Jackie Wilson was born in Detroit in 1934. He left school at fifteen, joined a gospel group, got into trouble with the police, started drinking and got married by the age of seventeen. Not a great start to his career in music. Fortunately, he really could sing!
His first taste of fame came as lead singer with a vocal group called Billy Ward and His Dominoes, which he joined in 1953, as a replacement for Clyde McPhatter. (McPhatter left to set up the Drifters). The group secured television appearances, had a series of successful hits and developed a good stage performance. By 1957, Wilson was ready to begin the next phase of his career as a solo singer.
His manager Al Green (not the Al Green!) got him a contract with Decca, who assigned him to the Brunswick label, based in New York. Green also met Berry Gordy in Detroit, who agreed, along with his sister Gwen Gordy and Billy Davis, to write some songs for Wilson. Everything was looking good, when Green suddenly died. His business partner Nat Tarnopol took over as Wilson’s new manager and the song-writing team came up with seven songs. Wilson’s first single “Reet Petite” was followed by “To Be Loved”, “I’m Wanderin'”, “We Have Love”, “That’s Why (I Love You So)”, “I’ll Be Satisfied” and “Lonely Teardrops”. Several of the songs did well, entering the Pop or R&B Charts, with “Lonely Teardrops” the most successful, reaching number one on the R&B chart in 1958 and achieving gold certification from the RIAA for sales in excess of one million.
Following a dispute with Nat Tarnopol over royalty payments, Berry Gordy and his co-writers moved on, but Wilson continued to find success. Between 1959 and 1963 he released a series of hit singles and albums, with four more R&B number ones: “You Better Know It”, “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend”, “Doggin’ Around” and “Baby Workout”.
For the next few years the level of success declined, until a new producer came on the scene, Carl Davis, based in Chicago. The change achieved the desired effect and Wilson’s career was revived by three successful singles over the period 1966 to 1968: “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)”, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and “I Get the Sweetest Feeling”. The second of these reached number one on the R&B chart and recaptures the excitement of Wilson’s earlier hits. You can hear why Jackie Wilson’s nickname was Mr. Excitement.
Davis realised that Wilson needed a new stimulus to rekindle the old fire. He therefore decided to record the tracks not with the usual Brunswick musicians in New York but with Detroit musicians from Motown Records and other Chicago-based session players. The Funk Brothers were happy to contribute and made a big difference.
His final hit, “You Got Me Walkin'”, was written by Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites, released in 1972, with the Chi-Lites backing him on vocals and instruments.
On September 29, 1975, Wilson was performing in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, singing “Lonely Teardrops”, when he collapsed on stage. He never fully recovered and spent eight years in care, until his death in 1984.
He had released over fifty singles that entered the charts, covering a variety of styles, but his importance lies in the way that he performed these songs. He paved the way for James Brown and Michael Jackson with his stage act. He also met Elvis Presley and gave him a few tips. He popularised soul and R&B, taking them into the mainstream, and attracted a much wider audience for this wonderful music.
Jackie Wilson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He was honoured with the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Legacy Tribute Award in 2003. He was inducted into the R&B Music Hall of Fame in 2013. And finally, he was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2019.
Wilson had three posthumous hits in the UK when “Reet Petite” reached number one in 1986, followed in 1987 by “I Get the Sweetest Feeling” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” which both made number three in the UK charts.
Berry Gordy has written in his autobiography that Wilson was “The greatest singer I’ve ever heard. The epitome of natural greatness. Unfortunately for some, he set the standard I’d be looking for in singers forever”.