A tenor with a four-octave vocal range, Jackie Wilson was one of the most talented and dynamic R&B singers of the 1950s and 1960s. Nicknamed “Mr. Excitement,” Wilson was a charismatic, masterful performer who consistently released hits.
Jackie Leroy Wilson was born on June 9, 1934 in Detroit, Michigan, the third child of parents, Jack Leroy Wilson, Sr. and Eliza Mae Wilson. Young Wilson had a troubled childhood. He began drinking at age nine, joined a gang, and dropped out of school at 16, before being sent to Lansing (Michigan) Juvenile Detention twice. After a short stint as an amateur boxing champion, at 19 he began singing with Billy Ward’s Dominoes in 1953. He gave them two singles before leaving to pursue a solo career in 1957.
Wilson signed with Brunswick records, with Nat Tarnapool as his manager. Tarnapool put Wilson together with songwriters Berry Gordy, Jr. and Billy Davis, who wrote his first solo hit, “Reet Petite,” in 1957 followed by hits in Pop and R&B, “To Be Loved,” “That’s Why,” and “I’ll Be Satisfied,” (between 1958 and 1959) and the classic “Lonely Teardrops” (also in 1958). Unfortunately for Wilson, Gordy and Davis soon left due to disagreements with Tarnapool, and he spent much of 1957-1966 with producer Dick Jacobs, who frequently combined him with large orchestral arrangements.
By the early 1960s Wilson’s career stalled due mainly to the bland pop and classical material Jacobs arranged for him. This being said, Wilson’s vocal talent managed to make even bland songs interesting. Between 1960 and 1961 he released “Night,” a smash pop hit, as well as “Doggin’ Around,” and “A Woman, A Lover, a Friend,” which were R&B hits.
On February 15, 1961, Wilson was shot twice. He nearly died and did lose a kidney, but following surgery and weeks of medical care, he was discharged. Other than “Baby Workout,” a crossover smash hit released in 1963, the next three years were comparatively slow for Wilson. This lasted until 1966, when he started working with Carl Davis, and consequently released two hits, “Whispers (Keep Getting Louder),” in 1966 and 1967’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” which is perhaps Wilson most well-known single today.
By 1968 Wilson’s career began to decline. He continued to produce records that made R&B and Pop charts and in fact was one of the few artists of that era who did so for fifteen consecutive years between 1958 and 1973, but 1967 would be the last year any of them would be major hits. By 1975, Wilson, now 41, was singing on the oldies circuit.
On September 25, 1975, Jackie Wilson had a heart attack while performing “Lonely Teardrops” onstage in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He was hospitalized and fell into a coma that left him with permanent brain damage. Eight years later, Wilson died in Mount Holly, New Jersey on January 21, 1984. He was 49.
Wilson is often credited as one of the forefathers of soul. His music profoundly impacted Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Prince, Van Morrison, and numerous other artists. Wilson, a two-time Grammy Hall of Fame inductee, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2004 Rolling Stone ranked him No. 69 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2013 he was inducted into the Official Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame.