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The legacy of Wilson “Wicked” Pickett [excerpt]

Today marks eleven years since the death of Wilson “Wicked” Pickett. Known for such hits as “In the Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and “Mustang Sally,” Pickett claimed his place as one of history’s most influential R&B figures when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. After a successful fifty-year career in the music industry, Pickett was laid to rest in Louisville, Kentucky at the age of 64.

In the below excerpt from In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett, author Tony Fletcher describes the aftermath of Pickett’s death.

The obituaries for Wilson Pickett— and they were everywhere— inevitably balanced the good with the wicked. The Guardian in the United Kingdom described him, accurately, as the “singer who revolutionized the sound of 60s soul.” Just about every paper of record made some reference to his troubled 1990s, his jail terms, or what the Washington Post referred to simply as his “volatile personality.” Aretha Franklin was among the surviving soul stars who paid tribute. “One of the greatest soul singers of all time,” she said, a simple statement of which there could be surely no dispute.

The Washington Post was one of the many papers to report that Pickett was survived by “his fiancée, Gail Webb.” His family felt otherwise about that description. Gail moved out of the Ashburn house and into a nearby hotel prior to a private service held at the Loudoun Funeral Chapel on January 21. Among the attendees that day were many of the musicians who had played under the name of the Midnight Movers; Margo Lewis and Chris Tuthill; Bo Diddley, who had become good friends with Pickett over the years of sharing stages and hotels and airplanes with him; and Don Covay.

Wilson Pickett’s body was transported to Louisville, Kentucky. There, at the Canaan Christian Church, on January 28, hundreds gathered to pay respects and mourn his passing. The service proved memorable: sister Emily Jean led a rousing gospel tribute in honor of those Sunday morning walks 260 through the Prattville backwoods en route to Jericho Baptist, and brother Maxwell offered measured words of comfort that recognized both Wilson’s brilliance and his difficulties. Stephanie Harper read from the scriptures. Dovie Hall sat quietly in the pews. Sir Mack Rice and Willie Schofield of the Falcons, with guitarist Lance Finnie, paid tribute, and although Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke, each listed on the printed program, did not in fact attend, the mourners received an impromptu, show-business eulogy from a sequin-clad Little Richard.

“Wilson, he’s an innovator, an emancipator,” said Richard. “He’s sup­posed to be in the Hall of Fame; he’s one of the ones that paved the way for all these people you see, like Puff Daddy, and Will Smith, and Eminem, and Kanye West. If it weren’t for him, they wouldn’t be there.”

The official eulogy was delivered by the Reverend Steve Owens, imported from Maxwell Pickett’s home church in Decatur, Georgia. Maxwell and Owens had become good friends once it was discovered that the preacher had played in a soul band prior to taking up the church— and that he had, of course, covered many a Wilson Pickett song in his day. As Owens reached the climax of his eulogy, he sang the refrain from “Land of 1000 Dances.” Soon enough he had the whole church chanting a joyous last hurrah: “Na, na- na- na- na, na- na- na- na- na- na- na- na- na- na …”

At the conclusion of the service Wilson Pickett’s casket was taken to the mausoleum in the Evergreen Cemetery, close to his mother, per his request. His eternal resting place was engraved with an image of his face in its prime and inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer.

There were to be further tributes over coming weeks and months, including a public memorial concert at B. B. King’s in New York. And family drama resumed. Gail Webb was bought out from her position as coexecutor, and Maxwell Pickett was left to administer a Wilson Pickett Jr. Legacy com­pany with an associated scholarship fund. A trust fund was established for Wilson’s four children, the only family members to benefit directly from his wealth; part of Michael Pickett’s quarterly inheritance would make its way directly to Dovie Hall, who had served as his mother throughout his formative years.

Pickett his thirtieth birthday party, 1971. Pictured singing with his sister, Emily Jean. Courtesy of the Wilson Pickett, Jr. Legacy LLC.

Barely a week after he was interred, Wilson Pickett was honored at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he finally received the recognition from the Grammys that he had always sought. The subdued awards cere­mony focused largely on the devastation wrought the New Orleans musical community by Hurricane Katrina the previous summer, but at the conclu­sion of the evening a one- off supergroup assembled to play the soul anthem to eclipse them all: “In the Midnight Hour.” The lineup included Dr. John on piano, The Edge of U2 and Elvis Costello on guitars, and Bonnie Raitt, Yolanda Adams, and Patti Scialfa on backing vocals. Singing lead was one of the last remaining great voices of Pickett’s generation, Sam Moore, who delivered a stirring, heartfelt rendition of the first verse. He was joined for the second verse by Bruce Springsteen and for the finale by the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas.

For all the hundreds of times that “In the Midnight Hour” had been performed on television— and for the hundreds of thousands of times that it had been covered in bars, clubs, theaters, concert halls, and stadiums around the world— this was an especially spirited, emotionally evocative rendition. “This is for the Wicked Pickett,” roared Springsteen as the sec­ond verse gave way to the famous horn instrumental, and it was evident that he was doing so not just on behalf of the musicians on stage, but on behalf of every soul fan who had ever been touched by one of the greatest voices and, yes, one of the most volatile personalities of the last fifty years.

Wilson Pickett had gone on home. Lord, have mercy.

Featured image credit: untitled by Markus Spiske. CC0 Public Domain via Pexels.

Recent Comments

  1. Curt Krafft

    Terrific article. Wilson was a tremendous talent who left behind a vast treasury of great recordings. Unfortunately few if any of them are played on commercial radio anymore. The flimsy excuse given is that this kind of music attracts only an older audience which doesn’t appeal to advertisers. This is pure bunk but you can’t change programming minds that are still rooted in the prehistoric era.

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