Like a lot of his peers, Wilson Pickett was primarily known as a singles artist; most people, if they remember his work at all, know him for “In the Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1000 Dances,” or “Mustang Sally,” despite the long list of albums he recorded between 1965 and 1999. You might think you’d be able to get all the Pickett you need from one of the many chintzy single-disc greatest hits collections on the market — and you’d definitely be forgiven for scoffing at the prospect of a six-CD, 154-track, seven hour and 45-minute box set compiling (almost) everything Pickett released during the first 16 years of his recording career. Overkill, right? Ridiculous overkill.
But no. You’d be wrong. And as proof, I present Funky Midnight Mover: The Atlantic Studio Recordings (1962-1978), Rhino Handmade’s latest dream come true for the passionate music collector. I had my doubts going in — even as an ardent fan of Pickett’s Stax-flavored brand of gritty Memphis soul, I was unfamiliar with much of what Funky Midnight Mover has to offer, and I assumed that, as with most boxes, the real value would lie in the first few discs. Go into the set looking for that dropoff point, though, and you’re going to be waiting for an awfully long time; by my count, things don’t start to turn sour until “Groove City,” a dismal disco tune that sashays out as the second-to-last track on the final disc — in other words, track 153 of 154. Everything else is vintage Wicked Pickett.
Funky Midnight Mover‘s overall consistency is even more remarkable when you consider that it unfolds chronologically. The first three tracks come courtesy of the Falcons, the R&B outfit Pickett joined after deciding there wasn’t any money in gospel music, but these aren’t just dusty demos: Pickett emerges fully formed, kicking ass well before the fateful Stax sessions that produced his early hits. In fact, it takes Mover more than 20 tracks to reach “In the Midnight Hour,” and although that’s unquestionably one of his career peaks, it really doesn’t sound like a giant step forward next to the stuff Atlantic had him record when they were trying to figure out what to do with him. As he’d later prove when covering “Sugar Sugar” and “Born to Be Wild,” Pickett had enough fire to burn even the most ill-suited material.
And burn he did — he burned so bright that by the time you get to the end of the second disc, you’re checking your watch, waiting for him to explode in a scream and a spray of sweat. Sadly, Pickett’s classic era went out not with a boom but a whimper, the victim of a changing marketplace and label indifference; though “Groove City” is the worst track here, he’d go on to record even crummier stuff during the late ’70s and ’80s as he wandered through various legal troubles and bad label deals. He only managed to get himself back on track toward the end of his life; his last album, the moving It’s Harder Now, was released in 1999, seven years before his death (and easily 25 years since he’d ceased to be relevant).
It was a shitty final act for a career that once held unlimited promise, but you don’t need to think about any of that while basking in the glow of Funky Midnight Mover — all you need to do is crank that volume, get up, and get down. (You can also listen while leafing through the 90-plus pages of beautifully designed essays and liner notes, but if you can sit still while these songs are playing, you should see a doctor.) If you spend only $100 on lavishly assembled box sets this year, make it this one.