Saturday, January 28, 2017

Book Reviews: In the Midnight Hour-The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett

In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett
by Tony Fletcher
This was a gift from my brother. This is a beautiful book. As far as I know this is the only complete biography of Wilson Pickett (1941-2006) that exists. There is a quote within the book that really tells you everything about the man who was also known as "Wicked". Picket said in 1979, speaking to another musical journalist that, "James Brown to me is strictly small time. Just some Georgian kid working in some cramped sweaty bar where the stage is so damn small there's only room for him and the drummer.". 

That Wilson Pickett was quite comfortable calling Soul Brother Number One "small time" and making fun of his show lets you know that if nothing else Pickett had a very healthy ego. It was this ego and drive, along with his earth shattering voice, leonine good looks, and regal stage presence that took him out of the Alabama backwoods to Detroit success and later stardom with New York based Atlantic records. 

Pickett pioneered the sort of hard soul singing that was strongly based in the black gospel in which he had grown up and first made his mark. Whereas James Brown was a screamer who could sometimes sing, Pickett was a singer who could and did scream in key. Brown might have been funkier but Pickett was soul. I thought the book was at its most interesting when it was detailing Pickett's early days on the Detroit music scene. People who would later become legendary were just kids trying to learn their craft while occasionally getting ripped off along the way. Some famous people went to my neighborhood school. There are also some uncomfortable facts which the book brings up. 

I knew that Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin's father and a civil rights activist and supporter, had a certain reputation as a ladies' man. I didn't really think less of him for that. Most musicians/celebrities have similar reps when you get right down to it. I didn't know that the good Reverend had fathered a child with a twelve-year old. Ugh. 

There's no evidence that Pickett knew about that sordid history. But it is a fact that the devout Pickett, who was a friend to Aretha and sang at the Franklin church, grew tired of singing to drunk/hungover people at Sunday morning services. As Pickett told friends, he might as well be performing secular music if that was going to be his audience. There are some other unpleasant warts revealed but this is not a gossipy salacious book. It doesn't dwell on Pickett's bad side. It just tells it like it was. 

Pickett with Jimi Hendrix
Pickett was primarily raised by a mother and grand parents who would today be described as abusive. One of the reasons Pickett left Alabama was apparently to get away from his mother. However Pickett inherited his mother's temper. He, like her, didn't mind putting hands on people. Schoolmates and friends recalled that Pickett was a fighter from a very early age. Pickett also later had a manager who was believed by most people to either be in good standing with the mafia or an actual member. When you read about the shady oft criminal behavior that was (and is?) part of the entertainment industry you can understand why Pickett could be paranoid and prone to making threats. 

How many times would you perform a show and then learn the promoter or theater owner refused to pay you before you took steps to stop that? And Civil Rights Act notwithstanding, black musicians traveling in the America of the late sixties and early seventies still had to deal with a tremendous amount of open hatred. Pickett recounted ground up glass being placed in his food as just one minor incident on the road. Members of Pickett's early groups explain that Pickett was the man who was the most likely to take steps to ensure that they were paid. Sometimes this came down to who pulled a gun first. 

Pickett himself spread stories of his ferocity about ensuring proper recompense for services rendered. Some of these stories were almost certainly not true. There were some very rough people in the music business. Pickett was far from the roughest.
Pickett first came to prominence with his lead vocals on the Falcons sublime single "I Found A Love". Although he would go on to sing many hits, that song to me captures the pure transcendent gospel essence of Pickett. Pickett's voice is HUGE. It's like you're in church. 

The book follows Pickett through his tough days picking cotton in Alabama, getting kicked out of his father's home in Detroit, his breakthroughs in Detroit and New York, his seemingly unending stream of hits and international tours during the late sixties and early seventies, and the personal challenges and declines once hard soul singing went out of style. Pickett found himself commercially marooned by the seventies music industry move towards hard funk/hard rock on one hand and softer soul/disco on the other. Substance abuse problems, an increasing reputation for unpleasant public and private erratic violent behavior and some poor financial decisions worsened Pickett's career and personal situation. Pickett declined a chance to mentor/manage/produce a young Kool and the Gang.

Sadly, Pickett often took out his frustrations on those closest to him, including his wife, children and girlfriend(s), employees, and fellow musicians. Pickett could be a very jealous bully. When you try to shoot one of the Isley Brothers because you lost a fight you started, you might need to examine your life choices. Guitarist Marc Ribot witnessed some of Pickett's uglier behavior in his later years. As Ribot said, he had worked with many wonderful black and white bandleaders. But Pickett wasn't one of them. Pickett was arguably bipolar. But would it really matter to you whether the person dangling you off the balcony is technically mentally ill or just a mean coked up drunk? I'm betting not.

The book reflects Fletcher's deep research (he apparently talked to almost everyone still alive who knew or worked with Pickett) and his music industry knowledge. People who are interested in how music is made, marketed and distributed will enjoy this book. There's some reasoned analysis, based on interviews with people who were there, as to why certain people acted as they did. The reader will walk away with a sober appreciation of just how difficult it is to create a hit single or album and how many people get paid before the artist does. 

There's a famous name listed on almost every page. Pickett played a part, sometimes positive, often negative, in many lives. You'll learn something about such people as Jerry Wexler, Aretha Franklin, Berry Gordy, Elvis Presley, Duane Allman, Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Bobby Womack, Gamble and Huff, Sam Cooke, Mack Rice, Hank Ballard, Jimi Hendrix, Solomon Burke, Steve Cropper, Rick Hall, Ike Turner, Carlos Santana, Dennis Coffey, Eddie Floyd, Lloyd Price, Dinah Washington, BB King and many more. 

Although soul is rightly considered to be quintessentially black American music it is also important to note that many of the classic sixties soul music cuts were created by integrated or even all white bands. This interracial cooperation slowly dissipated after MLK's assassination, an ugly incident between Aretha Franklin and a white session musician, and black desire for greater control over ownership and distribution (and less racialized deference to white bosses). It didn't help matters that some white label owners often insisted that their trusted favorites (usually white musicians) produce sessions or get songwriting credits for music they didn't truly create. 

Fletcher really knows and loves his subject. You'll want to go back and listen to Pickett's songs when Fletcher explains what was going on musically or passes along why Pickett or his producer made the choices that they did. Pickett was an influence on too many other singers to list here but any post sixties male soul or rock singer (e.g Bob Seger) probably owes him something. If you are at all interested in Pickett, soul/gospel music, the music business or the long lost days of Afros, leisure suits, miniskirts and tie-dyes you should run out to read this book. This book restores Pickett to his rightful place in the musical pantheon.

In the Midnight Hour (Live in Ghana)              Cole Cooke and Redding  
Hey Jude(w/Duane Allman)                                634-5789
Mustang Sally                                                        If You Need Me
Engine Number 9                                                   I'm a Midnight Mover
A Man and A Half                                                Fire and Water
Miniskirt Minnie                                                   99 and 1/2 won't do
Sin was to Blame                                                   Land of 1000 dances(Live in Ghana)
Funky Broadway                                                  Land of 1000 Dances(studio version)
Believe I'll Run On                                                It's Too Late
That's a Man's Way                                              Deborah(sung in Italian)
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