There is something about soul music that is incredibly hard to put into words. Its ability to reach the listener and touch them in ways they never knew give credence to the title of its genre. The men and women who perfected their craft singing soul music became legends in the process. Many of them are no longer with us having died either violently or tragically. Planes crashes, murder, drugs and diseases formed the nexus of poison from which they chose. Nevertheless, their voices still reign supreme and remind us of an era which we will never see again. James Brown is known as the “Godfather of Soul” but in reality there were other challengers to the throne, most notably the late Wilson Pickett (1941-2006). He is best known for his classic hit “In the Midnight Hour” which helped propelled him to legendary status. But behind the music was a man whose life was anything but ordinary. Instead it was filled with genius, vices, love and heartbreak. Pickett’s death on January 19, 2006 at the age of just sixty-four years of age, was the final chapter in the singer’s life which had steadily declined in his final years. However, to this day he still remembered as one of the best to ever do it and his legacy is cemented in the many memorable songs he mastered during his time on this earth.
But just who was the real Wilson Pickett? And how much of his on stage persona crossed over into his personal life? Tony Fletcher was born in Yorkshire, England and some might find it surprisingly that a White Englishman chose to chronicle Pickett’s life. But by Fletcher’s own admission, he grew up listening to soul and the book became a passion. Regardless of his country of origin, he has thrown his weight behind this excellent biography of the late singer. The story begins in Prattville, Alabama when Pickett enters the world on March 18, 1941. His early life was quite chaotic with the young Pickett moving from state to state as he discovers himself and his talent for singing. It isn’t long before he begins to ply his trade and once his career took off, it took him on a ride that some can only dream about. The heights he reached in his career were astounding and his induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame was the figurative icing on the cake. His true goal stayed out of reach and until the day he died, he never did get the Grammy Award he coveted. But he did top charts and sell out arenas and his music has stood the test of time.
Like all great musicians, there was a very dark side to Pickett stemming from his unorthodox childhood and indulgence in drugs and alcohol. Combined with Pickett’s hair-trigger temper, the concoction resulted in acts of violence on many occasions, some of which would land Pickett behind bars later in life. Domestic violence also reared its ugly head and not even band members could escape his wrath. In later years he would attempt to make amends for those acts but his reputation as unstable would never leave him. The descriptions of Pickett’s acts of violence and comments from those who were their as a witness or as the recipient, are mind-boggling but also an inside look into the paranoia that nearly consumed Pickett. As his drug use increased, so did his paranoia as he begun to spin out of control. His downfall placed him on the list of celebrities whose lives were nearly or completely ruined by drugs, alcohol, money issues and in some cases, crime. Their daily lives became a walk on a fine line between genius and completely insanity. For Pickett, his genius behind making hit music and captivating audiences was betrayed by his backstage antics and precarious mental state. Some speakers in the book speculate that he may have had a mental condition that was never diagnosed. Whether that was the case, his actions can only be described as surreal. Fletcher brings the past to life leaving the reader mystified at Pickett’s actions.
Remarkably, nearly all that knew him, loved him even with his sometimes dangerous flaws. In death he was elevated to a higher status on order of soul singers whose natural talents were believed to have been given by divine intervention. Some of the make an appearance in the book such as Robert Dwayne “Bobby” Womack (1944-2014), Riley B. “B.B.” King (1925-2015) and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Louise Franklin (1942-2018). Womack is a critical part of the story and those sections will undoubtedly pull the reader in. Pickett’s lovers including ex-wife Bonnie Covington and his children would all be witnesses and the targets of his rage and his relationship with his son Michael is perhaps the most surreal example of parental fail I have ever seen. But that was Pickett, the good, the bad and the brutal. After his death they would all come together giving him the proper send off to the next life. The world lost a musical legend who suffered from inner turmoil, paranoia and ultimately vices which he could not shake. This is the story of the life of Wilson Pickett, a soul music legend.