Early one morning I ran out and hollered, Wilson Pickett once recalled. “My voice echoed down through the swamps, and I thought, ‘Uh-oh. This is it.’ “
That was it, all right. Although he lacks the majestic pipes of Aretha Franklin or the finesse of Otis Redding, Pickett more than compensates with attitude. On incomparable singles such as “In the Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally,” he established himself as an indomitable presence during the heyday of Sixties soul. He was the “Wicked Pickett,” a singer whose voice, barely distinguishable from an insinuating growl, never lost the fearsome hoodoo of those swamps.
Born in 1941 in Alabama, Pickett got his start singing gospel, a style that is still apparent in early tunes such as “I Found a Love” and “If You Need Me.” But he fully came into his own in 1965, when he went to Memphis to record at Stax. Backed by the MGs and the Mar-Keys, he defined a dramatic sound in which terse horn phrases, an infallible rhythm section and Steve Cropper’s spindly guitar lines accentuated the inexorable force of his vocals.
As was typical at the time, Pickett often recorded songs — such as “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Hey Jude” — that had been hits for other artists. But he didn’t so much interpret such material as hijack it. Even the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” becomes a “fuck me, honey” seduction by the time the chorus kicks in. It’s a rare song thatcould resist the wicked one’s masterful caress. A rare listener, too — still to this day.