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New Bio Finally Gives "Wicked" Wilson Pickett His Due

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In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett
By Tony Fletcher
Oxford University Press,
320 pp. $27.95

It was October 13, 1966, and Wilson Pickett was pissed off. And as friends, bandmates, producers and girlfriends knew, you did not want to piss him off. Not for nothing was he referred to — and reveled in — his nickname as “The Wicked Pickett.”

At Rick Hall’s storied FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Pickett and his crack band had just laid down a definitive, smoking take on a little tune about a girl who loved her car more than her man. But before they could listen to the playback, someone in the studio hit a wrong button and the tape careened off the machine, breaking into dozens of tiny pieces.

“There was a moment of stunned silence as everyone looked at the fruits of their perfect take, cast across the studio like so much aural confetti, before Pickett unleashed a serious flash of the temper that he generally kept under control in the recording studio,” Fletcher writes here of the take that all in the room felt was “the magic one” that couldn’t be improved upon.

Fortunately, studio owner Hall and producer Tom Dowd sent everyone out for lunch, and painstakingly put the take back together using the razor blades and tape that were de rigueur for splicing in those pre- ProTools times. And thanks to their calm efforts, “Mustang Sally” — Pickett’s most recognizable tune, now playing somewhere at a wedding or dance party as you’re reading this — was saved.

In this, the first-ever biography of "the Wicked Pickett," music journo Fletcher traces the personal and professional life of the volatile singer through new interviews with bandmates, family members and archival comments from its subject, along with rare family photos. Fletcher had the blessing and cooperation, but not oversight, of Pickett's estate.

And while the premature deaths of his contemporaries Sam Cooke and Otis Redding have made them bigger names in accepted music history, Pickett should rightfully be mentioned in the same breath for sure.

After an early start with doo-woppers the Falcons, Pickett’s raw, gritty shouts and screams made him one of soul music’s strongest artists in the ’60s and early ’70s. Besides "Sally," his string of hits included “In the Midnight Hour” and “634-5789,” both recorded at Stax studios in Memphis, plus “Funky Broadway,” “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “I’m a Midnight Mover.”

Later he would also inexplicably find crossover success with cover versions of pop and rock tunes, from the Archies' lightweight “Sugar, Sugar” to Vanilla Fudge’s heavy take on the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On.” But none was more artistically successful than his powerhouse turn on the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” which was still on the charts. The proto rock-soul tour de force was cut at the unlikely suggestion of Pickett’s studio guitarist at the time – Duane Allman. “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” and the chugging "Engine Number 9" could stand with his earlier classics.

So what happened to Wilson Pickett? Why didn’t he get the late-career respect and accolades contemporaries like James Brown, Sam Moore and Lou Rawls did? There are plenty of reasons, and not for nothing is a recurring theme of this book “he was his own worst enemy.”

While he was still capable of putting on killer live shows, his spotty recording career from the mid-’70s onward was pitiful. Utterly ill-suited to join the disco bandwagon or for smooth and synthy ’80s R&B, he released half-hearted records with a revolving-door cast of band members and producers who increasingly did not want to work with him.

Personally, he alienated and insulted all sorts of people with his violent, bitter temperament and sizable ego, exacerbated by his increasing use of drugs and alcohol and fondness for waving guns. Physically, he would beat a litany of girlfriends (though he was married), children and even fellow performers with impunity.

He once forced his 14-year-old son to do cocaine with him while ostensibly giving a talk on the birds and the bees. He missed his own 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and possible comeback-making performance after refusing to come out of his house when the limo came to collect him. Then there were two stints in jail for drunk driving, drugs and weapons charges in his middle age.

Wilson Pickett would clean up (somewhat) in the late ’90s, continue to perform live (often on oldies package shows and cruises), deliver one last decent record and appear among other ’60s soul survivors in the concert documentary Only the Strong Survive. He died of a heart attack brought on by debilitating health in 2006 at the age of 64.

The unique performer, the complicated man and the brute bully all come together in one here. And — in the words of the women he occasionally shared the stage with — Wilson Pickett gets his R-E-S-P-E-C-T in book form, finally.

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