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A Wilson Pickett Playlist
1. The Falcons: “I Found a Love” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Before going solo, Pickett went R&B top ten singing lead on this song in 1962. The song is kind of a mess, but Pickett’s churchy Alabama roar is already fully formed; it just doesn’t work all that well in the context of the track’s prim Detroit arrangement, all doo-wop backing vocals and piano plunks. In a way, though, the song’s sparkle makes for a great foil to Pickett’s preacher howls and inspired ad-libs (“I think I’m gonna call her now!”). It’s like he was already right there, waiting for music to catch up to him, for bands to figure out how to let him cut loose without forcing him to overwhelm the song.
2. Solomon Burke: “If You Need Me” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Not quite sure about the whole chronology here, but this ended up being one of Burke’s first singles in 1963 after Atlantic Records heard Pickett’s demo of the song, which he cowrote. Atlantic bought the song’s publishing, but it didn’t buy the demo, and Pickett ended up releasing his version on Double-L Records, scoring a minor R&B hit. Burke’s cleaner, better-recorded version ended up going further and landing on the pop charts, but it’s tough to say who sang the song better. Burke, of course, was another church-trained giant of early soul, but his version is somehow cleaner and more reserved than Pickett’s, and Pickett isn’t cutting loose anywhere near as much as he would later. All the obits are saying it today, but it’s true: Pickett sang rougher and harder than any of his contemporaries except James Brown, and his scratchy Southern rasp pretty much establishes him as the archetype of the vein-popping testifying soul singer, even more than Burke. Burke and Pickett would become labelmates when Pickett signed to Atlantic two years later.
3. “In the Midnight Hour” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Pickett’s three best-known singles were all released within a year and a half of each other in 1965 and 1966 after he signed to Atlantic, and this is the first and the best of them. It’s not as frantic as “Land of 1000 Dances” or as swaggering as “Mustang Sally,” but it drives harder. Of those three songs, it’s the only one that Pickett cowrote, and he recorded the song at the Stax studio with Stax musicians just before the working relationship between Atlantic and Stax fell apart. That horns-and-piano lope is just vicious, and Pickett expertly ratchets up his wail over the songs 2:39, building up to that unspeakably great triumphant horn riff. Considering how many times this song would be covered, how it still probably serves as Pickett’s single best-known song, it’s incredible that this only hit #21 on the pop charts.
4. “I’m In Love” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Pickett never toned down his voice the way Otis Redding and just about every other soul singer would from time to time; he treated even slow, tender ballads like this one like they were just as hard and furious as any of his songs. The song, written by Bobby Womack, might’ve been more effective in the hands of a more controlled singer, but there’s something exciting in hearing this guy refusing to reign in his rasp even a little bit, whooping when anyone else would croon.
5. Creedence Clearwater Revival: “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” Preview/Buy at iTunes
White rock bands covered Pickett’s songs constantly throughout the 60s. Fogerty’s scratchy rasp wasn’t all that far from Pickett’s in the first place, and this cover treats Pickett’s original pretty faithfully, though the band chugs when it should throb.
6. “Hey Jude” Preview/Buy at iTunes
And then Pickett would go and cover white rock bands, too. Isn’t that weird? It’s hard to imagine anything like this happening now, Anthony Hamilton covering My Chemical Romance or whatever. These days, it’s pretty much revelatory when Mary J. Blige sings with U2; that stuff generally just doesn’t happen. Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude” is miles removed from the original, a controlled burn rather than a slowly inflating balloon, screeches and yowls instead of the smirky Beatles coos that I always sort of hated. This version all but does away with the na-na-na part, turning it into a drawn-out horns-and-guitars vamp. Oh, and Duane Allman plays guitar.
7. “Sugar Sugar” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Even weirder: Pickett takes maybe the most insistently catchy and unapologetically white bubblegum hit of all time, removes the doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot keyboard line that makes the song instantly memorable, and belts the song out with all the throaty force he’d use on any other song. The “I can’t believe the loveliness of loving you” part is just gorgeous.
8. “Get Me Back On Time, Engine Number 9” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Pickett moved completely out of his comfort zone when he collaborated in 1970 with Philly soul architects Gamble and Huff, but he didn’t really change the way he sang. Instead, Gamble and Huff took his iconic voice and dropped it into an unhinged six-minute psyche-funk noodle-fest, with surprisingly great results. There’s not much song here, but Pickett gamely whoops his way through the track’s fog of itchy guitars and rippling percussion like it was the most natural thing in the world, which maybe it was.
9. Beastie Boys: “Hey Ladies” Preview/Buy at iTunes
That scream after the Beasties say “Hey Ladies” is a sample from “Mustang Sally.” Can you imagine “Hey Ladies” without that scream? Neither can I.
10. Ice Cube: “Wicked” Preview/Buy at iTunes
“Listen to the flow of a so-called negro / Who didn’t know I was funky as Wilson Pickett / Dig it cuz I get wicked.” More than twenty years after his last hit, and Pickett remained the gold standard for funkiness.