Among all of soul music's throat-shredding testifiers of the 1960s, none could match the sheer raw power of Wilson Pickett. He was one of the roughest and sweatiest performers, offering up some of the decade's hottest dance floor songs on hits like "In the Midnight Hour," "Land of 1000 Dances," "Mustang Sally," and "Funky Broadway." Born March 18, 1941, Pickett's forceful style was nurtured in the Baptist choirs of his native Prattville, Alabama, and on the streets of Detroit, where he moved with his family as a teenager (when he was 15).
After singing for four years in a locally popular gospel-harmony group, the Violinaires, Pickett crossed into secular music, joining the Falcons in 1959. 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. Their biggest hit, "I Found a Love," eventually led to Pickett's signing with Atlantic Records.
Nicknamed "the Wicked Pickett" for his boasting, uninhibited style, the gruff-throated 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. It's success signaled a new era of soul in which the focus shifted to the looser, funkier sounds of the South. Eventually, Wolfman Jack adopted "In the Midnight Hour" as his theme song. His next big hit was "634-5789." He was then on his way, releasing a string of chart topping hits including "Land of 1000 Dances" (1966), written by Fats Domino and Chris Kenner. It is also one of those rare numbers that does not mention the title anywhere in the song.
In the early Seventies, Pickett collaborated with the Philadelphia-based production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. He cut the album titled In Philadelphia (1970) and scored such sizable hits as "Engine Number 9" and "Don't Let the Green Grass Bring You Down" 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 five charting singles, including the title track. Subsequently, Pickett recorded for other companies, including RCA and Motown, and even founded his own Wicked label.
Remaining active into the Eighties on both the touring and recording fronts, Pickett continued to embody the notion of soul at its ferocious, unbridled best. In 1991 he was inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall Of Fame. Pickett burst back into the spotlight in the late 1990s with his appearance in the 1998 movie Blues Brothers 2000 where he performed "634-5789" with Eddie Floyd and Jonny Lang. He currently lives in Virginia and recently signed with the Bullseye label. He released his new album, "It's Harder Now" in September, 1999. Pickett has also been touring both the U.S. and Europe this past year and enjoying being back in front of his fans again. Prior to his headline performance at the 1999 Bayfront Blues Festival I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Wilson Pickett. He was very friendly, open and had some interesting things to say about the industry and his ambitions.
Ray: What type of music did you listen to when you were growing up in Alabama?
Pickett: I was raised on gospel.
Ray: You moved to Detroit when you were 15?
Pickett: Yes. When I got to Detroit we organized a group called the Violinaires, I became the lead singer of the group which was one of the most popular male gospel groups around that era. Then you had Rev. Julius Cheeks, The Five Blind Boys and Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers and all.
Ray: How did you hook up with the Falcons?
Pickett: Willie Schofield, the Bass singer on the Falcons discovered me on my back porch. He was coming from his dentist and that was right off Hastings Street in Detroit, Michigan. The street had not been torn down then. Worst street in the world, know what I mean? All the prostitution, everything you could name. I was sitting on the back porch facing the alley. He came down through the alley while I was playing the guitar. He came up the stairway and I didn't know who he was. He asked if I would play that again. He said, "let me hear you sing that again." So I did, what the hell. If a guy got enough nerve to come up on MY back porch and ask me to do something I'm going to sing it again. So he said, "Hey, you got at good voice. My name is Willis Schofield, I'm the bass singer of the Falcons. You ever hear of the Falcons?" I said no. He said, "you ever hear of a song called, ĎYou're So Fiiiiiine.í" I said yeah, I heard it. He said, "would you come down to the rehearsal?" I said yeah. First day of rehearsal they liked me so well they signed me the same night. And I went on the road with the Falcons. But I did not like the lightweight stuff they were doing so that's when I started writing "I Found a Love" and all that kind of stuff.
Ray: Wasnít Robert Ward with the group then?
Pickett: Oh yeah, the Ohio Untouchables, "I Found A Love," that's a song I wrote. On the album you may see written by Willie Schofield or Robert West, that's a lie. See at that time I didn't know anything about being a BMI writer ASCAP or anything. So the manager, Robert West said the only way you can get the money from writing is if somebody is a BMI writer. They conned me out.
Ray: Eddie Floyd with the group at that time too wasnít he?
Pickett: Eddie Floyd, yup. Sir Mack Rice, Joe Stubbs, he was Levi Stubbsí brother (leader of the 4 tops) and Willie.
Ray: How long were you with the Falcons then?
Pickett: I worked with the Falcons a good while and I left and went on my own in 1963. I didn't sign with Atlantic until 1964.
Ray: You played with Steve Cropper and some of the Stax people at that time?
Pickett: Cropper, yeah. Booker T wasn't at those sessions, it was Duck Dunn and Isaac Hayes. At that time Isaac Hayes played in the sessions for Booker T.
Ray: Were you writing songs all along then?
Pickett: Yeah, I had about 5 hits now. Midnight Hour, 99 and a Half, 634-5789, all were cut on the same session. But one thing I had to do was share the song (writing credit) with Steve Cropper. Because he had the band. I wanted to get on the map. Itís kind of sad that they would take full credit for what you do but that happened a lot.
Ray: The same thing with the song, 634-5789?
Pickett: They took that one too. Eddie Floyd didn't come nowhere near it. That was Dan Aykroyd that did that, and Cropper. They decided to take the whole song. See what it was, I sloughed the renewal of the copyright.
Ray: You let the copyright lapse and they took it?
Pickett: Yeah, what they done, they changed the status. They keep changing so a lot of times youíre not informed. I might have been informed by BMI but maybe I didn't take notice to it. And I would have to had re registered it. Cropper and them got people that are right on top of that. Let me say this, as great a song writer as Cropper is and Eddie Floyd and all of them, why steal something from somebody else? Does that make sense to you? And they are both rich,. Cropper's a millionaire, I'm sure Floyd is close to it if he ain't. Why take something that don't belong to you? It kind of hurt me in a way, you know.
[Wilson is still getting the royalties from his other songs like "In The Midnight Hour."]
Ray: Itís good to see you back touring as much as you are now.
Pickett: Iím glad to hear it. Iím trying to get a second wind [in my career] and Iím trying to make this one pay off. Iíd like to walk all the way to the Grammyís this time. And Iíd like to win.
Ray: A friend just got an advance copy of the new CD "It's Harder Now" (see review) and he said it was some of the best heís heard in a long time.
Pickett: Well, time will tell. Iím devoting my time to (promoting) it and occasionally Iíll get sick a little bit, because thereís so much energy expended. All of a sudden, you know, after being off all these years, then expending all this energyÖyou got to do gigs, tours and promotions for the CD at the same time.
Ray: Youíve been busy this past year.
Pickett: Yeah, itís a bit much I will have to admit.
Ray: Are you keeping in shape then?
Pickett: Well, you got to keep in shape with all this shit man, you know (laughs).
Ray: How did you get together with Rounder?
Pickett: See I put all the money up to make the CD.
Ray: These are all original tunes on there?
Pickett: Yup, we got songs in there written by Dan Penn and I co-wrote some. Yeah, we got some great writers in there. My keyboard man, Scott Williams, me and him wrote "Better Him Than Me." A lot of energy was put into it and my money. So I still havenít got all my money back, you know what Iím saying? But if I can get some kind of enjoyment and pleasure out of this. Knowing that the people were very happy to just hear Wilson Pickett on wax again. Iím satisfied.
Ray: I know a lot of people are looking forward to it. Seeing you in the Blues Brothers movie got a lot of people excited about you again. Did you have some goals when you first started out with the Falcons?
Pickett: My goal was to just sing, didnít think too much about the future.
Ray: Do you think you have achieved what you originally set out to do?
Pickett: There was a long break in between then and now that I didnít particularly expect, but itís all in the cards. You donít know. You set out in life, you donít know whatís headed for you. God donít put no more on you than you can bear. I think Iím cominí back. Iím cominí back strong. Iíve learned a hell of lot. I still donít let nobody walk over me. If youíre takiní me , Iím going to let you know that youíre takiní me. If you lie to me, Iím going to let you know that your lying to me. If you try hurt me, Iím going to try and hurt you back. You see, this is human nature. But sometimes you get caught up into situations where turning the other cheek does prevail.
Ray: Itís tough to know when itís the right situation to do it.
Pickett: There you go. And thatís what I wasnít able to always know what to do, you know? (Youíd go), ah the hell with that. Itís true.
Ray: How about what you have accomplished?
Pickett: Well, Iíve never been broke. Iím not broke now. I have seven grand kids. Iím not married. Iím planning to get married later. I have a beautiful home in Virginia. I have cars, I have one car thatís worth over $100,000. Actually Iím not hurting too bad. But what I would like to do is walk up and get a Grammy. Thatís it. All the money and all that stuff does not bother me one bit. Because I figure that I should have got it a long time ago. But itís like Little Richard said. He didnít (get the proper recognition), but he DID didnít he? He went out there and he got his second wind or his third wind or what ever, and he got what he was after. I think that the lord is always in the blessing business. I think he will show me that direction, heíll show me that.
Ray: Iím looking forward to hearing that new CD when it comes out and all indications are that itís gong to be very successful.
Pickett: Yup, but if it donít, that donít mean Iím gonna take the attitude that I didnít have a fruitful career. People have been good to me. If I retire from this business and donít get any of that [recognition] I wonít be bitter about it. You know it just wasnít for me. But I wonít even think about talking about that nowÖplease donít even think about talking about like that (laughs).
This interview is copyright © 1999 by Ray Stiles, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.