Past the Midnight Hour
Soul singer Solomon Burke: “We’ve lost a giant, we’ve lost a legend, we’ve lost a man who created his own charisma and made it work around the world.”
“He did his part. It was a great ride, a great trip,” his son Michael Wilson Pickett said.
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 21, 2006; C01 Wilson Pickett was a man and a half, the all-night groover at his best in a midnight hour that was not just a time but also a place and a promise. “I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour/that’s when my love comes tumblin’ down ,” Pickett sang with gruff insistence, melding the gospel urgency of his youth with a decidedly secular sexual swagger. “In the Midnight Hour” was the first in a string of ’60s classics that included “Mustang Sally,” “634-5789,” “Funky Broadway” and “Land of 1000 Dances,” cornerstones of Southern soul and mainstays for any rock or soul band looking to tap into the particular jubilation that Pickett represented. In a classic soul era largely defined by crooners and shouters, Pickett was a screamer, a throat-shredding force of nature who always seemed about to bust a gut or blow a gasket. He called what he did “grits music,” and it could scald a listener or fire up a fan’s imagination. “Pickett could take one note and just squall that note, and do it all night long!” remembers Sam Moore, of the legendary ’60s duo Sam and Dave. He adds that “when Pickett showed up on a show, you either had it together or you would get embarrassed and just walk off the stage. We had run-ins many times onstage where it was a war — and it was a good war.” Pickett, 64, died Thursday of a heart attack at a hospital near his home in Ashburn. Music historian Peter Guralnick, author of an acclaimed new biography of Sam Cooke, said yesterday that Pickett was “a prickly, irascible personality who had a great talent and who carried on and introduced the hard gospel style of Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks into the mainstream of popular music.” Early on, Pickett described himself as “a gospel singer singing blues material,” and he seemed particularly beholden to Brownlee and Cheeks, lead singers of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Sensational Nightingales, respectively. The screaming, the raw emotional delivery, the total command of the stage — all were common to gospel preachers and singers long before soul migrated out of rhythm and blues. Pickett moved from small-town Alabama to Detroit in 1955. Moore remembers meeting him in 1957 when Pickett was lead singer of the Violinaires. “With that voice, you would never have thought that he would have gone into soul music, the secular side,” Moore notes. But he did, joining a Detroit doo-wop group called the Falcons and making his first mark in 1962 as co-writer and lead singer on “I Found a Love,” an ecstatic ballad in which Pickett sang “sometimes I call her in the midnight hour.” In gospel, a singer was more likely to “see my Jesus in the midnight hour,” but soul was built on the thin divide between sacred and secular sounds, with only the lyrics as signposts to which was which. Pickett left the Falcons a couple years later, and after several false starts in Detroit and New York, he found his true voice by going home. He had signed with Atlantic Records, whose co-owner, Jerry Wexler, sensed that Pickett might benefit from hooking up with Memphis’s Stax studio and its house band, Booker T and the MGs. Wexler didn’t even have to wait until Pickett got to the studio, according to guitarist Steve Cropper. Stax owner “Jim Stewart and I picked Wilson and Wexler up at the airport, and we went to a Holiday Inn to start working on stuff for the session,” Cropper recalled yesterday. “They left and came back a couple of hours later and we played what we had.” Which was “In the Midnight Hour,” on which Pickett and Cropper shared the songwriting credit. “He was dynamic — you had to tap your feet when Wilson Pickett was singing,” Cropper added. “And while there’s a lot of soul singers that get that high screeching thing, when he did it, it was more like a note, an instrument, like a trumpet, not just a scream of excitement. . . . That was what separated Wilson from a lot of other singers and screamers.” The Stax sound was rougher, rawer, dirtier than Motown, or even Atlantic. (“They let us breathe, let us do what we wanted to do,” marvels Sam Moore.) Unfortunately, Pickett’s Stax connection was severed when Stewart got into a tiff with Atlantic and banned all outside production. Fortunately, Pickett landed in Muscle Shoals, Ala., at the equally legendary Fame Studios, where he worked with an equally adept studio band and found further success with “Land of 1000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally” and “Funky Broadway,” among others. The mid-’60s was the golden era for Southern soul, thanks to Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and others. All — except Redding, who
died in 1967 — suffered a similar fate in the ’70s, fading as hitmakers, relegated to the oldies circuit or overseas tours. Pickett recorded for other labels — even Motown in the late ’80s — but his most brilliant and most successful work, occurred in the seven years (1965-1972) that he was part of the Atlantic-Stax-Fame axis. Pickett could be indifferent as a performer, ornery and difficult in his personal dealings, reckless in his behavior, as if he had a compulsion to live up to the “Wicked Pickett” moniker bestowed on him in the wake of “In the Midnight Hour.” “Anyone who knew Wilson had to deal with both sides,” says Steve Cropper. David Panzer, who leads the Washington-based Mustang Band and played guitar in Pickett’s band for five years in the late ’90s, says Pickett “was still doing all the songs in the [original] key, and he had the most incredible scream — and he could summon it up any time without even trying. It would probably kill anyone else to do it, yet for him it was effortless.” “When I first heard ‘I Found a Voice,’ I went ‘Oh, boy ,’ ” recalls Sam Moore. “There’s no way you could not recognize Pickett’s voice. It’s not like today. You knew Sam Cooke’s voice, you knew Otis Redding’s voice, you knew Pickett’s voice. You didn’t have to go: ‘Who’s that singing?’ “You knew .” © 2006 The Washington Post Company Harrington (Western High School ’67) gave short shrift to the Wilson Pickett “In Philadelphia” lp. Lot of good stuff on that one.