Remembering Wilson Pickett 12 years after his death

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Soul legend Wilson Pickett died 12 years ago today, Jan. 19, 2006. His voice, style, and choice of topics illustrated the workings of interpersonal relationships. Pickett died in a Virginia hospital of a heart attack. The singer was 64.

About Wilson Pickett

Wilson Pickett was born in a small town in Alabama. He was one of 11 children and by all accounts had a somewhat turbulent childhood. According to his biography, Pickett went to live with his father in Detroit, Michigan when he was in his early teens. His recording career began shortly thereafter.

The stylized, urban environment of Detroit and the black American church is credited with helping Pickett develop his passionate singing style. Pickett’s first foray into organized, professional singing came with his time in a gospel group. By 1959, he was singing r&b and released his first single, “Let Me Be Your Boy.”

Pickett performed with a group called The Falcons that led the charge in mixing gospel with pop. This early hybridization laid the foundation for what would become soul music.

By the mid-1960s, soul music was a cultural force. And when Pickett moved from Atlantic Records to iconic Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, he recorded “In the Midnight Hour.” The song catapulted him to stardom.

“In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett

“In the Midnight Hour” is a tightly packaged tune of just two minutes and 37 seconds of drums, horns, and bass.┬áThe song opens with a roll of drums. Drums and bass drive the song, and the horns punctuate everything with a unique series of blasts that keep the song danceable. The sound is synonymous with the mid-1960s, and with classic soul. There is a darkness, a seriousness to the love song that recalls mid-20th century America.

The song’s narrative involves the singer waiting until midnight to interact with the object of his affection. The purpose is to be alone, away, presumably, from prying eyes and wagging tongues. Love is taken seriously and must be nurtured at the right time. Pickett’s raspy, driving voice makes the situation urgent, his intent ardent. Because love songs never go out of style, and because this song avoids sentimentality, it remains a classic. “In the Midnight Hour” became Pickett’s first No.1 hit.

“Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett

Slower than “In the Midnight Hour,” but no less driving, “Mustang Sally” was Pickett’s next hit. The song was released in 1966. A nimble bass line meshes with a solid drum riff to create a backing beat for powerful vocals. Pickett’s version was actually a cover, but few people remember that Mack Rice recorded the song first (melingo.com).

According to songfacts.com, the inspiration for the song was singer and actress (the now-late), Della Reese. Resse wanted a new Mustang, and somehow a joke developed. According to legend, Aretha Franklin suggested the title “Mustang Sally” after Pickett offered to call the song “Mustang Mama.”

Regardless of how the song came about, the humor exists. First, there is a cruel hilarity in the audacity of a woman who won’t give a ride to the man who bought the car for her. Second, when the man decides to take the car back and sings about Sally having to “put [her] flat feet on the ground.” The haughty title character is taken down a peg.

The song survives in Pickett’s catalog. Further, many karaoke nights would be lacking fun and an element of cool without this song. And, famously, “Mustang Sally” was performed by Irish soul band, The Commitments in the movie of the same name.

Despite the awesome soul power of “Mustang Sally,” the song peaked at No. 23.

Pickett is remembered for a number of soul classics. The ones mentioned here are just two of his hits. His unique voice and ability to pack every song with an emotional punch are reasons to honor what Pickett offered American music.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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