Wilson Pickett (1941-2006)

Image Ownership: Public domain

Soul Singer Wilson Pickett was born on March 18, 1941, in Prattville, Alabama, as the fourth of eleven children. Throughout his childhood, he sang in Baptist church choirs and was trained as a gospel singer. During this period, he began to develop a soulful tone and style that would eventually define his four-decade recording career. In 1955 Pickett moved away from his abusive mother to live with his father in Detroit, Michigan where he continued to sing in churches and establish relationships with prominent recording names like Little Richard.

In 1955 Pickett joined a gospel group, The Violinaires. The group enjoyed moderate success, going on tour, performing at churches, accompanying more well-known artists like The Soul Stirrers on stage. By 1959, Pickett had realized that mainstream success in the music industry meant switching to secular music and joined a rhythm and blues group named The Falcons.

The Falcons were successful on the R&B charts particularly in 1962 with the song “I Found Love,” co-written by Wilson Pickett. The song peaked at number six. Following its release Pickett began to embark on his career as a solo musician.

Pickett began collaborating with Don Covay in the early 1960s, churning out soul records like “I’m Gonna Cry” (1964), among many others. One of these was a song he wrote and recorded named “If You Need Me” (1962). Pickett sent the demo tape to Atlantic Records, hoping they would in turn offer him a record deal. Unfortunately, the soul-filled ballad was passed along to Solomon Burke, and his recording peaked at number 2 on the billboard R&B charts; this recording is now considered a soul standard.

Two years later, however, Atlantic bought Pickett’s contract from Double L records after he attained large-scale success with his single titled “It’s Too Late” (1963). A little over a year later, he was thrust into stardom by his chart-topping song “In the Midnight Hour” (1965), selling over one million copies and peaking at number one on the R&B charts and number 21 on the Hot 100. Over the course of the next three years, Pickett recorded other popular songs, including “634-5789” (1965), “Don’t Fight It” (1965) and “Mustang Sally” (1966).  He remained with Atlantic Records until 1972, where he scored a total of five number one R&B hits during his tenure.

Pickett never reached the same level of recording success after leaving Atlantic for RCA in 1972. He continued to write music that was recorded and performed by other famous artists including Van Halen, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin. In 1991 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his achievements, innovations, and musical contributions.

Unfortunately, these later years were marred by Pickett’s struggles with violence and substance abuse. In 1991 he was arrested for yelling death threats at the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey, while driving on his lawn. Later, in 1993, Pickett struck an eighty-six-year-old woman with his car while he was intoxicated and pleaded guilty to DUI charges. Several years after being released from jail, he wrote and recorded one final album entitled “It’s Harder Now” in 1999. The album was fairly successful and earned him a Grammy award nomination. Pickett continued to play dozens of concerts a year until 2004 when his health began to fail. He died on January 16, 2006 of a heart attack at the age of sixty-four.