They called him “Mr. Excitement,” and if you ever saw him perform live or on television, you know why. Jackie Wilson was one of the most dynamic figures to ever stride on a stage. You need more than great moves to become a legend though, and Wilson backed it up with one of the most thrilling voices in the history of rhythm and blues.
Wilson grew up in Detroit and was part of a number of vocal groups early on in his career. One of them was the Falcons, not to be confused with the Falcons that Wilson Pickett was in. Joining Wilson in the Falcons was his cousin Levi Stubbs, who of course went on to fame and fortune as the lead singer of the Four Tops. After he was discovered by Johnny Otis, Wilson became part of a group called the Thrillers, who became the Royals, who became the Midnighters, though that was after Wilson left.
Finally, in 1953, Billy Ward came calling. Wilson came on board to replace Clyde McPhatter, who left to form the Drifters. He recorded with the Dominoes for three years, but McPhatter’s shoes were hard to fill, and further success was elusive for the group. Wilson finally went solo, and got a deal with Decca Records, which signed him to their Brunswick subsidiary.
Wilson’s first single for Brunswick, “Reet Petite,” met with modest success. What makes the record of particular interest is that is was written by one Berry Gordy, Jr., along with his sister Gwendolyn, and Roquel “Billy” Davis. The trio wrote and produced six more singles for Wilson, including “To Be Loved,” “I’ll Be Satisfied,” and Wilson’s big 1958 hit “Lonely Teardrops”. These records combined to make Wilson a superstar. “Lonely Teardrops” was released by Brunswick and raced up the charts all the way to #7 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and #1 on the R&B chart. It was Wilson’s first Top Ten hit, and landed him on high visibility tv shows like Ed Sullivan, and American Bandstand.
If you’ve had a chance to see James Brown, Michael Jackson, or even Elvis, consider where their moves came from. Wilson was a thrilling stage performer with an wide array of knee drops, splits, slides, and boxing moves in his arsenal. He influenced generations of performers, including the aforementioned superstars, with his stage presence.
Even after Gordy and Davis left Brunswick over a royalty dispute, Wilson continued to have hits for the label. They included the #1 pop ballad “Night” in 1962, and the Top Ten (#5) hit “Baby Workout” which was released in 1963. After a brief lull in his career around the time of the British Invasion, Wilson made a big time comeback with the 1966 smash “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder),” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” the following year.
“Higher and Higher” was one of Wilson’s last pop hits, although “The Sweetest Feeling,” a modest success at the time of its release, found success on the UK charts years later. Wilson continued to create R&B hits for Brunswick, but never found renewed success on the pop chart. His last R&B hit, “You Got Me Walkin’,” was released in 1972.
Unfortunately, Jackie Wilson’s personal life was tragic. Known for his quick temper, Wilson was arrested in 1960 for assaulting a New Orleans police officer (he shoved a cop who had shoved one of his fans at a show), and he was shot in a domestic dispute. The 1961 shooting left him with only one kidney, and a bullet lodged near his spine. In 1967 he was arrested on a morals charge in South Carolina for consorting with a white woman in his hotel room. Wilson’s son Jackie Jr. was shot and killed in 1970, and two of his daughters died at a young age. These events led Wilson to depression, and drug abuse.
In 1975, Wilson was on stage at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, NJ. He was performing as part of Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue, and it was while he was singing “Lonely Teardrops” that he suffered a massive heart attack. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he lapsed into a coma. He emerged briefly the following year, but soon fell back into a coma. He spent the rest of his life in a NJ retirement home before being taken to the hospital where he died on January 21, 1984.
Jackie Wilson was only 49 years-old at the time of his death. He was buried in a unmarked grave near Detroit. It wasn’t until 1987 that enough money was raised to purchase a headstone for him.