My delight at hearing that finally someone had written a book on Wilson Pickett was initially dampened on reading the author's background which appeared predominately pop oriented and very rock orientated slanted; soulless to be frank. However reading the preface alone won me over. His enthusiasm for the subject was obvious and his summary sounded like he had done his homework. I think all good books should tell a convincing story, including biographies. This book excels in that it tells a number of stories concurrently. The key thread is obviously Pickett’s story and his evolution from cotton picking family to major artist. But it also tells the connected story of the African-American experience of that time, relating his life to the mass migration from South to North, and how this impacts on the northern cities and specifically Detroit. And in telling Pickett's story he skilfully reveals the history of Soul music, transitioning from gospel to soul. Fletcher weaves these stories successfully, often moving from one narrative to the other, but never losing his key theme. The combinations of these themes allows Fletcher to provide a historical and sociological background to Pickett’s story, while always focusing on his central argument that Pickett was among the key figures in the evolution of soul music.
The book is in three sections, reflecting key stages of Pickett's life, Part one, the majority of the book, tells the story from 1941-1972, starting with Pickett's upbringing in rural Alabama. It describes a typical life of the day for black Americans in the South, with poverty, little education and poor employment. He weaves stories of Pickett's youth with local history and the generic experience of the community, presenting a fascinating and well-structured view of life and times in the 40’s and 50’s. Pickett’s father was one of the early migrants North, to Detroit and the impact that has on the family is aligned to the many families who followed this path. He paints a picture of Pickett as a fighter, mentally and physically, always standing up for himself, determined to not make money for others, whites, as sharecroppers did. Also, as in so many stories of those days the Church played a huge part in harnessing his personality and his talent. From an early age Pickett's musical talent is obvious, and his devotion to music and faith is strong, The author tells this story while reflecting on the burgeoning soul world with well researched insights into the gospel scene. Fletcher shows the challenges generally and specific factors that lead to many peoples reluctant migration from gospel to soul, showing the impact on the burgeoning Detroit music scene and of the parallel rise of traditional Soul Music.
This section moves up a gear when Pickett moves from the The Violinaires to The Falcons, gospel to soul. Detailed accounts are given of Pickett's performances and the musicians involved; the impact on his personality, becoming a fiercely dedicated artist but a troubled individual, with rumours of personal violence, ruthlessly determined to make it in the world and sometimes by any means necessary. There are fascinating stories in here, such as Pickett’s competitive relationship with James Brown and the challenges of travelling in a segregated America. The stories are well relayed with Pickett’s story told alongside the musical and historical background of the time. Large parts of the second half of this section focus on his Atlantic career, focusing heavily on Jerry Wexler’s views and his recordings in the South, and it is at this phase that Fletcher's love for Pickett's music really starts to shine through. His descriptions of the initial Stax recordings for Picket make this book worth buying on their own.
Section one continues this vein, with in depth descriptions of all recordings, the studios they are made in and the musicians involved, interspersed with details of his increasingly difficult personal reputation. It spends lots of time discussing his relationship with Bobby Womack, which left me wishing this author had taken on the Womack biography, the good and bad influences Womack brought. It also describes in detail his sessions in the southern studios, making some of the finest music ever to be produced for Pickett. An insight is provided into the influential American Studios and Fame studios. All absolutely essential details for anyone who loves Pickett and southern soul. The final part of this sections tells of Pickett's experience in Africa and the Soul to Soul film, highlight the changing times in music and how that impacted on Pickett's career; leading to him leaving the Atlantic label.
In all honesty if the book finished there it would have been still a success to me, and I suspect it is more about the quality of music and the author's personal taste than any lack of material available post 1971 that the first section accounts for over 75% of the book. However the author does continue onto his post Atlantic career in the following sections, bringing us up to his death in 2006. Section two provides a picture of some poor career choices, and poorer personal lifestyle choices with descriptions of the recordings to 1999. There isn’t as great a deal of enthusiasm for them, and it presents a picture of a failing artist and a human struggling with a lifestyle and an ego unsatisfied by his career. It also highlights a number of poor choices that lead to him following James Brown, ironically, into a spell in prison. Section three picks up from here and shows a certain amount of personal and career rehabilitation, ironically again, in part due to the film Blues Brothers 2000. A massive failure, but it gave Pickett some mainstream exposure, changing his audience but allowing him to continue to make a living on the live music scene and make music for a now predominately white blues orientated audience. All the while Pickett fought his personal demons in what seemed a more managed manner, but with failing health until his sad ending. These sections are comparatively light but interesting enough to keep me reading through.
Overall, this book delivers on many angles. Often soul biographies have left disappointment, either in style or content, sometimes reading like a direct transition from tape to book with little soul added. However this delivers positively in both areas. It is both well written and well researched, with amazing enthusiasm for the music. The author describes the key recordings in knowledgeable detail but retains the fans element. His admiration for Pickett’s music shines through in his words. If there was to be any small criticism, I would say it is weighted heavily towards the music rather than the personality, reading as a loving homage to his 60’s music, without delving too deep into the man behind the talent. This is maybe no bad thing, as the facts sometimes included hint at a troubled man. That’s not to say there is not more than enough on Pickett here to keep the interest going, I am not totally sure how much new information is contained here for the real music scholars, much being a gathering of already recorded facts, but there was lots new to me and Pickett more than deserves the honour of a publication dedicated purely to him. Overall, I think this is one of best put together artist stories for some time, and the narrative structure and the description of his 60’s recordings make it worthwhile in their own right.
Jock O'Connor. April 2017.
"In the Midnight Hour. The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett" by Tony Fletcher is available to order as a hardback now in the new book section.