The Falcons: I Found a Love
From 7″ (Lupine, 1962). Also available on A Man and a Half.

Wilson Pickett: 99 1/2 (Just Won’t Do)
From The Exciting Wilson Pickett (Atlantic, 1966)

Wilson Pickett: Mustang Sally
From The Wicked Pickett (Atlantic, 1967)

Wilson Pickett: Get Me Back On Time (Engine #9)
From Wilson Pickett In Philadelphia (Atlantic, 1970)

I didn’t really do a post on Lou Rawls since I was never a deep enough fan to feel like I had much to say. Pickett, on the other hand, was someone I listened to more. He was never my favorite compared to contemporaries like Otis Redding but for many years, I couldn’t get enough of songs like “In the Midnight Hour” (hands-down, one of the best soul smashes of that era). I wanted to write up a small retrospective (emphasis on small) the takes into account the many different paths that Pickett was able to walk in his career.

Unlike the great soul crooners of the 1960s – men like William Bell, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, etc. – Wilson Pickett’s strong point wasn’t finesse so much as pure energy and verve. He was a shouter and rocker, with a raw, gritty voice that became his calling card.

His career began in his native Alabama in the 1950s, with a gospel group called the Violinaires but like mentors Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, he made the transition from gospel to R&B in the late 1950s. His first group was responsible for several R&B greats: The Falcons. Pickett was a later member, already joining Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice. I’ve included the Falcons minor hit, “I Found a Love,” a song that only features the male artists I listed above, but supposedly, singing back-up were the Primettes who later became…the Supremes. (I can’t quite hear them though, but I’m assuming they’re on the chorus).

What broke Pickett into superstardom was when Atlantic Records – then home to any number of important soul artists, especially Aretha Franklin – signed Pickett as a solo artist. Producer Jerry Wexler took Pickett down to Stax Studios in Memphis where the raw, Southern rhythm section made an ideal match for Pickett’s vocals. It was there he recorded his first mega-hit, the explosive “In the Midnight Hour” in 1965, along with about half a dozen other songs including a personal favorite of mine from that era, “99 1/2 Won’t Do.” It’s got that classic Stax sound: killer rhythm section and nice, subtle integration of the horns.

This is where things enter into the rumor mill: Pickett’s strong-headed personality apparently grated the Stax band and combined with Al Jim Stewart’s mistrust of Wexler, Atlantic soon ended their relationship with Stax, sending Wexler in searching for another Southern studio to record the label’s talent. Enter Muscle Shoals’ Fame, back in Pickett’s native Alabama. It was there that Pickett minted his next set of hits, the biggest being the salacious, blues-influenced “Mustang Sally” and uptempo “Land of 1,000 Dances.” The former is one of the nicest slices of slinky funk you’ll ever enjoy.

The last major era of Pickett’s career came in 1970 when he returned up north to work with Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia. The resultant album, Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia would be the highest charting album for the remainder of his career, turning out a series of solid singles, especially “Get Me Back On Time,” which (to me at least) shows some distinctive James Brown influences but it’s not derivative in any blatant way.

Pickett’s career began to decline from there, despite a few other minor hits, including a cover of “Hey Jude.” To be honest, I need to check out more of his mid-70s material so if folks have recommendations, leave ’em in the comments.