SUBTLETY was never an important part of Wilson Pickett's style. "Maybe when the other guys in the group are down singing tight together, almost a hum," he told Gerri Hirshey in her outstanding Nowhere to Run, a book that really got under the skin of soul music, "you whip a scream across the top. It just come out. You can feel it comin', but you don't let go until the moment is exactly right."
That scream, and its timing, developed in Detroit vocal group the Falcons, would become, in Pickett's own words, his hood ornament.
Not for nothing did Atlantic Records call Pickett's two 1966 albums The Exciting Wilson Pickett and The Wicked Pickett. They were released shortly after his slow burning solo career exploded into action with three successive R&B number ones - In the Midnight Hour, 634-5789 and Land of 1000 Dances, each a stone soul classic that achieved pop success as well.
It was about this time that soul music was taking hold as a mainstream pop option, and Pickett, visceral and inflamed, with a voice about midway between grit and gravel, and that throat lacerating scream lurking in the wings, was one of its most thrilling exponents.
Despite an early career path that took him from Detroit to New York, Pickett was Southern born and it was when Atlantic recorded him at Stax in Memphis that he well and truly made his mark. In fact, by the time his cover of British blues rockers Free's Fire and Water had run its course in early 1972, he had visited the US top 30 singles chart 15 times. Though Paul Rodgers of Free was one of the best rock singers of his generation, Pickett simply owned that song, just as he had redefined the Beatles' Hey Jude in FAME's Muscle Shoals studio three years before.
One of his most bloodcurdling screams launches the song's beloved coda, raising the hair on the back of the neck as it battles for space with the horns and Duane Allman's stinging guitar lines. Apparently when Pickett was sent to Alabama to record at Rick Hall's studio, his reaction at being met at the airport by the large southern record man after spotting black people picking cotton as he flew in was ambivalent, at the very least. Nevertheless, Hall and the other redneck soul boys in the studio coaxed a blistering performance out of him.
Although the South was Pickett's natural recording environment, there were successes elsewhere too, notably early 1970s hits Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You and the guitar-heavy Engine Number 9, cut in Philadelphia with incipient urban soul legends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
But if the plan was for the production duo to knock off some of Pickett's rough edges, it didn't really work, although the songs surely did. Indeed, when he was on song, which happened more regularly on singles than over the course of an album, Pickett could make just about anything fit. So, while Sugar Sugar might have constituted a surprising song choice, the combination of Pickett, a horn section and a vaguely reggae clip turned the Archies' bubblegum archetype into an altogether convincing stab at gutbucket soul.
Unless you're an absolute fanatic, the best way to buy Pickett is by way of a decent compilation. Rhino's The Very Best of Wilson Pickett, locally released by Gallo, drips 100 proof never let up, never let go soul throughout its 16 tracks, while the two-disc Definitive Wilson Pickett, on the same label, doubles the pleasure without doubling the cost. Either way, you'll wonder how on earth that bloke from The Commitments had any hits at all while there were still copies of Pickett's Mustang Sally around.
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