The Midnight Mover. The Soul Screamer. The Man and a Half. Or, most simply and most evocatively, the Wicked. Wilson Pickett’s nicknames capture the uninhibited passion of his style and image, but no single phrase can convey the power of his voice, which stands as a blistering landmark in the development of soul.
If Otis Redding represented the vulnerable, tormented soul man and Marvin Gaye personified the suave, sophisticated lover, Pickett was the baddest, most indomitable of all soul singers. The gleeful swagger and raw sexuality of “Mustang Sally” and “I’m a Midnight Mover” updated Muddy Waters’s Mannish Boy for a new, urban audience, anticipating both the Shaft-Superfly blaxploitation heroes and the boasting persona assumed by many rappers.
Pickett, who will turn fifty this March, first came to prominence in Detroit after migrating from Alabama. Gospel harmonies and secular themes were being fused for the first time in R&B vocal groups, and he quickly joined the Falcons, a popular local quintet. Pickett wrote and sang lead on the aching 1962 hit “I Found a Love,” which, in its scorching physicality, couldn’t have been further from the subtle, crafted records being cut across town in Motown’s Hitsville studios. A single he cut for Lloyd Price’s Double L Records drew the attention of Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who immediately snagged Pickett’s “If You Need Me” as a showcase for Atlantic soul belter Solomon Burke. Pickett subsequently signed with Atlantic in 1964.
After two singles failed to catch on, Wexler played a hunch and took Pickett to Memphis’s Stax studios in May 1965. Pickett and guitarist Steve Cropper instantly set to work on “In the Midnight Hour,” which Cropper says was inspired by a vocal ad-lib of Pickett’s on a live recording. “Midnight Hour” was rougher and lustier than anything ever heard on pop radio. It became Pickett’s most unforgettable standard, and as the first collaboration between Atlantic and the Stax team it was the harbinger of a new era in soul in which the action would shift to the South and its funkier, looser sound.
Pickett followed up with a steady string of hits over the next six years, including a pair of triumphant covers, “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Funky Broadway,” which both climbed into the pop Top Ten. Mercurial, often difficult, Pickett shifted his studio base from Memphis to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and also worked in Miami. As the Seventies dawned, Pickett hooked up with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, creators of the lusher Philly Soul sound, with whom he recorded such hits as “Engine Number 9” and “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.”
There was one constant, though, guaranteeing that no matter where or with whom he worked, a Wilson Pickett record would never be mistaken for anything else: that urgent, wailing voice. The ferocious howl usually hovered just at the edge of hysteria, yet Pickett always managed to keep it under control. Jerry Wexler once said, “Wilson would scream notes where other screamers just scream sound.” Pickett himself has said of his celebrated scream, “You can feel it coming, but you don’t let it go until the moment is exactly right.” And at that perfect moment, you have the essence of the Wicked Pickett. You have soul.