JACKIE WILSON / “Lonely Teardrops”
Mr. Excitement! That’s what they called him. This is the guy who set the standard for what would later be known as “Soul Singers”—especially those who could both sing and dance.
Born June 9, 1934 in Detroit, Jackie Wilson defined the genre to such an extent that few, if any, of his contemporaries wanted to follow him on stage. Jackie had two talents: singing and athletics—he definitely could have been a major voice as an opera singer and possibly could have been a contender as a pugilist. To say he was a knock-out entertainer is an understatement.
Jackie pioneered moves that made Elvis Presley envious. The liner notes quote Elvis talking about Jackie. “…he hit that ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and he was tryin’ so hard ‘till he got better, boy. Wooh! Man, he sang that song…I went back four nights straight and heard that guy do that. Man, he sung hell outta that song, and I was under the table, lookin’ at him. Git him off! Git him off!” Elvis was not known to consider any other singer better them himself, but he gave it up for Jackie Wilson. And why not, even in his wildest dreams, Elvis knew he could neither out sing nor out dance Jackie Wilson.
Jackie’s performance was so powerful that he could work his magic in Las Vegas hotel or in a Mississippi juke joint. He could charm the jewels off a crowd at the Waldorf Astoria and then head uptown and make the patrons swoon at the famed (and infamously hard-to-please) Apollo Theatre.
In the extensive liner notes to The Titan Of Soul, producer/musician Billy Vera describes a Jackie Wilson performance: “To fully appreciate Jackie, you would have to see him, twirling his mohair suit jacket above his head (he has already perspired clean through his black, custom-made shirt, which has ripped the length of his back), jumping up, landing in a split, with still enough breath to hit a note so high only a dog can hear it. In a micro-second he’s pulled himself up by his own collar, done a 360-degree spin, kicked the mike stand, and pulled it back by its cord so it lands in this right hand. The jacket ends up behind him (after he’s teased the first six rows with it), and a few Elvis hiccups later, he’s on his back, his head hanging over the edge of the stage.”
Jackie Wilson was so good that James Brown even took a backseat to Jackie in his prime—I remember one amusing bit of high school gossip that declared that James Brown was going to change his name to Jamesetta and marry Jackie Wilson. For me, however, it was not the dancing but that voice. Jackie could sing anything and inject it with soul. He actually recorded opera as well as ethnic songs such as “My Yiddish Momme” and “Danny Boy” (which, incidentally, was Wilson’s first single and which he re-recorded twice more, achieving hit status with a 1965 version); he expertly did show tunes and Hollywood; reveled in the blues and whooped it up on the Beatles. He could—and did—do it all.
“Doggin’ Around” sticks with me because of the pleading menace in his voice. He is so distraught he threatens to do bodily harm to himself, and you believe him. “Doggin’ Around” is a down and out blues, but then there’s “Danny Boy,” even though its origins are a long way from the blues, it became a signature song for Wilson.
A few weeks back we were considering the work of Louis Armstrong. Jackie sings like Pop’s horn is in Wilson’s throat. The sheer power of his voice, the clarity of the high notes and the irresistible rhythmic attack.
The raw energy of a piece like “Workout” that mixes a jazzy big band arrangement with screaming and shouting rhythm and blues is a perfect illustration of Jackie’s versatility, especially when you compare the shouting intensity of “Workout” with the subtle vocal gymnastics on the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Stardust,” on which Jackie alternates between note perfect interval jumps and soulful slides and melismas that would become the stock and trade of Soul singers. The outright moaning of “No Pity” contains elements that would reappear time and time again among singers who followed this titan. Just one small example: who would think to look for Michael Jackson’s falsetto yelps in a Jackie Wilson performance? Well, listen closely to “No Pity.”
Of course, some will argue that it’s a stretch to jump from Jackie Wilson to Michael Jackson, but I reply, not if you understand the Berry Gordy connection. The what? I’m not just talking Motown in a generic geographic sense but rather deep, deep connections. Prior to starting Motown Records, Berry Gordy made his mark as a songwriter. Moreover, some of Berry’s first major hits were songs such as “To Be Loved” (#7 on the R&B charts) and “Lonely Teardrops” (#1 on the R&B charts), both of which Berry co-wrote specifically for Jackie Wilson.
Unfortunately for Wilson he never signed with a major label and therefore never had the marketing muscle behind his work that many lesser artists received, and as a result many of today’s music lovers are oblivious to the talent and importance of Jackie Wilson.
On September 29, 1975 while touring with Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock & Roll Revue, Jackie Wilson was stricken by a massive heart attack. He was performing “Lonely Teardrops” when he fell and hit his head, hard. Although he hung on for a little over eight years in and out of comas, he never fully recovered and died on January 21, 1984. A tragic end to an energetic and exciting singer who helped ushered in the Soul music era.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
You mentioned James Brown
I noticed that you mentioned James Brown. I didn’t hear any Michael Jackson similarities, but I definitely heard the James Brown thing. That kind of quivering trailing off of the held notes on the ballads is something I always thought of as a James Brown trademark, so I guess I learned something.
Also, you’re right about today’s music lovers being oblivious to Jackie Wilson. I recognized a couple of the bigger hits (“Lonely Teardrops” and “Doggin’ Around”), but I’ve never heard the rest. The thing is, I know the music of a lot of Jackie’s contempories. Folks like Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, The Coasters, etc.—Jackie’s music sounds like it’s of the same era, but for whatever reason, he’s not as well known.
—Mtume ya Salaam
It first occurs at the 49-second mark into “Pity,” and then at the 1:41-second mark, Jackie does that little falsetto catch in his throat twice, as if to make sure we catch it. It is not as obvious as when Michael Jackson does it but nevertheless it is there and Jackie was the first that I know of to do it.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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