Monday, January 27, 2014

Wilson Pickett

Louisville, Kentucky.  Visited October 2011


There are times when I step back and consider this odd hobby I have and think, ‘are you nuts?’  This post comes from one of those times.  I didn’t think a visit to the final resting place of my favorite soul singer would be very unnerving.  I was wrong. 

Wilson Pickett was born March 18, 1941 in Prattville, Alabama.  He was the fourth of eleven children.  In his later years, Pickett described a family home terrorized by an abusive mother.  Barely into his teenage years, he moved to Detroit to live with his father.  At age 14 in Detroit, Pickett began to sing in a Gospel choir.  Four years later, like many black singers of his era, he moved from traditional Gospel singing to a more commercial rhythm and blues style, which was the precursor of soul music.  In 1961, he signed on with a relatively successful R&B group, the Falconers. 

Early performances
Pickett began to distinguish himself as a soloist and a songwriter and within couple of years was trying to make it as a solo act.  He connected with Atlantic Records and pitched a song he co-wrote called “If You Need Me”.  However, without Pickett’s knowledge the song was passed along to the already established Solomon Burke.  It became one of Burke’s greatest hits and a soul standard.  However, on the strength of this song and his singing talent, Wilson Pickett signed with Atlantic in 1964. 

It was a recording session at the legendary Stax Recording Studio in Memphis that really launched Wilson Pickett’s career.  Jamming with the studio band (the equally legendary “MG”s including Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper); the singer and musicians came up with the groove and structure of “In the Midnight Hour”.  It became Pickett’s first No. 1 R&B single and peaked at 21 on the pop charts.  Over time, the song has settled into the pantheon of all-time hits. 

Wilson Pickett backed up by Jimi Hendrix

Most of Wilson Pickett’s best-known hits come from his Stax period. It was also at Stax that he acquired his nickname “Wicked Pickett”.  While the record company most likely gave it to him for marketing purposes, the name unfortunately tended to describe the singer’s private life.  Throughout his career, Wilson Pickett battled alcohol and drug issues and was arrested at various times for violence-related offenses.  As a performer, however, he became one of the iconic soul/R&B artists of his era.  While most of his success came in the Sixties and early Seventies, Pickett create music and perform into the early 2000s, with several minor hits even in his later years.

Pickett and Duane Allman

While he has not attained the status of some of his contemporaries who worked with Motown, Wilson Pickett’s signature vocal style, dynamic live performances and ability to write many of his biggest hits have given him a prominent place in pop music history.  In 1999, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  He continued to perform through the 90’s, retiring due to health concerns in 2004.  Wilson Pickett died of a heart attack in Reston, Virginia on January 19, 2006.  He was laid to rest in a mausoleum at Evergreen Cemetery in Louisville, KY, where he had family in the later part of his life.

Seventies Pickett

Here are my five favorite Wilson Pickett songs

FIVE:   Hey Jude (1968)’.  It’s pretty gutsy to record an iconic Beatles song but Pickett pulls of a nice R&B groove.  And the song has great guitar work by Duane Allman. 

FOUR:  Land of 1000 Dances (1966).  This is just full tilt Sixties dance/party music.  The clip here is a great G concert version from a 1971 show in Africa. 

THREE:  Mustang Sally (1966).  Killer groove.  This live version shows you how good R&B can flat out rock. 

TWO:   Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You (1971).  Pickett recorded this at TSOP in Philly.  It was the first Wilson Pickett song I remember ever hearing.  Caught a sixth grader’s attention and stayed with him.

ONE:   In the Midnight Hour (1965).  Wicked Pickett’s signature song.  An all-time great.  He did a duet of this song at his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction with Bruce Springsteen.  The version here is done with the Blues Brothers Band in the 1980’s featuring Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper.  Also check out this revved up take from a live seventies vintage show . 
Wicked Pickett and the Boss at the 1999
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert
So where does the freak-out come in?  Here’s my story.  It was a bleak stormy afternoon.  I was driving in a rental car back to the Louisville airport but had about 20 minutes to kill.  I knew Wilson Pickett was buried at a cemetery near the airport so I thought I’d make a quick stop.  I asked a woman at the Evergreen Cemetery office where I could find Wilson Pickett and she said, ‘he’s in the mausoleum at the other end of the cemetery.  It’s open, just go in and look for his crypt at the back of the mausoleum’.  So, he’s at the back of a mausoleum at the back of a cemetery.  Not good.  I get in my car and drive – a long way.  I finally arrive at this big square building made entirely of marble and glass.  There is no one else anywhere around.

Mausoleum at Evergreen Cemetery.  My experience wasn't
quite so bucolic

I open the glass door and step inside a large atrium like area with stacks of wall crypts two stories high all around.  The wind and rain are howling outside.  I begin to walk to the back of the room.  Every noise, every step, echoes off the marble walls.  Glass windows and doors shudder against the wind.  I find Pickett’s vault and start to take a picture, but realize I don’t have any way to verify I was there.  I take off my Phillies cap to put it near (as my blog protocol requires) but there’s no place to lay it.  A few feet away there is an ornate podium.  I go over to get it and realize its solid bronze.  So, of course, I have to drag it across the room.  The ear-burning screech as I pull the podium across a marble floor reverberates around the room like a ghoulish shriek.  At this point, I am verifiably freaking out.  I take a picture, maybe three (to get good light).  I grab my hat and literally run back through the mausoleum and out the door.  I jump in my car and, punching the gas, careen out of the cemetery as fast as I can drive.  Once I made it back to the main road, I stopped and took a breath.  I think my first one since I started the mad dash from the mausoleum. 

Was it worth it?  Maybe. Maybe not. 



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