From Memphis to Muscle Shoals, Wilson Pickett made his mark on soul music

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Wilson Pickett
Wilson Pickett

As the National Museum of African American Music opens its doors, journalists from the USA TODAY Network explore the stories, places and people who helped make music what it is today in our expansive series, Hallowed Sound.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In roughly 15 months, Wilson Pickett helped shape the history of recording in America.

In 1965 and 1966, Pickett, one of the most dynamic R&B singers of all time, traveled to Stax Records in Memphis and FAME Recording in Muscle Shoals where he cut a series of classic hits at each studio. In the process — between his supreme talent and pugnacious personality — Pickett helped determine the fate and future of each company, as they became twin pillars of Southern soul and pop music in the coming years.

Stax’s success with Pickett validated and emboldened the small company as it continued to churn out hits and build a stable of stars including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Eddie Floyd. Eventually Stax became a beacon of Black consciousness and creativity as it expanded into an entertainment empire by the early ‘70s.

On the back of its hitmaking magic with Pickett, Muscle Shoals became a hotspot for artists from around the world seeking the region’s signature sound, which continued at FAME and, later, at its offshoot, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.

The first man to record in both places, the “Wicked” Pickett would prove to be a pathfinder throughout his career, until his passing in 2006.

“I see Pickett as a trailblazer, not just in soul music, but American music,” says Tony Fletcher, author of “In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett.

“He’s the first credited Atlantic artist to record at Stax and at Fame, but there’s a lot of other firsts, too. He was also the man to put the word ‘funk’ into the top 30, the first to headline a black touring package in Africa. His career was one of trailblazing, for which he never really got the credit.”

At Stax, big hits and bad blood

When he cut his first session at Stax in May 1965, Wilson Pickett was at a career crossroads. The Alabama-born, Detroit-bred singer had come up hard on the streets, while learning to sing in church. He scored early successes with the vocal group The Falcons, taking lead vocals on “I Found a Love” in 1962, and then his first solo hit with “Too Little” in 1963. The latter song brought him to the attention of Jerry Wexler, executive with the country’s premiere R&B label, Atlantic Records, who signed Pickett.

But Pickett’s early attempts to break through for Atlantic met with little success. After a soured session with top New York producer Bert Berns, Pickett was left searching for answers. While on the road in Nashville, he heard WLAC disc jockey John R. play “Pain in My Heart” by Otis Redding. The track had been cut in Memphis at Stax Records by a backing band that included Booker T. & the MGs.

As Fletcher notes, Pickett “had fallen instantly in love with the timbre and tone of Redding’s delivery and the sound of the Memphis musicians around him.” Pickett wanted that sound and those musicians for himself. He pressured Atlantic to let him go to Memphis and record.

Atlantic records distributed Stax, and already had “loaned” another struggling signing, the duo Sam & Dave, to Stax president/producer Jim Stewart with the idea that the duo might have more luck finding a hit in Memphis than in New York.

“It’s interesting that Pickett came down to Stax because of Otis Redding,” says Robert Gordon, author of “Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.” “Because Otis wasn’t from Memphis either, but Otis came in and aligned himself with Stax, he signed to the label and became a peer, part of Stax. With Pickett there was always a feeling he was an outsider, because he was signed to Atlantic, and partly because of his personality.”

Both factors — Pickett’s status as an Atlantic artist and his sometimes-overwhelming manner — would prove to be issues eventually. But when he arrived in Memphis in spring 1965, Pickett immediately found the creative spark and chart success he was looking for.

Stax guitarist/producer and Booker T & the MG’s member Steve Cropper was tasked with working with Pickett. “Jim Stewart and I went out to the airport and picked up Pickett and Jerry Wexler. They went off to dinner for a business meeting and Pickett and I started writing,” recalls Cropper.

The two men clicked immediately, knocking out songs like “I’m Not Tired” and “Don’t Fight It.” Then, Cropper suggested an idea for a tune that would become “In the Midnight Hour.” “I had heard some stuff Pickett sang on when he was really young. And he’s going, ‘Oh I’m gonna see my Jesus in the midnight hour, yeah I’m gonna wait 'til the midnight hour. I said, ‘That’s the idea for a song right there!’ He jumped on that when I said it.”

Pickett and Cropper finished the song and recorded it a couple nights later at Stax with the house band that included Donald “Duck” Dunn and Isaac Hayes. The electrifying performance of “In the Midnight Hour” was Pickett’s breakthrough, topping the R&B charts and becoming a top 25 pop hit later that summer.

Pickett recorded several more hits at Stax including the top 5 R&B/top 30 pop hit “Don’t Fight It,” and the smash “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)", which was another R&B chart topper. Pickett’s connection at Stax – he’d finally found a studio and a band that could match his grit, musicality and drive – should have marked the start of a long, fruitful collaboration, but trouble was brewing.

Given Pickett’s success, Atlantic soon sent another of its artists, Don Covay, to Stax to record. A longtime pal and collaborator of Pickett’s, Covay cut a few classics of his own at Stax, including “See Saw” and “Sookie Sookie.” Pickett had come to Memphis to hang out with Covay during the session. But Covay was a somewhat odd character, who particularly grated on Stewart.

“Wilson joined Covay down there for his session and it was a bit of double trouble,” says Fletcher. “I will say an idle Pickett could be a lot more problematic than a Pickett who’s got to be professional and record his songs. So the Don Covay session might have been the thing that started to cause some problems at Stax and in that relationship.”

In December 1965 Pickett returned to Stax for what would prove to be his final session at the studio. The established version of the tale is that Pickett, riding high off his newfound stardom, came back to Stax a different person.

“Pickett came in with an attitude that he was a star and everyone worked for him,” says Stax historian Robert Gordon. “And that ignored the fact that (members of) the backing band at Stax were stars, were hitmakers, in their own right.”

According to Duck Dunn, Pickett’s high-handed behavior in the studio began to anger the band and the resulting “tension ripped the session apart,” as Gordon recounted in “Respect Yourself.” “When the band went outside, cooling their heels…[Pickett] walked out to try and buy their affection, offering each $100 if they’d come back inside and cut with him,” wrote Gordon. “Their self-respect cost more than that, and Pickett was spurned.

“He came back and was not pleasant to work with and did not treat any of the musicians at Stax in a respectful way,” Gordon wrote. “So much so that it led Jim Stewart to phone Jerry Wexler and tell him, though the arrangement seemed promising, not to send any more of Atlantic’s stars to Stax.”

As Jim Stewart would tell it, it was the musicians who compelled the decision. “The guys shut that door…They said, ‘Don’t bring that a****** down here again. We don’t have to put up with that crap.’ They just didn’t want to be subjected to Wilson.”

“They made a company policy based on one person in Pickett — and the footnote was that Don Covay had been equally unpleasant,” says Gordon. “At Stax in 1965 things are going great, it’s a blast, and a close-knit group and they don’t want some cocky star trip scene. So they just cut it off. It was bold, but it was the right decision.”

Stax Records: Five essential recordings

Pickett’s biographer Tony Fletcher disagrees with the notion that Pickett ticked off anybody, aside from perhaps Stax head Stewart. “All the musicians I spoke to, the studio musicians at Stax, said he was the greatest, that they looked forward to working with him,” says Fletcher. “Any problems he may have created at Stax he did not create with the musicians.”

Fletcher suggests that Pickett’s later well-earned reputation as a problematic character in and out of the studio, allowed a post-facto mythology to develop around the reasons for Stax’s decision to shut him out. But Fletcher sees it more as a business move driven by Stewart.

“Jim Stewart would’ve had every reason to think ‘What am I getting out of this arrangement with Atlantic? I’m sure that Jim felt Stax had created its own sound, and that there was no need to loan that sound to Atlantic’s core artists,” says Fletcher. “By the end of 1965 Jim Stewart decided the Stax studio is for Stax artists only.”

Whatever the truth behind Pickett’s departure or expulsion from Stax, it meant he had to find a new place to record.

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‘Kindred spirits,’ new freedom for Picket launch Muscle Shoals

Roughly 150 miles southeast of Memphis in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Rick Hall was ready and waiting to receive Wilson Pickett.

A sharecropper’s son, whose life had been marked by a series of tragedies, Hall got his start playing in country and early rock and roll bands. He had moved into songwriting (penning tunes for George Jones and Brenda Lee) and production, setting up FAME studio in 1960.

Largely focusing on Black music and artists often overlooked in deeply segregated Alabama, Hall scored hits with Arthur Alexander and Jimmy Hughes, and developed a crack session band that included a crew of funky white musicians in Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, and Roger Hawkins.

Rick Hall opened FAME, the state's first professional recording studio, in 1959, and it became an iconic studio where hits for Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge were recorded.
Rick Hall opened FAME, the state's first professional recording studio, in 1959, and it became an iconic studio where hits for Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge were recorded.

Hall had already connected with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic, tipping them to the Percy Sledge song “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which the label licensed and turned into a national hit in early 1966.

“Wexler realized he had a new studio option down [South],” says Fletcher. “And since Pickett’s not welcome at Stax, let’s send him down to FAME and see how it goes. Let’s see if lighting strikes twice.”

Pickett arrived in Muscle Shoals in May 1966. Though initially suspicious of Hall – this was another white man in the Alabama Pickett had left behind as a child – and his unimpressive looking little studio, Pickett soon came to trust the producer, whom he connected with in a way he never did with Stewart.

“Where Stewart was relatively straight-laced, Hall was brought up in complete backwoods wildness,” says Fletcher. “Rick was a tough guy too. Ultimately, Pickett recognized a kindred spirit in Rick Hall. They were cut from a similar cloth, both came up really, really hard and made something of themselves. That’s why Pickett was able to work at FAME so successfully, because of Rick Hall.”

“Also with Rick Hall there seemed to be a little more looseness in the sessions,” adds Fletcher. “I think Pickett had more autonomy in terms of picking his material. He wasn’t getting quite that freedom at Stax."

Over a period of several days at FAME, Pickett caught fire with another house band, cutting 10 songs to somehow equal what he’d done at Stax. The songs included his biggest crossover pop hit, “Land of a 1000 Dances,” which went to number six on the pop charts.

Pickett journeyed to FAME several more times in 1966 and 1967, cutting a couple of albums’ worth of material, including hits “Mustang Sally” and “Funky Broadway.” He returned to FAME in 1968, where his hit R&B recording of the Beatles “Hey Jude” introduced the world to the track’s guitarist, Duane Allman.

As Fletcher observes in “In the Midnight Hour,” Pickett’s success transformed Muscle Shoals into a recording hotspot, putting FAME and, later Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (where the former FAME session men set up shop) “on the international music map.”

“[Pickett] afforded it a reputation that attracted not only his fellow soul greats Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James, but just about every white artist looking to absorb a little Southern soul for themselves, from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan, Paul Simon to the Osmonds,” said Fletcher.

Gordon agrees that Pickett’s expulsion from Stax was a “windfall for FAME, but the whole experience of recording of Pickett and Atlantic’s artists had proved beneficial for Stax as well.”

With a newfound confidence and sense of self-determination, Stax was about to launch into the soul stratosphere, and then become an independent company free of Atlantic Records in 1968.

Muscle Shoals: Five essential recordings

The success of making Pickett a star emboldened the label. As Stax executive Al Bell told Gordon, “it became clear to me that these people in New York —the great Atlantic Records — thought enough of us that if they sent someone like Wilson Pickett to Memphis to get this gritty, gutsy, raw sound and feel that was coming out of Stax, that there had to be something very important and profound about what we were doing. To me, it validated Stax and its sound.”

The results of the combined Stax and FAME sessions became the album, “The Exciting Wilson Pickett,” released in August 1966. It is considered Pickett’s best and most important long-player and one of the defining documents of Southern soul and ‘60s R&B.

In the space of a little more than a year, Pickett created some of the most memorable music ever recorded, shaped the destinies of Stax and Fame, and solidified Memphis and Muscle Shoals as music meccas.

“Whatever you want to say about Pickett, good or bad,” says Fletcher, “he had a massive impact wherever he went.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Wilson Pickett's indelible mark on soul music