NPR

Jackie Wilson: The Singer And The Showman

Jackie Wilson inspired singers ranging from Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson.

You could, if you were so inclined, sort the top pop singers into two groups. There's the fairly small club of singers who consistently produce hits. And then there's an even smaller elite, the singers that the other singers look up to. Jackie Wilson was one of those: a singer's singer.

The Jackie Wilson most people know is the chart-topping performer of 1967's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me ) Higher and Higher." But that only hints at the vocal power and onstage presence that inspired a succession of other influential musicians. In 1972, Van Morrison recorded what may be the most exuberant tune he's ever written, "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)."

A Wild Man Onstage

If Morrison was influenced by Wilson's records, the older performer's shows were something else. You just had to see one. The late Philly soul singer Teddy Pendergrass did when he was a kid. In 2001, Pendergrass told WHYY's Fresh Air how Wilson lay down and rolled himself off the edge of the stage onto the floor. "And to see the ladies run through the guardrails and ... and just lay on top of him and appear to make mad passionate love to him in the middle of the floor, at whatever time it was that morning. My jaws dropped. I said, 'My God!' " Pendergrass recalled.

Wilson did all of this while delivering nearly flawless vocals. He had impeccable timing and an awe-inspiring falsetto. In his first hit, "Reet Petite," he needed just 45 seconds to run through most of the vocal tricks of 1957 — from stuttering syllables to 'ooo, ah, ooo, ah, oooo-wee' to 'she's so fii-ii-ii-ii-ine' — and he nailed them all.

An Early Start

Jackie Wilson had wanted to be a boxer, and when his parents said "No," he turned to singing in Detroit clubs. Wilson was a teenager when he replaced Clyde McPhatter (who went on to form the Drifters) singing lead for Billy Ward & the Dominoes. Elvis Presley remembered seeing the R&B group in 1956. "Billy Ward and his Dominoes. There was a guy out there, doing a takeoff on me: 'Don't Be Cruel,' " Presley recalled on the recording The Million Dollar Session — a legendary jam that brought together Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. "I went back four nights straight and heard that guy do that," Presley recalled. "He'd shake his head and [sing], 'I don't-uh want no other love. Baby it's-uh just you I'm-uh thinkin' of.' He'd [sing] 'Mmmmm! Well then-uh don't stop-uh think-ih-in' of meh!' Shhh Man he sung the hell outta the song. Man I was on the table lookin' at him. Git him off! Git him off!" In January of '57, Presley took Wilson's treatment of "Don't Be Cruel" onto The Ed Sullivan Show.

A Rough Life

Away from the bandstand, Wilson's life wasn't so good — alcohol, drugs, a broken marriage, a teenage son killed in a neighborhood shooting and a brush with death from a jealous woman with a gun. All of this is in The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart Is Crying, Crying) — a play that was written by Jackie Taylor, the director of the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago.

"[The play] told about the womanizing, and the drugs, and the difficulties that he had," Taylor says. "But it also talked about the heights that Jackie Wilson was able to achieve. What he did in changing the sound and feel of music." And he may have changed it more than his fans wanted. Wilson cut a great, bluesy rendition of "Danny Boy" in 1965. It didn't sell. Ditto for a tribute album to vaudeville singer Al Jolson.

And there's this: "He loved opera," says playwright Taylor. "But it was hard enough just being a black singer, let alone being a black opera singer." That love came through in "The Night," a 1960 hit that reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Wilson cracked the pop Top 10 just six times. But on the R&B charts, 15 of Wilson's records were Top 10 hits.

The late Michael Jackson was a fan. In 1984, when Jackson collected seven Grammy Awards for his album Thriller, he stopped the applause to pay tribute to Wilson. "Some people are entertainers and some people are great entertainers," Jackson said from the stage. "Some people are followers and some people make the path and are pioneers. I'd like to say that Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer." Wilson had died just five weeks earlier — on January 21 — after almost nine years in a coma. In 1975, as he was singing "Lonely Teardrops" in an oldies revue, he'd had a heart attack onstage.

A lot of Wilson's records may not have aged all that well, but something like "I Just Can't Help It" from 1962? Listening to that one, you can just see Jackie Wilson. He's down at the edge of the stage, reaching out, his vocals locked in with the rhythm section. Maybe he'll roll off into the audience, so the women can run to help him.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You could say the best pop singers fall into two groups. First, there's the fairly small club of singers who consistently produce hits. Then there's an even smaller elite: the singers that the other singers look up to. Jackie Wilson was one of those.

As part of our 50 Great Voices series, NPR's Peter Overby tells us why Jackie Wilson was a singer's singer.

PETER OVERBY: This is the Jackie Wilson song most people know, from 1967, the Motown house band moonlighting behind him.

(Soundbite of song, "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher")

Mr. JACKIE WILSON (Singer): (Singing) Your love keeps lifting me higher than I've ever been lifted before. So keep it up, quench my desire, and I'll be at your side forever more.

OVERBY: But this only hints at the vocal power and the onstage presence that inspired a succession of other influential entertainers, including Van Morrison in 1972, with what may be the most exuberant tune he's ever written.

(Soundbite of song, "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)")

Mr. VAN MORRISON (Singer): (Singing) Jackie Wilson said...

OVERBY: And if Van Morrison was influenced by Wilson's records, a Jackie Wilson show was just something else. This clip, from the old ABC TV show "Shindig," gives at least a hint.

(Soundbite of television program, "Shindig")

Mr. WILSON: (Singing) Baby, work out...

OVERBY: Really, you had to see it. Philly soul singer Teddy Pendergrass did when he was a kid. In 2001, Pendergrass told WHYY's FRESH AIR how Wilson lay down and rolled himself off the edge of the stage.

Mr. TEDDY PENDERGRASS (Singer): He rolled off onto the floor, and to see the ladies run through the guardrails and just lay on top of him and appear to make mad, passionate love to him in the middle of the floor, at whatever time it was that morning, to me it was just - my jaws dropped. I said, my God.

OVERBY: And Wilson did all this while delivering nearly flawless vocals. He had impeccable timing and an awe-inspiring falsetto. In his first hit, "Reet Petite," he needed just 45 seconds to run through most of the vocal tricks of 1957.

(Soundbite of song, "Reet Petite")

Mr. WILSON: Well, look about, look about, look about, look about, ooh, whee. Look about, look about, look about, ooh, whee. Ooh, ah, ooh, ah, ooh, whee. Well, she's so fine, fine, fine, she's so fine, f-f-f-fine...

OVERBY: Jackie Wilson came from Detroit. In 1953, he got his first big break, singing lead for the R&B vocal group Billy Ward & the Dominoes. We'll let someone else pick up the story.

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Musician): Billy Ward and his Dominoes. There was a guy out there that was doing a takeoff on me, "Don't Be Cruel."

OVERBY: Elvis Presley, of course, in "The Million Dollar Quartet Session," telling Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and some other musicians about seeing Wilson perform.

Mr. PRESLEY: Much better than that record of mine. I went back four nights straight and heard that guy do that. He'd shake his head and say...

Mr. PRESLEY (Singing) I don't want no other love. Baby, it's just you I'm thinkin' of. He'd say: Mmmmm, well then don't stop thinkin' of me.

Mr. PRESLEY: Shhh. Man, he sung the hell out of that song. Man, I was on the table, looking at him.

OVERBY: It probably won't surprise you but away from the bandstand, Jackie Wilson's life wasn't so good: alcohol, drugs, broken marriage, a teenage son killed in a neighborhood shooting. His own life almost ended by a jealous woman with a gun. All this is in "The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart Is Crying, Crying)," a play that was written by Jackie Taylor, director of the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago.

Ms. JACKIE TAYLOR (Director, "The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart Is Crying, Crying)"): It told about the womanizing and the drugs and the difficulties that he had, but it also talked about the heights that Jackie Wilson was able to achieve, what he did in changing the sound and feel of music.

OVERBY: Maybe even changing it more than his fans wanted. He cut a bluesy rendition of "Danny Boy" in 1965. It didn't sell. Ditto with a tribute album to vaudeville singer Al Jolson. And there's this...

Ms. TAYLOR: He loved opera, but it was hard enough just being a black singer, let alone a black opera singer.

(Soundbite of song, "The Night")

Mr. WILSON: (Singing) Here comes the night.

OVERBY: "The Night" came out in 1960. It got up to number four on the Billboard Hot 100. Wilson cracked the pop top 10 just six times, but on the R&B charts, 15 of his songs made the top 10. One of his fans was Michael Jackson. In 1984, when Jackson collected seven Grammy Awards for his album "Thriller," he stopped the applause to pay tribute.

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Musician): Some people are entertainers, and some people are great entertainers. Some people are followers, and some people make the path and are pioneers. I'd like to say, Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer.

(Soundbite of applause)

OVERBY: Wilson had died just five weeks earlier, after almost nine years in a coma. In 1975, as he was singing "Lonely Teardrops" in an oldies revue, he had a heart attack onstage. A lot of Wilson's records havent aged all that well, but something like "I Just Can't Help It," from 1962...

(Soundbite of song, "I Just Can't Help It")

Mr. WILSON: (Singing) I can't help it. I can't help it. Loving you, baby, is what I need...

OVERBY: You can practically see Jackie Wilson down at the edge of the stage, reaching out, his vocals locked in with the rhythm section. Maybe he'll roll himself off into the audience, just so the women can run to help him. Peter Overby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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