Jackie Wilson Biography

Jack Leroy Wilson, 9 June 1934, Detroit, Michigan, USA, d. 21 January 1984, Mount Holly, New Jersey, USA. When parental pressure thwarted his boxing ambitions, Wilson took to singing in small local clubs. He sang with the Thrillers (a predecessor group to the Royals) and recorded some solo tracks for Dizzy Gillespie’s Dee Gee label as Sonny Wilson, before replacing Clyde McPhatter in Billy Ward And The Dominoes. Wilson joined this notable group in 1953, but embarked on a solo career four years later with Brunswick Records. His first single for that label was the exuberant ‘Reet Petite’, a comparative failure in the USA where it crept to a lowly pop position and missed the R&B lists altogether. In the UK, however, it soared to number 6, thereby establishing Wilson in the minds of the British pop-purchasing audience. ‘Reet Petite’ had been written by Berry Gordy and Tyran Carlo (Roquel ‘Billy’ Davis), who went on to compose several of Wilson’s subsequent releases, including the hits ‘Lonely Teardrops’ (1958), ‘That’s Why (I Love You So)’ (1959) and ‘I’ll Be Satisfied’ (1959).

In 1960, Wilson enjoyed two R&B number 1 hits with ‘Doggin’ Around’ and ‘A Woman, A Lover, A Friend’. His musical direction then grew increasingly erratic, veering from mainstream to pseudo-opera. There were still obvious highlights such as ‘Baby Workout’ (1963), ‘Squeeze Her Please Her’ (1964), ‘No Pity (In The Naked City)’ (1965), but all too often his wonderfully fluid voice was wasted on cursory, quickly dated material. The artist’s live appearances, however, remained both exciting and dramatic, capable of inspiring the ecstasy his sometimes facile recordings belied. Wilson’s career was rejuvenated in 1966. Abandoning his New York recording base, he moved to Chicago, where he worked with producer Carl Davis. He offered a more consistent empathy and ‘Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)’ (1966), ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher’ (1967) and the sublime ‘I Get The Sweetest Feeling’ (1968) stand among his finest recordings. However, it did not last; ‘This Love Is Real (I Can Feel Those Vibrations)’ (1970) proved to be Wilson’s last Top 10 R&B entry, by which time his work was influenced by trends rather than setting them. In September 1975, while touring with the Dick Clark revue, Wilson suffered a near-fatal heart attack onstage at New Jersey’s Latin Casino. He struck his head on falling and the resulting brain damage left him comatose. He remained hospitalized until his death on 21 January 1984.

Wilson’s career remains a puzzle; he never did join Gordy’s Motown Records empire, despite their early collaboration and friendship. Instead, the singer’s legacy was flawed - dazzling in places, disappointing in others. Immortalized in the Van Morrison song ‘Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’, which was also a UK Top 5 hit for Dexys Midnight Runners in 1982, his name has remained in the public’s eye. Fate provided a final twist in 1987, when an imaginative video (which some claimed belittled the singer’s memory), using Plasticene animation, propelled ‘Reet Petite’ to number 1 in the UK charts. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame the same year.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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