Black Jewish History Month: Jackie Wilson

Today in Black Jewish History Month, Jackie Wilson.

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Jack Leroy “Jackie” Wilson, Jr. was an American singer and performer. Known as “Mr. Excitement”, Wilson was important in the transition of rhythm and blues into soul. He was known as a master showman, and as one of the most dynamic singers and performers in R&B and rock history. Gaining fame in his early years as a member of the R&B vocal group Billy Ward and His Dominoes, he went solo in 1957 and recorded over 50 hit singles that spanned R&B, pop, soul, doo-wop and easy listening. During a 1975 benefit concert, he collapsed on-stage from a heart attack and subsequently fell into a coma that persisted for nearly nine years until his death in 1984. By this time, he had become one of the most influential artists of his generation.

A two-time Grammy Hall of Fame Inductee,Jackie Wilson was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Jackie Wilson #68 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Wilson was the only son of Jack, Sr. and Eliza Mae Wilson. Eliza Mae was born on The Billups-Whitfield Place in Columbus, MS. Her parents were Tom and Virginia Ransom. Jackie often visited his family in Columbus and was greatly influenced by the choir at Billups Chapel. Growing up in the rough Detroit area of North End, Wilson joined a gang called the Shakers (the name taken from the Shaker Heights section of Detroit) and often found himself in trouble. Wilson began singing at an early age, accompanying his mother, once a choir singer, to church. In his early teens Jackie formed a quartet, the Ever Ready Gospel Singers, which became a popular feature of churches in the area. Jackie wasn’t very religious, he just loved to sing and the cash he and his group earned came in handy. Jack Sr. and Eliza separated shortly after this. Wilson dropped out of high school at age 15, having already been sentenced to detention in the Lansing Corrections system for juveniles twice. During his second stint in detention, he learned boxing and started performing in the amateur circuit in the Detroit area at the age of 16. His record in the Golden Gloves was 2 and 8. After his mother pleaded with him to quit, Wilson got married to Freda Hood and became a father at 17. He gave up boxing for music, first working at Lee’s Sensation club as a solo singer, then forming a group called the Falcons that included cousin Levi Stubbs, who later went on to lead the Four Tops (two more of Wilson’s cousins, Hubert Johnson and Levi’s brother Joe, later became members of The Contours). The other members joined Hank Ballard as part of The Midnighters.

Jackie Wilson was soon discovered by talent agent Johnny Otis, who assigned him to join a group called the Thrillers. That group would later be known as The Royals (who would later evolve into R&B group, The Midnighters, but Wilson wasn’t part of the group when they changed their name and signed with King Records). Wilson, however, has credited LaVern Baker for his discovery. Baker, Little Willie John, Johnnie Ray and Della Reese were acts managed by Al Green, owner of two music publishing companies, Pearl Music and Merrimac Music, and Detroit’s Flame Show Bar where Wilson met LaVern Baker. After recording two versions of “Danny Boy” with Dizzy Gillespie’s record label Dee Gee Records under the name Sonny Wilson (his nickname), Wilson was recruited by Billy Ward in 1953 to join a group Ward formed in 1950 called The Dominoes after a successful audition to replace the immensely popular Clyde McPhatter, who had left and formed his own group, The Drifters. Ward felt a stage name would fit The Dominoes’ image, hence Jackie Wilson. Prior to leaving The Dominoes, Wilson was coached by McPhatter on the sound Billy Ward wanted for his group, influencing Wilson’s singing style. “I learned a lot from Clyde, that high-pitched choke he used and other things…Clyde McPhatter was my man. Clyde and Billy Ward.” Forties blues singer Roy Brown was also an influence on him, and Wilson also grew up listening to The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots, Louis Jordan and Al Jolson. Wilson was the group’s lead singer for three years, but the Dominoes lost some of their stride with the departure of McPhatter. They were able to make appearances riding on the strength of the group’s earlier hits, until 1956 when the Dominoes recorded Wilson with an unlikely interpretation of the pop hit, “St. Therese of the Roses”, before he began a solo career in 1957. After leaving the Dominoes, he and cousin Levi got work at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar, owned by Al Green. Green worked out a deal with Decca Records, and Wilson was signed to their subsidiary label, Brunswick.

Shortly before Wilson signed a solo contract with Brunswick, Green suddenly died. Green’s business partner, Nat Tarnopol, took over as Wilson’s manager (and later rose to president of Brunswick). Wilson’s first single was released, “Reet Petite” from the album He’s So Fine, which became a modest R&B success (and many years later, a huge international smash). The song was written by another former boxer, Berry Gordy, Jr., who co-wrote it with partner Roquel “Billy” Davis (who also went by the pseudonym Tyran Carlo) and Gordy’s sister Gwendolyn. Soon the trio composed and produced nine hit singles for Wilson, including “To Be Loved”, “(That’s Why) I Love You So”, “I’ll Be Satisfied” and his late-1958 signature song, “Lonely Teardrops”, which peaked at No. 7 on the pop charts, No. 1 on the R&B charts, and established him as an R&B superstar known for his extraordinary, operatic multi-octave vocal range.

Due to his fervor when performing, with his dynamic dance moves, singing and impeccable dress, he was soon christened “Mr. Excitement”, a title he would keep for the remainder of his career. His stagecraft in his live shows inspired Michael Jackson, and Elvis Presley among others. Presley was so impressed by Wilson that he made it a point to meet Mr. Excitement, and the two instantly became good friends. Presley once dubbed Jackie “The Black Elvis.” Wilson’s powerful, electrifying live performances rarely failed to bring audiences to a state of frenzy. His live performances consisted of knee-drops, splits,spins, one-footed across-the floor slides, basic boxing steps (advance and retreat shuffling) and teasing the ladies by letting one of the least attractive girls in the audience come up and kiss him. Wilson also admitted he was influenced by Presley too, saying ““A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.” However, unlike Presley, Jackie, incredibly, could somersault backward in mid air, and land into a split on cue, just one of many dynamic dance moves he was famous for .

In 1958, Davis and Gordy left Wilson and Brunswick after royalty disputes escalated between them and Nat Tarnopol. Davis soon became a successful staff songwriter and producer for Chess Records, while Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and used money he also earned from royalties writing for Wilson to start his own recording studio, Hitsville USA, the foundation of Motown Records in his native Detroit. Meanwhile, convinced that Wilson could venture out of R&B and rock and roll, Tarnopol had the singer record operatic ballads and easy listening material, pairing him with Decca Records’ veteran arranger Dick Jacobs. Wilson scored hits as he entered the sixties with the No. 15 “Doggin’ Around”, the No. 1 pop ballad “Night”, and “Baby Workout”, another Top 10 hit (No. 5), which he composed with Midnighters member Alonzo Tucker. His songwriting alliance with Tucker also turned out other songs, including “No Pity (In The Naked City)” and “I’m So Lonely.” Top 10 hits continued with “Alone At Last” (No. 8 in 1960) and “My Empty Arms” (No. 9 in 1961).

Also in 1961, Wilson recorded a tribute album to Al Jolson, Nowstalgia…You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, which included the only album liner notes he ever wrote: “…to the greatest entertainer of this or any other era…I guess I have just about every recording he’s ever made, and I rarely missed listening to him on the radio…During the three years I’ve been making records, I’ve had the ambition to do an album of songs, which, to me, represent the great Jolson heritage…This is simply my humble tribute to the one man I admire most in this business…to keep the heritage of Jolson alive.” The album was a commercial failure.

Following the success of “Baby Workout”, Wilson experienced a lull in his career between 1964 and 1966 as Tarnopol and Brunswick Records released a succession of unsuccessful albums and singles. Despite the lack of sales success, he still made artistic gains as he recorded an album with Count Basie, as well as a series of duets with rhythm and blues legend Lavern Baker and gospel singer Linda Hopkins.

In 1966, he scored the first of two big comeback singles with established Chicago soul producer Carl Davis with “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”, a No. 6 Pop smash in 1967, which became one of his final pop hits. This was followed by “I Get the Sweetest Feeling”, which, despite its modest initial chart success in the US (Billboard Pop #34), has since become one of his biggest international chart successes, becoming a Top 10 hit in the UK twice, in 1972 and in 1987, and a Top 20 hit in the Dutch Top 40, and has spawned numerous cover versions by other artists such as Edwin Starr, Will Young, Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sister) and Liz McClarnon.

A key to his musical rebirth was that Davis insisted that Wilson no longer record with Brunswick’s musicians in New York; instead, he would record with legendary Detroit musicians normally employed by Motown Records and also Davis’ own Chicago-based session players. The Detroit musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, participated on Wilson’s recordings due to their respect for Davis and Wilson.

By 1975, Wilson and The Chi-Lites were Brunswick’s only significant artists left on the aging label’s roster. Until then, Wilson continued to record singles that found success on the R&B chart, but found no significant pop chart success. His final hit, “You Got Me Walkin’ “, written by Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites, was released in 1972 with the Chi-Lites backing him on vocals and instruments.

Wilson’s personal life was full of tragedies. In 1960 in New Orleans, Wilson was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer when fans tried to climb onstage with Wilson. He shoved a policeman who shoved one of the fans. Wilson had a reputation of being rather quick-tempered. On February 15, 1961 in Manhattan, Wilson was injured in a shooting. It is said the real story behind this incident is that one of his girlfriends, Juanita Jones, shot and wounded him in a jealous rage when he returned to his apartment with another woman, fashion model Harlean Harris, an ex-girlfriend of Sam Cooke’s. Supposedly, his management concocted a story to protect Wilson’s reputation; that Jones was an obsessed fan who had threatened to shoot herself, and that Wilson’s intervention resulted in him being shot. Wilson was shot twice: One bullet would result in the loss of a kidney, the other lodged too close to his spine to be operated on. However, in early 1975, in an interview conducted by author Arnold Shaw, Wilson maintained it actually was an overzealous fan whom he didn’t know, that had shot him. “We also had some trouble in 1961. That was when some crazy chick took a shot at me and nearly put me away for good…” Nonetheless, the story of the overzealous fan was accepted, and no charges were brought against Jones.

Freda Hood, Wilson’s first wife, with whom he had four children, divorced him in 1965 after 14 years of marriage, frustrated with his notorious womanizing. Although the divorce was amicable, Freda would regret her decision. Freda never stopped loving him, and Jackie treated her as though she were still his wife. His 16-year-old son, Jackie Jr. was shot and killed on a neighbor’s porch in 1970 and two of Wilson’s daughters also died at a young age. His daughter Sandra died in 1977 at the age of 24 of an apparent heart attack. Jacqueline Wilson was killed in 1988 in a drug related incident in Highland Park, Michigan. The death of Jackie Jr. devastated Wilson, and for the next couple of years he remained mostly a recluse.

Wilson’s second marriage was to model Harlean Harris in 1967 with whom he had three children, but they separated soon after. Wilson later met and lived with Lynn Crochet. He was with Crochet until his heart attack in 1975. However, as he and Harris never officially divorced, Harris took the role of Wilson’s caregiver for the singer’s remaining nine years.

Wilson was a convert to Judaism.

On September 29, 1975, Wilson suffered a massive heart attack while appearing in Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock ‘N Roll Revue at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Wilson collapsed on stage while singing a line from his hit “Lonely Teardrops” (“My heart is crying…”). He was revived after medical personnel worked nearly 30 minutes to stabilize his vitals, but the lack of oxygen to his brain left him comatose. Meanwhile, Eliza Mae Wilson died only two weeks after Jackie fell into a coma, severely distraught over her son’s illness. He briefly emerged from his coma in early 1976 but slipped back into unconsciousness and was in a vegetative state for the remainder of his life, as an inpatient at a nursing home, eight years and four months. Jackie Wilson died January 21, 1984 of pneumonia, at the age of 49 at Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly, New Jersey after being admitted for having trouble taking nourishment.

Wilson’s funeral was attended by approximately 1,500 relatives, friends and fans. Initially he was buried in an unmarked grave. Months later, however, fans in Detroit raised money to purchase a mausoleum and re-interred him and his mother inside the structure. He is interred in the Westlawn Cemetery in Wayne, Michigan.

In 1987, a segment on Wilson on ABC’s 20/20 featured the complicated legacy and death of Wilson. Both Harlean Harris and Lynn Crochet were interviewed, and the segment implied that Tarnopol took unfair advantage of his dual role as Wilson’s manager and president of Brunswick Records. Jackie trusted Nat Tarnopol implicitly and foolishly signed over power-of-attorney to him. Around the time he left the hospital after the shooting incident, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seized Jackie’s Detroit family home. Tarnopol and his accountant were supposed to take care of such matters. At the time Jackie had declared annual earnings of $263,000, while the average salary a man earned then was roughly $5,000 a year. Yet the fact was he was nearly broke. Fortunately, Jackie made arrangements with the IRS to make restitution on the unpaid taxes and to re-purchase the family home at auction. At the time of his death, it was estimated that Wilson was $300,000 in debt. CBS Records bought the Wilson masters from Brunswick and re-issued them in “The Jackie Wilson Story,” Volumes 1 and 2, in order to help pay for some of the medical expenses he incurred. Charges that Tarnopol swindled Wilson out of most of his earnings were not pursued after Tarnopol’s death.

Michael Jackson honored Jackie Wilson at the 1984 Grammy Awards. Jackson dedicated his Album of the Year Grammy for Thriller to Wilson, saying, “In the entertainment business, there are leaders and there are followers. And I just want to say that I think Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer…I love you and thank you so much.”

Until Jackson’s comments, Wilson’s recording legacy had been dormant for almost a decade. Tarnopol owned Wilson’s recordings due to Brunswick’s separation from MCA, but the label had essentially closed down, essentially deleting Wilson’s considerable recorded legacy. But when Jackson praised Wilson at the Grammys, interest in the legendary singer stirred, and Tarnopol released the first Wilson album (a two-record compilation) in almost nine years through Epic Records, Jackson’s label at the time. Through Tarnopol’s son, Wilson’s music has become more available.

In the VH-1 5-part television special,Say It Loud: A Celebration of Black Music in America, fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Smokey Robinson and Bobby Womack both paid tribute to Jackie. Smokey explained that “Jackie Wilson was the most dynamic singer and performer that I think I’ve ever seen. Bobby added “He was the real Elvis Presley,as far as I’m concerned…and Elvis took a lot from him too.”

In his autobiography To Be Loved (named for one of the hit tunes he wrote for Jackie) Motown founder Berry Gordy stated that Jackie Wilson was “The greatest singer I’ve ever heard”.”The epitome of natural greatness. Unfortunately for some, he set the standard I’d be looking for in singers forever”.

Wilson scored a posthumous hit when “Reet Petite” reached number one in the United Kingdom in 1986. This success was likely due in part to a new animated video made for the song, featuring a clay model of Wilson, that became hugely popular on television. The following year he hit the UK charts again with “I Get the Sweetest Feeling” (No.3), and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (No.11).

In 1999, Wilson’s original version of “Higher and Higher” and “Lonely Teardrops” were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame,and both are on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

In 1988, his version of “To Be Loved” was featured in the movie Coming to America, when Akeem and Lisa were falling in love. Akeem (Eddie Murphy) later came back home singing the song loudly (and poorly), waking up and infuriating his neighbors.

In 1989, “Higher and Higher” was featured heavily in the film Ghostbusters II, the soundtrack album of which featured a cover version of the song by Howard Huntsberry.

In 2005, Jackie Wilson was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame. His recording of “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” was voted a Legendary Michigan Song in 2008.

This is Black Jewish History Month at Manishtana’s Musings.

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MaNishtana@manishtana.net

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