Most music writers confine themselves to a genre in which they specialise but Fletcher recognises no such boundaries. He opened his account with indie (Echo & The Bunneyman and R.E.M.), slipped back into the mythical golden age (Moon), moved on to punk (The Clash) and even disco (a novel, Hedonism). Then he wrote a history of musical New York and an autobiographical memoir before reverting to type with The Smiths. I must therefore declare an interest: at Omnibus Press I was responsible for publishing the first five of these books and acquiring the UK rights to the sixth, and in the course of all this developed a professional relationship and close friendship with the author. So it follows that I am sympathetic towards his work; then again, in the unlikely event that he’d written a stinker, I’d have said so.
That said, soul and black music generally isn’t an area where Fletcher has previously shown an interest, at least not in the books he writes. However, I happen to know that he’s the proud owner of a Hammond organ, the keyboard that Booker T used to supply those shimmering chords on Otis Redding’s records, as was his late friend and Face Ian McLagan, Small or otherwise, another soulman to his bones. So I guess it was only a matter of time before Fletcher flexed his marathon-toned muscles in this genre.
As he demonstrated in his history of New York’s musical past, Fletcher likes to dip into the history of America too, and in the opening chapters of In The Midnight Hour we learn about Pickett’s breadline childhood in central Alabama, where families are big and dinner portions small, and about the legacy of slavery that mutated into institutional racism buoyed up by the state legislature and redneck cops. Pickett, a name handed down from a slave owner, was one of 11 children and like the rest of them was expected to work in the cotton fields for a pittance. Fat chance. Wilson was a man of talent and ambition with a chip on his shoulder the size of a baked potato, so woe betide anyone who stands in his way. Then again, it might have been the ‘whuppins’ he received from his ma that drove him on. As Fletcher points outs these were administered regularly for minor infringements, not just as punishment but as a warning not to get uppity with white folks. To say the wrong thing to a white woman, Ma Picket knew, could result in retribution much worse than a sore backside.
May 5, 1966: Wilson Pickett on stage with Jimi Hendrix
at an Atlantic Records party is New York.
Like his hero Sam Cooke, Pickett learned to sing in church and, though untroubled by the jump to secular, ‘Lord have mercy’ would litter his lyrics to the last. From Alabama he moves north, to Detroit where he is recruited into The Falcons (alongside Eddie Floyd), and thence to recording in his own right, often with Bobby Womack whose presence is crucial to this story. Fletcher is especially good at tracing Pickett’s path through the murky waters of the sixties music industry wherein producers, managers and agents are all out for what they can get and to hell with morals or ethics. Everyone knew that his lifetime manager, Jimmy Evans, was mafia. “They do no nonsense management,” Pickett’s brother Maxwell tells Fletcher. “When something needs taking care of, they just take care of it.”
On the road music was a cash industry where being handy with a gun was useful, and Pickett didn’t trust banks. He was wary of record companies too and soon cottoned on to the benefits of music publishing. He wasn’t called Wicked Pickett for nothing and it’s a credit to his ‘meanness’ – in Southern black speak read ‘unyielding’ – that he ends up with a nice house, a Rolls-Royce and the wherewithal to move his mother away from rural Alabama and buy her a home of her own, in cash from the wads of bills he stored in his wardrobe.
All of which makes for a lively and entertaining read. In the acknowledgements Fetcher lists no fewer than 67 interviewees, family members, romantic partners, fellow singers and musical accomplices, be they producers or studio hands, or members of bands that backed him on the road, of which there are dozens. In this respect the attention to detail is top-notch, most of them happy to recall the ways in which Pickett’s records were made and his bravura showmanship. All offer evidence that Pickett was a hard taskmaster but a virtuoso singer blessed not only with an extraordinary vocal talent but a musical brain that could weed out any tiny flaws in a track. So can Fletcher, who examines Pickett’s work in an almost scholarly fashion: ‘Every chord required of the song is announced in the opening two bars and one beat,’ he writes of ‘In The Midnight Hour’, Pickett’s masterpiece, ‘a descending pattern that, like a guitar beginner’s tutorial, follows the dotted marks of the fret-board from a high D major to an open E major…. Trumpets blaze those initial descending chords, on the last of which one of them breaks off to play a root note an octave higher, emphasizing the incoming E major.’ That’s but a sample – Fletcher devotes an entire page to his analysis of the song – and his assessments of other Pickett classics – ‘634-5789’, ‘Land Of 1,000 Dances’ and ‘Mustang Sally’ among them – are equally incisive. I particularly enjoyed the passage about the recording of ‘Hey Jude’, recorded in one take with Duane Allman on guitar, ‘the two locked into a musical communication that took on a life of its own’.
Pickett’s unpleasant side is never far away, however. He is perpetually violent towards the women in his life, perhaps a legacy of his upbringing but still inexcusable, unnecessarily aggressive when he drinks too much and more or less addicted to cocaine, which serves only to exacerbate his temper and his tantrums; the cliché ‘his own worst enemy’ is a common refrain. The eighties and nineties weren’t particularly kind to Pickett or any of his fellow soul men and when his career takes a dive after leaving Atlantic for RCA, there to succumb to the lure of inappropriate disco music, and thence to recording limbo, the wheels really start to come off. He winds up in jail, twice, on a variety of charges – assault, driving under the influence, firearms, drugs. “His life was chaotic,” producer Robert Margouleff tells Fletcher. “He was an alcoholic… not in control. That’s the reason he didn’t make records for years.” Other witnesses say much the same thing but almost all make the point that throughout it all he maintained his musical standards. “[Despite it all] he never really sang badly, and he never really sang out of tune,” adds Margouleff.
Pickett’s strong work ethic prevents him from going broke, and although salvation of sorts was offered by his impressive 1999 album It’s Harder Now, Pickett was unwilling to promote it, preferring instead to rely on the steady income accrued from cabaret-style shows staged to exploit his ‘legendary’ status, many of them in casinos. Sooner or later, though, even this proves too much and, his body devastated by drink, he finally comes off the road. In the end he collapses at home, alone, to be found three days later, only to die shortly afterwards in hospital, aged 64, from a heart attack brought on by a raft of health problems. There’s an unseemly squabble over his assets but Fletcher ends his book on a high, recounting how the pastor at his funeral service, a ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’ devotee, ‘had the whole church chanting a joyous last hurrah: Na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na’, and how a week later Pickett was honoured at the Grammys in Los Angeles. “This is for the Wicked Pickett,” roared Bruce Springsteen as an all-star band broke out into a glorious ‘In The Midnight Hour’. ‘He was doing so not just on behalf of the musicians on stage, but on behalf of every soul fan who had ever been touched by one of the greatest voices and, yes, one of the most volatile personalities of the last fifty years,’ concludes Fletcher.
One of the greatest songs too, he might have added.