Jackie Wilson’s vocal virtuosity, casual asides, explosive stage moves and projection of raw sexuality had a major impact on the young Elvis Presley. Years later, Michael Jackson named him as a major influence. With a career spanning the R&B, rock & roll and soul years, Wilson left his mark as a consummate stage performer; as a live-wire barn burner, Wilson arguably had only one peer, James Brown. But while Brown was a musical innovator, Wilson was an entertainer first, last and always. Nobody who saw him perform is likely to forget it, but his recordings were an uneven lot; if you hadn’t seen him live, you might wonder what all the excitement was about.
This long-overdue three-CD, seventy-two-song retrospective aims to restore Wilson to his rightful place as one of pop music’s most spectacularly gifted artists. How well it succeeds depends to some degree on the listener’s tolerance for white-bread vocal choruses and string arrangements and wildly inconsistent material. Although we are spared the singer’s forays into light-classical and operatic material and most of the standards he recorded with a nod to the supper-club set, what is left is still a mixed bag. Nevertheless, there are more than enough spectacular performances to bear witness to Wilson’s extraordinary talent. His best records, from “Lonely Teardrops” (1958) and the bluesy “Doggin’ Around” (1960) to his 1967 triumph “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” require no caveats. They are classics, but they continue to pack more of a charge than most music of similar vintage due to Wilson’s larger-than-life presence and goose-bump-raising vocal turns.
With his gospel roots, showbiz polish, street smarts and virtuosity, Wilson seemed to have it all. But if his early years as a Detroit tough and aspiring boxer brought a certain pugilistic sensibility to his vocal acrobatics, all the hard knocks in the world couldn’t prepare him for the sharks swimming in his sector of the music business. Despite his brilliant peaks and his ability to come up with strong records year after year, he never seemed to have been worth much more than his latest hit — or nonhit. He died in a nursing home in 1984 while various parties disputed what there was of his estate, a cautionary end for a singer who injected so much excitement into so many lives.