Known in the music world as “Mr. Excitement,” singer Jackie Wilson was a shell of his dynamic former self when he died in a hospital at the age of 49 in 1984. His fruitful, if short, career will be remembered on Sept. 4 when he receives a long overdue star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
One of the great hitmakers of the early rock ’n’ roll period, Wilson first charted with “Reet Petite” (No. 66, 1957), “Lonely Teardrops” (No. 7, 1958) and “That’s Why (I Love You So)” (No. 13, 1959). His later hits included “Baby Workout” (No. 5, 1963), “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (No. 6, 1967) and “I Get the Sweetest Feeling” (No. 38, 1968).
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Wilson’s stage act drew attention: he was a magnetic performer with a multi-octave vocal range and electrifying dance moves that included splits, knee drops and assorted shuffles. He regularly removed his jacket and flung it to his side to the delight of cheering audiences. All he needed was a cape and you might have thought you were seeing an alternative version of James Brown.
At the time, he was dubbed the “Black Elvis,” though Presley scoffed at the comparison: “I guess that makes me the white Jackie Wilson.”
But except for his slick dance moves, he had little in common with Presley, or with Brown, who went from doo-wop to creating funk. Wilson was more of a crooner than a belter, a smooth soul-pop singer in the vein of Nat “King” Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Mathis, at least until later in his career.
Born in Detroit in 1934, he wasn’t brash and Southern like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but urbane and sophisticated. Had he come up in the big band era, he probably would have been a jazz singer.
After being discovered by Johnny Otis singing with the Falcons, which included eventual Four Top Levi Stubbs, Wilson joined Bill Ward & the Dominoes. It wasn’t long before he decided to become a solo artist.
In 1957, Wilson signed with Brunswick Records, based in New York, where he had his early hits. Future Motown founder Berry Gordy co-wrote “Lonely Teardrops,” which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and crossed over to the Top 10. Wilson’s signature song features kitschy orchestration and backup harmonies as Wilson begs his woman for “another chance,” his alto soaring as he pleads, “Just say you will, say you will.”
Years later, Michael Jackson, who loved Wilson’s voice and stage presence, recorded a version of the song, as did Jose Feliciano and Bryan Hyland.
America’s newest pop star was off and running. But this didn’t last long.
In 1960, Wilson was arrested for assaulting an officer during a concert in New Orleans (fans had stormed the stage) and a year later was shot in his Manhattan apartment by a jealous girlfriend. His suave good looks, pompadour hair style and charismatic personality proved to be a magnet to women. He was married twice and fathered nine children.
Wilson resumed his singing career in 1963. Capitalizing on “The Twist” dance craze, he rode back into the Top 10 with the high-energy “Baby Workout,” which he co-wrote. In the mid-’60s, Wilson was a fixture on TV variety music shows including “Hullabaloo,” “Shindig!,” “American Bandstand” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” playing to adoring white audiences.
His other signature song, recorded in 1967, certainly lifted him “Higher and Higher.” Another heavily orchestrated track, it swings heavily with horns and a modernized Wilson sound, courtesy of frenetic backing from Motown’s Funk Bros.
Now that he had found his “one in a million girl,” Wilson sings with purpose, “Honey, I can stand up and face the world.”
Rita Coolidge slowed down the pace for her soulful cover version in 1977, which peaked at No. 2. A rendition by Howard Huntsberry appeared on the “Ghostbusters 2” soundtrack in 1989 and Bruce Springsteen has also been known to break it out in concert.
Wilson’s last significant hit, “I Get the Sweetest Feeling,” co-written by Van McCoy, returned to his early soul-pop style,
complete with the orchestration and backup vocals that would mark most of his material.
Sadly, Wilson suffered a heart attack on stage in 1975. He survived, but would never perform again. His last years were spent in nursing homes and hospitals in New Jersey. By the time Wilson died in 1984, he was all but broke.
Like so many artists in the early rock ’n’ roll era, Wilson was taken advantage of by his label. In 1975, Nat Tarnopol and several other execs at Brunswick were indicted for mail fraud and tax evasion, though Tarnopol was later cleared. At the time, they allegedly owed Wilson $1 million.
Respected by many — Jackson called him a “wonderful entertainer” at the Grammy Awards in 1984, Van Morrison dedicated the song “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)” to him in 1972, and he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 — Wilson’s accomplishments remain underappreciated today. A biopic was planned but has yet to be produced, and a quality biography of his life has never been written.
Sadly, Harlean Harris Wilson, Wilson’s widow and a top model in the 1950s and ’60s, died on Aug. 24 and the age of 81. She said of her husband before she passed: “That title Mr. Excitement wasn’t just given to him; he worked for it.” And she remembered Wilson as “very vibrant, very effervescent, generous to a fault. He loved to sing and he loved life.”
Hopefully, with the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, there will be renewed interest in this legendary singer and performer who thrilled and inspired so many.