I have a personal list of five 60s-era solo RnB male vocalists that in my opinion were the best. Jack Leroy "Jackie" Wilson, Jr. is definitely one of them. (said list appears elsewhere in this blog, by the way) Born June 9, 1934 in Detroit, Michigan, he grew up rough in the very rough section of Highland Park, ran with a local street gang and was often finding himself in many varieties of trouble. Hoping to tame the young man, his mother took him to church where he sang in the choir. In his early teens he joined The Eveready Gospel Singers, a quartet popular in the churches of the area. Young Mr. Wilson however was hardly the religious type, he loved to sing because the group made a bit of money. He was fond of the money because he was also fond of the cheap wine he developed a taste for at the age of nine (yes, nine). Dropping out of school at fifteen, he'd been sentenced twice to the Lansing Juvenile Corrections System. During his second stint in juvie he took up boxing and fought as an amateur achieving a less-than-stellar Golden Gloves record of two wins, eight losses. Returning to music, He joined The Falcons, a local group that also included his cousin, future Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs. Later discovered by the legendary Johhny Otis, Wilson cut a few tracks on Dizzy Gillespie's Dee Gee Records
before he was recruited by Billy Ward And The Dominoes to replace the great Clyde McPhatter.
McPhatter coached Wilson and became an influence on the young singer. Already blessed with an operatic tenor and easy stage presence, Wilson became a fine addition to the group, and while not matching the group's former success, served them well for the three years he was a member. He then left to become a solo act and signed with Brunswick Records, a subsidiary of Decca Records. Nat Tarnopol became Wilson's manager and Wilson's first single "Reet Petite" was released from the album She's So Fine to moderate success . The song was written by another former boxer, Berry Gordy, Jr. along with Roquel Davis and Gordy's sister Gwendolyn. The trio wrote six more singles for Wilson, "To Be Loved", "I'm Wandering", "We Have Love", "That's Why I Love You So", "I'll Be Satisfied" and his 1958 signature song "Lonely Teardrops".
"Lonely Teardrops" went to #7 on the pop charts, #1 on the RnB charts and established Wilson as a bonafide superstar. His incredible multi-octave range was accompanied by electrifying stagecraft. Splits, knee drops, spins and one-footed slides inspired artists such as James Brown, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. Presley in fact was so impressed he sought Wilson out and the two became good friends. Wilson also incorporated basic boxing moves in his dancing. He even acknowledged coppng a few stage tricks from Elvis as well. He was also a savvy stage poser, making it easy for photograpers to capture him in countless performing images.
In 1958 Gordy and Davis parted ways with Brunswick Records due to disputes over royalties. The success of their work with Jackie Wilson did pay off for Gordy who used $800 in borrowed money along with the composer royalties from Wilson's hits to build his own recording studio, Hitsville, U.S.A. The rest of that particular story has been well chronicled, to say the least. Meanwhile, Wilson entered the 60s with more hits co-written by himself and Alonzo Tucker, a member of Hank Ballard And The Midnighters. These top 10 hits included "I'm So Lonely" "No Pity (In The Naked City)", "Alone At Last", "My Empty Arms" and the popular dance number "Baby Work Out".
In 1961 Wilson released a tribute to Al Jolson, of all people, called Nowstalgia...You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet. While such a departure showcased the singer's impressive versatility, it was a commercial failure. He hit a slump in his career between 1964 and 1966 with a series of poorly selling singles. He did make critical and artistic gains with an album recorded with Count Basie and a series of duets with gospel singer Linda Hopkins and blues great Lavern Baker. He made a comeback in 1966 with the help of Chicago producer Carl Davis, releasing "Whispers Getting Louder" and 1967's #5 pop hit, "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher", one of his last and perhaps best-known top 10 hits.
As with many of society's truly gifted artists, the personal life of Jackie Wilson was tainted by misfortune...some self-inflicted, some not. Known well as a quick-tempered man at the best of times, he was arrested in 1960 for assaulting a policeman when fans tried to climb the stage at one of his shows. On February 15, 1961 Wilson was injured in a shooting that left one bullet lodged too close to his spine to remove and another bullet that caused the loss of a kidney. He was shot twice in the back by an overzealous fan trying to commit suicide or a jealous girlfriend, depending on who happens to be telling the story. Having had all she could take from his notorious womanizing, his first wife Freda Hood divorced Wilson after 14 years of marriage in 1965. His son, Jackie Jr. was shot and killed on a neighbor's porch in 1971 sending Wilson into a deep depression for the next two years, as he consumed large amounts of marijuana and cocaine. His daughter died in 1977 of an apparent heart attack at age 24, and in 1988 another daughter Jaqueline was shot to death in a drug-related incident in Highland Park. On September 9, 1975 Wilson was performing at The Latin Casino near Cherry Hill, New Jersey as a featured act in Dick Clark's Good Old Rock And Roll Revue. In the middle of performing "Lonely Teardrops", the singer collapsed onstage from a massive heart attack. Cornell Gunter of The Coasters was able to recuscitate him and he was rushed to the hospital. Despite medical personell working for 30 minutes to stabilize Wilson, lack of oxgen to his brain caused him to slip into a coma in which he laid for nine years until finally passing away due to complications of pneumonia on January 21, 1984. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Westlawn Cemetary near Detroit until a fund raiser purchased a headstone in 1987.
"Mr Excitement", as he was known throughout his career, was a two-time Grammy Hall Of Fame inductee. He was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987. Popular music still benefits to this day from the awesome standard set by Jackie Wilson.