Mr. Excitement – A R&B Pioneer and Balladeer
by Erika Cox
Jackie Wilson was the consummate performer his stylish moves, polished smooth sound, and dynamic stage presence earned him the nickname “Mr. Excitement”. His dance moves matched James Brown and his voice was comparable to Sam Cooke.
He is regarded as one of the greatest and one of the first true soul singers. Jackie Wilson was born Jack Leroy Wilson on June 9, 1934 in Detroit, Michigan but grew up in Highland, Michigan. He was an only child. His father was an alcoholic and for the most part unemployed, so his mother was the most positive influence in his life.
Wilson started singing at an early age, however, living in a rough section of Highland Park, Wilson was often in trouble and had to learn how to defend himself. He belonged to a gang called the Shakers and made a couple of trips to Lansing Correctional Center.
There he learned how to box and at the age of 16 he won the Golden Gloves Boxing championship in Detroit. While in his teens, Wilson formed a group called the Ever Ready Gospel Singers group though Wilson wasn’t particularly religious he joined because he needed and liked the money that the group made from singing.
Soon after dropping out of school Wilson began performing at local clubs and was discovered at a talent show by Johnny Otis in 1951. He moved around with a couple of groups but none of them worked out. Finally, Wilson’s first break into the music industry came when he dropped in on a rehearsal at the Fox Theater in Detroit of the group Billy Ward and the Dominoes who, at that time, was looking for a lead singer to replace Clyde McPhatter.
Wilson introduced himself to Billy Ward and claimed that he was a better singer than McPhatter; his voice was very smooth and sweet like McPhatter. Wilson became the lead singer of the Dominoes and produced a couple of R&B hits and one Top 20 hit, but the group never regained the success they had with McPhatter.
In 1957, Wilson left the Dominoes to seek a solo career and signed with Brunswick Records releasing his first solo record “Reet Petite”, which was co-written by Berry Gordy, who was unknown at the time. He had his first big hit with “To Be Loved” followed later on that year with “Lonely Teardrops” that went to number 7 on the Pop charts. All of these songs were co-written by Berry Gordy.
Wilson had great success through 1958 and 1963, his appearance on the Ed Sullivan show is classic Jackie Wilson and his stage performance was exceptional, energetic and brought the female fans to tears. His famous knee drops would never fail to get a frenzy emotional response from his fans.
After a dispute over payment between Wilson’s managers, Gordy stopped writing songs for Wilson and with the proceeds he eventually won he would later go on to create Motown Records. Wilson decided to stay with his manager and Brunswick Records, which would later be seen as a bad decision.
Throughout the early 1960’s, Wilson’s brand of R&B Soul and Pop music helped him maintain a crossover appeal providing him a number of hits on several charts. In 1960, Wilson recorded his biggest hit “Doggin’ Around”, which has a bluesy soulful sound and is one of his signature songs. Although Wilson had huge success in the early 1960’s with a number of singles, his music suffered due to undesirable studio arrangements and poor material.
The material didn’t match Wilson’s style or his talent, and even though he overcame it for a short time the poor material quality caught up with him. Many say Wilson’s career would have turned out much better and had been more successful had he went with Gordy’s Motown Records.
His stage performance was unique and kept his career going but the mixture of inappropriate pop styles was a failure and his recorded material was often inferior. Under bad management, Wilson never quite received the superstardom status because his music did not always reflect his ability and talent and his career suffered a major setback in the 1970’s.
Wilson’s raw talent was enormous but his personal life and career suffered. In 1961, Wilson was shot and seriously wounded by a fan, losing a kidney and carrying the bullet in his spine the rest of his life. On September 29, 1975, while performing at a Dick Clark show at the Latin Casino in New Jersey, Wilson suffered a massive heart attack while singing “Lonely Teardrops” he fell head first and suffered major brain damage lapsing into a coma for eight years until he died in 1984 at the age of 49.
In 1985, The Commodores recorded a song in memory of Jackie Wilson called “Nightshift”. He is definitely one of the true pioneers in the music industry influencing a large amount of artists with his dance and vocal style.
He will be forever remembered as an R&B genius with unique talent. Jackie Wilson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and was also portrayed in the movie “La Bamba” that same year. In 2003, he received the Legacy Tribute award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Rewind the Fifties and all related Pages copyright 1997 - 2006