Wilson Pickett - Nothing You Can Do (ATLANTIC 2381)
Nothing You Can Do
Another one done gone....
Wilson Pickett was born in Alabama and raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. At age 15, he moved to Detroit where he would join local Gospel Quartet The Violinaires.
In 1959 he was invited to join The Falcons, a vocal group that contained people like Eddie Floyd and Mack Rice, and is considered by many to be the missing link between doo-wop and Detroit soul. In 1962, Pickett wrote the amazing I Found A Love for the group which would land them back in the R&B top ten for the first time since 1959.
In 1963 he decided to go out on his own, and began recording for Lloyd Price's Double L label. He also sent a demo of the songs he had written to Jerry Wexler over at Atlantic Records. Although Wexler showed no interest in Pickett, he knew a good song when he heard one, bought up the publishing rights, and quickly released Solomon Burke's take on If You Need Me, which just killed Wilson's own original version in the charts. Pickett was later to say it was "the first time I ever cried in my life".
When his next Double L release, It's Too Late, climbed to #7, Atlantic snatched him up. He would record two singles for them in 1964 with producer Bert Berns in New York, but they went nowhere. That was when they decided to head south.
In May of 1965, Wexler brought Pickett to the STAX studios in Memphis where he would team up with house guitarist Steve Cropper to make history. Wilson had been preaching about "the midnight hour" in his music ever since his days with The Falcons, and Cropper came up with the idea of making a song out of it. As the story goes, it was Wexler's "doing the jerk" that inspired them to "accent the two" and created the "delayed backbeat" sound that would define most STAX recordings for years to come.
In The Midnight Hour was, quite simply, one of those records that changed everything. It shot straight to number one on the R&B charts, was THE song of the Summer of '65, and would become the most requested tune at frat houses and gin joints across America. Pickett was so pleased with his first session at STAX that he personally gave $100 to each member of the studio band (something they had never even heard of before...).
Two more sessions were to follow, resulting in three more hits; Don't Fight It, Ninety Nine and A Half (Won't Do), both written by Pickett and Cropper, and 634-5789 (Soulville, USA) which was written by Cropper and former Falcon Eddie Floyd and would go on to become his second number one smash.
In December of 1965, STAX owner Jim Stewart, along with new A&R man Al Bell, decided to bar all outside artists from recording at their facilities. The reason given was that Pickett was "difficult to work with", and that "his guys" didn't want any more to do with him. Both Cropper and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn vehemently deny that to this day, and it seems more like the real problem was with Wexler. He had recently brought Don Covay down there to record as well, and was seen as a brash New York outsider who was attempting to co-opt their trademarked "Memphis Sound".
Atlantic didn't bat an eye, and began recording Pickett at Rick Hall's Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1966. The first record they would cut there, the incredible Land of 1000 Dances, would become Wilson's third giant number one hit in less than a year. The unreal bar band belter Mustang Sally (written by former Falcon Mack Rice) would follow along with Pickett's cover of Solomon Burke's Everbody Needs Somebody To Love (payback time!) in early 1967. Today's selection was released as the B side of that record.
Written by (the mis-spelled) Bobby Womack, it's a hidden Muscle Shoals gem. Womack had released the song himself on the HIM label in 1965 (I just saw a copy of this 45 go for $153 on eBay...), but his career was in shambles (we'll save that story for another day...), and it went nowhere. He had just begun doing session work at Fame around this time, and this was the first of 17 songs that he would give to Pickett. According to Randy Poe over at the Southern Soul Group, the band that's just cooking along on here is Fame's "second and best" Rhythm Section which featured Roger Hawkins on the drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, and Spooner Oldham on keyboards. Wexler had also imported Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill from Memphis to play on the Pickett sessions. Say Amen Somebody!
The red hot Pickett would hit the number one spot again with his next record, a smokin' cover of Dyke & The Blazers' Funky Broadway. The now legendary fight between Rick Hall, Jerry Wexler, and Ted White (Aretha Franklin's husband and manager) occurred somewhere around this time, and Atlantic found themselves once again without a Southern base of operations.
Wexler lent Chips Moman some money to upgrade the equipment at his American Studios in Memphis, and began recording Pickett there in July of 1967 (an arrangement that was sure to drive Jim Stewart up the wall!). He continued to crack the R&B top twenty regularly during this period, most notably with Womack compositions I'm In Love, I'm A Midnight Mover, and I Found A True Love.
Pickett moved back to Muscle Shoals in late 1968, where he would record his take on Hey Jude with a young guitarist named Duane Allman. Covers of other hits would follow (Born To Be Wild, You Keep Me Hangin' On) with varying success, before he teamed up with Philadelphia legends Gamble & Huff to produce classics like Get Me Back On Time, Engine Number Nine and Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You. It was his own songwriting skills that would put him back in the number one slot with Don't Knock My Love, Pt.1 in 1971.
He left Atlantic in 1973 and recorded for a number of outfits including RCA, Motown, and his own short-lived Wicked label, but nothing much was shakin'.
In 1988, I somehow got like fifth row tickets for the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Spectacular at Madison Square Garden in NYC, which was concieved as something like a 13 hour extravaganza that attempted to cover all the bases (from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Rufus Thomas... Lavern Baker to Vanilla Fudge, it was some show!). Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn anchored the rhythm section that backed up the R&B and Soul acts. When Wilson Pickett (shown here with an unidentified fan...) took the stage and lit into Midnight Hour with most of the original STAX house band behind him, I just lost it... whew! The rest of the sparse afternoon crowd may have been there for the much-touted Led Zeppelin reunion (which sucked), but this was soul nirvana for yours truly! I was the only guy in the whole joint that was even standing up. I'll never forget it, man.
Pickett was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, the same year that the movie The Commitments introduced his music (as well as his status as THE MAN) to a new generation. Despite all the acclaim, personal problems would dog him for the rest of the decade.
In 1999, his Bullseye album It's Harder Now would earn him a Grammy nomination as well as three W.C. Handy Awards in 2000.
Pickett bought a farm in Ashburn, Virginia and began doing some benefits in the area. He continued to perform over a dozen shows a year (including his awesome 2001 Jazz Fest appearance in New Orleans), until he was sidelined by ill health in 2005.
When he died this past Thursday, good friend and fellow Soul Clan giant Solomon Burke said that Wilson's favorite songs were his Gospel songs, and that he was truly a preacher at heart. "He was a guy who was not wicked, but just real", he said.
He was also just plain BAD.
I'm sure Cole, Cooke and Redding were waiting to welcome him home.