Tony Fletcher’s new biography, “In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett,” faithfully documents the life of the transcendently talented soul singer.
‘In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett’
by Tony Fletcher
Oxford University Press, 302 pp., $27.95
At around the three minute, 50 second mark in the searing 1962 ballad “I Found A Love,” singer Wilson Pickett starts shouting like he’s got the Holy Ghost. Suddenly a song about earthly romance reaches for the heavens.
This brazen blurring of the secular and the religious defined early soul, R&B and rock ’n’ roll, and there is perhaps no greater exemplar of the style than Pickett, the ultimate soul screamer and righteous lover. He brought the fire-and-brimstone rawness of black-gospel singing to countless songs about sweet seduction and restless love.
Author Tony Fletcher borrows the title of Pickett’s most famous song for his richly detailed new biography of the singer. This book is a reminder of just how powerful a presence Pickett was, especially throughout the 1960s, as African-American music migrated from churches and black radio stations into the mainstream, and as America itself underwent dramatic social changes.
As I read Fletcher’s painstakingly researched assessment of Pickett’s career and cultural influence, in which he recounts the making of so many of the singer’s most memorable songs, I couldn’t help but go online every few minutes to enjoy the songs themselves — “Mustang Sally,” “Land of a Thousand Dances,” “634-5789” “Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do,” “I’m a Midnight Mover,” “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.”
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Pickett, handsome to a fault and always dressed to impress, steamrollered his way through these songs with the brashness of a man who’s been around the block more than once but possesses a passion so deep and sincere it’s almost scary. A wildly boastful song like “A Man and a Half,” as sexually suggestive as you could get in the 1960s, should be off-putting. In Pickett’s hands, it’s an irresistible, toe-tapping rocker.
Pickett isn’t the only screamer and shouter among the successful black, male artists of the time. His contemporary and rival James Brown can match him howl for howl. But Pickett’s gravelly delivery stands out for its ability to capture ecstasy and despair, confidence and vulnerability.
Fletcher faithfully escorts us through Pickett’s life, from his churchgoing youth in the segregated Deep South to his time making music in Detroit and Memphis as those centers of African-American life exploded with musical talent, to his legendary sessions in the unlikely recording hot spot of Muscle Shoals, Ala. He treats us to behind-the-scenes moments when magic happened in the recording studio, as when the ever-dapper Pickett pairs up with a scraggly haired and incredibly high guitarist by the name of Duane Allman for a soulful version of “Hey Jude.”
As with far too many soul greats, this is also a story of artistic marginalization and decline. Pickett could sample musical genres with the best of them, and pretty much cover anyone else’s song and make it interesting, but the advent of disco and rock in the 1970s left him few opportunities to showcase his distinctly Southern soul-man talents.
Bouncing from misguided album to misguided album, he was a shadow of his earlier self by the 1980s and ’90s.
Pickett died of a heart attack on Jan. 19, 2006 at age 64.
Throughout his career, Wilson Pickett was known for being difficult to work with — even a little crazy. As Fletcher notes, he didn’t even show up for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
Depression, drugs and alcohol played a roll in his decline, as well as run-ins with the law for various offenses, including drunken driving. Fletcher doesn’t shy away from exploring the singer’s darker side.
As “In the Midnight Hour” shows, Pickett lost his way, but those full-throated shouts and screams still hit home.