Considering his nickname, “Wicked Pickett,” some might have expected soul giant Wilson Pickett to go out in a blaze of infamy. But those who witnessed his frenetic live performances were probably less surprised to learn he passed of a heart attack. The only shock to the faithful was that he met his end not onstage, but in a Northern Virginia hospital, on January 19 at age 64.
Born in Prattville, Alabama, Pickett relocated to Detroit as a teenager. He became a member of gospel ensemble the Violinaires (which also included longtime Pickett collaborators Sir Mack Rice and Eddie Floyd), then crossed over and joined R&B group the Falcons in 1959. After that group’s “You’re So Fine” became a top-10 R&B single in 1962, he struck out as a solo act, scoring two modest hits (“If You Need Me”, “It’s Too Late”) for the Double-L label in 1963.
A year later, a Pickett demo reached Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler. He was particularly impressed with the original composition “If You Need Me”. So much so that he snatched up the publishing rights — but not the performer (or, unwisely, the demo rights) — and gave “If You Need Me” to established Atlantic artist Solomon Burke instead.
“I was furious when Jerry Wexler turned him down,” remembered Burke in 2003. When radio personality the Magnificent Montague started spinning Pickett’s original version, Wexler rushed out Burke’s. Although the latter ultimately won the chart war, he broke rank and supported his rival: “I would go to the radio stations and say, ‘Hi, I’m Solomon Burke, and I’m here promoting the new record “If You Need Me”…by Wilson Pickett.’” Wexler signed Pickett to the following year.
For the decade’s remainder, Pickett defined soul music in all its ever-evolving permutations. Working in Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Miami, he churned out a string of hits: “In The Midnight Hour”, “Funky Broadway”, “Land Of 1,000 Dances”, and “634-5789″. No matter who his sidemen or songwriters, Pickett distinguished himself with a raw, throaty singing style that contrasted starkly with the sweetness of Sam Cooke or the sultry, seductive delivery of Al Green.
In the early ’70s, Pickett joined up with “Philadelphia sound” architects Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff for “Engine Number 9″ and “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You”. But after a switch to RCA in 1973, the hits petered out. Although he continued to record and perform, he more often made the news after run-ins with police, for charges including drunk driving, assault, and threatening the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey.
Later, Pickett enjoyed a modest return. His music and career — if not the man himself — featured prominently in the Alan Parker film The Commitments, released in 1991; the same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His final studio album, 1999′s It’s Harder Now, won three W.C. Handy Awards, including Soul/Blues Album of the Year. Pickett continued playing shows regularly until late 2004, when management encouraged him to take a well-earned hiatus that, sadly, would prove permanent.