhythm section and horn players who added just the right amount of punch and power gave Stax recordings an immediately recognizable sound, the perfect backdrop to Pickett's explosive vocal style.
Writing with MGs' guitarist Steve Cropper, Pickett delivered a two-punch knockout with "In The Midnight Hour," a No. 1 R&B and Top 30 pop smash in the summer of '65 and the follow up single, "Don't Fight It," another R&B monster hit in the late fall of the same year, both songs from the first sessions he did in Memphis in May '65. Seven months later, Pickett was back at Stax for the last time cutting tunes for his second Atlantic LP ("The Exciting Wilson Pickett") including "634-5789 (Soulsville, USA)," written by Cropper and Wilson's former Falcon group mate Eddie Floyd. Within less than six months, Pickett had topped the R&B listings twice, establishing himself as a chart force to be reckoned with.
Switching recording locations to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals in his native Alabama, Pickett was back in fighting form in the autumn of '66, covering "Land Of 1000 Dances," a song written and recorded by New Orleans native Chris Kenner and taking it to the top of the R&B charts. Coming off a non-stop schedule of performing coast-to-coast, Pickett was back at Fame in October '66 cutting Mack Rice's innuendo-laden "Mustang Sally" and a couple of months later he was riding high as the song barreled its way to the upper reaches of the soul hit parade.
It was a while before Pickett regained his lofty position as a chartopper but when he decided to add his special vocal magic to "Funky Broadway," a February '67 hit for West Coast group Dyke & The Blazers, he was rewarded with another No. 1 R&B record, the biggest single from his fourth Atlantic album ("The Sound of Wilson Pickett"). He applied the same approach to "She's Lookin' Good," previously a winter '67 hit for another California-based singer/songwriter, Rodger Collins.
Pickett's penchant for covering songs made famous by others continued as the ‘60s came to a close: he turned in a ‘different' kind of version of Lennon & McCartney's "Hey Jude" in the opening months of '69 and soul-i-fied the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" in the spring of '70; both became sizeable R&B hits and even managed to gain a showing on the pop Top 30 listings.
While many of the singles Atlantic released on Pickett in the late ‘60s did tolerably well, the Wicked One was in search of that major smash that would restore him to the chart heights he had enjoyed in the earlier part of the decade. In an interesting move, Atlantic dispatched Pickett to Philadelphia to work with the team of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, who had already had a string of successes with ‘Ice Man' Jerry Butler and were emerging as an important force in the world of pop and R&B. While Pickett just did one album with the team - 1970's "In Philadelphia" set - it did the trick: "Engine Number 9" was a Top 3 R&B and Top 20 pop hit; the follow-up, "Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You" (with songwriter/producer Thom Bell on organ!) was a gold single.
Back down South, Pickett went to Muscle Shoals in December of '70 to work with producer Brad Shapiro (who would go on to create a string of hit albums with Millie Jackson): the instant result was the gold single, "Don't Knock My Love," with Pickett testifyin' and growlin' his way to the top of R&B charts for the first time in four years. The 1972 album that followed also contained "Fire And Water," which would be Pickett's last Top 10 R&B hit and while Pickett moved on to RCA Victor in 1973, he was never able to quite recapture the status he had achieved as a best-selling artist for almost a decade. Regardless of all that has followed - including one or two much-publicized run-ins with the law - Pickett's classic hits have assured him a place in the pantheon of R&B legends. Because when you hear that fiery call for the "Midnight Hour," you know it's gotta be The Wicked Pickett. Have mercy!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.