Wilson Picket is dead. A heart attack took him last Thursday at age 64. The quintessential soul man, the Wicked Pickett lived large, with an appetite for cars, guns, women and wine. His brushes with the law included carrying a loaded shotgun in his car and threatening the life of the mayor of Englewood, N.J.
It was Jerry Wexler, co-founder of Atlantic Records and producer of most of Pickett's hits, who first came up with the panther image, recalling the first time he saw Pickett glide into a room. But it was the voice that truly set him apart from the rest of the population. A lot of soul men could holler, but few could pull it up from the depths of their souls like Pickett. It was a righteous scream, honed in church and while singing with the gospel group the Falcons in his hometown of Detroit.
Like other soul singers, Pickett took material from gospel and dragged it, kicking and screaming, into secular music. "I Found a Love" was a hit for the Falcons. But the song as recorded then and re-released untouched in '67 on Atlantic's The Best of Wilson Pickett was pure soul.
The same was true of another of his big hits, In the Midnight Hour. The beat, it's said, came from Pickett showing Wexler a dance step, telling him that the kids were dancing on the offbeat, accenting the second beat instead of the first. But the lyrics came from church: "I'm gonna meet sweet Jesus in the midnight hour."
Even his covers were stunning. A sugary throwaway like the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" got carmelized by Pickett's blowtorch delivery. "Land of a Thousand Dances," written by New Orleans' Chris Kenner and a hit for Cannibal and the Headhunters, was transformed into his biggest hit in '66. Pickett even made it into the Top 20 in '69 with "Hey Jude."
Unlike many black performers of his generation, he got some of the recognition he deserved, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in '91. He won three W.C. Handy awards, including comeback album of the year for 1999's It's Harder Now.
And he continued to tour. His perfomance at the Bull Durham Blues Festival a few years back was electrifying. Pickett ripped through his catalogue with fire and intensity, inviting the audience up on stage to dance with him, and taunting policemen who objected to it. The scream was intact, and that's the way you should remember him: not as an aging soulman whose time had passed, but as a fiery survivor who could still move a crowd.