Book review: 'In the Midnight Hour' chronicles the ups and downs of a soul man
January 22, 2017 12:00 AM
"In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett" by Tony Fletcher.
Tony Fletcher, author of "In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett."
By Carlo Wolff
Like his contemporary, rival and occasional fan James Brown, Wilson Pickett was born to poverty in the deep South. And, like Mr. Brown, Mr. Pickett had a destructive temper, making him difficult to like in life and as a biographical subject.
Nevertheless, British journalist Tony Fletcher, who also has written biographies of Keith Moon, the Smiths and R.E.M., makes the most of Mr. Pickett’s stormy story, undeniable talent and influence on the soul men, both black and white, who followed him.
Mr. Fletcher tracks Mr. Pickett from his birth as the fourth of 11 children in a shack in rural Prattsville, Ala., in 1941 to his death in Reston, Va., in January 2006, mere weeks after the death of Lou Rawls.
Wilson Pickett died at 64, his body shot by drugs and alcohol, his family shredded and contentious, his musical legacy unmistakable. This book is an attempt to give Mr. Pickett props he deserves at least as much as the more publicized, more heralded and perhaps equally vilified James Brown.
"IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: THE LIFE & SOUL OF WILSON PICKETT"
By Tony Fletcher Oxford University Press ($27.95).
Mr. Pickett dissed the Godfather of Soul with reason, Mr. Fletcher suggests.
“Outwardly, Pickett rarely wasted an opportunity to put his rival down. ‘James Brown, to me, is strictly small-time,’ he told the New Musical Express’ Nick Kent in 1979. ‘Just some Georgian kid workin’ in some cramped sweaty bar where the stage is so damn small there’s only room for him and the drummer. Guitar player’s working his lips in the bathroom, sweat drippin’ off the walls, ha! Yup, that’s how James Brown started and that’s how I always think of him.”
“Pickett had a point somewhere in the midst of his insult: James Brown records of the mid-to-late 1960s were thin, reedy and emblematic of the fact that they were recorded in haste, on the road, often around a single microphone. By comparison, Pickett’s craft was built around his voice and his studio performances, where time and money were never an issue for Atlantic; his recordings were among the most accomplished and polished of the era. Brown’s loose funk offered a direct connection to Africa; Pickett’s tight jerk became a cornerstone of American rock. In the process, Brown won the loyalty of the black audience; Pickett crossed over to the whites.”
Not only did Mr. Pickett cross over to whites on Atlantic, Stax and Fame recordings, he blended with them in studios in the South, New York and Philadelphia. Mr. Pickett also adapted to contemporary styles in working with predominantly or exclusively white backup bands, with guitar hero Duane Allman (the organic marvel of their “Hey Jude” gets a full treatment) and the Gamble-Huff organization.
While such classics as “In the Midnight Hour,” “Mustang Sally” and “Land of 1000 Dances,” still get people on their feet, their success didn’t make Mr. Pickett’s life that much smoother, particularly after disco took over.
Gamble-Huff formalized disco after crafting the unusual and striking hit, “Get Me Back on Time Engine Number 9,” for Mr. Pickett in 1970. Paradoxically, “Engine” virtually brought an end to his commercial career. With its tyranny of the beat and emphasis on rhythm, disco shouldered the voice out of pop music. And Mr. Pickett was above all a voice.
Apolitical, ridiculously handsome and apparently oblivious to race — if not without prejudice — Mr. Pickett was a complex character who, Mr. Fletcher suggests, rarely felt in control of his career. Although he was among the first black stars to tour with an integrated band, Mr. Pickett also didn’t trust banks, dealt in cash and, particularly when coked up, became viciously paranoid.
In 1987, touring behind the Motown album “American Soul Man,” Mr. Pickett, awash in vodka, started a fight with bassist Kevin Walker, who hit Mr. Pickett in the left eye with a towel rack, compromising the Wicked’s vision from then on. Motown dropped its support.
Mr. Pickett’s voice spoke volumes, at times almost in harmony with itself. But Mr. Pickett’s life, despite its triumphs — and there were a few, particularly in the ’60s — spoke mostly to conflict and to demons he couldn’t control. Those curious about the dynamic tension that gave one of the great American soul men his unique sound and power will enjoy Tony Fletcher’s thorough and ultimately sad book.
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