In Black America Podcast: The Singer And The Showman: Jackie Wilson
On this edition of In Black America, producer/host John L. Hanson Jr. speaks with Doug Carter, author of The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson. They called him “Mr. Excitement,” and indeed Jackie Wilson was a gifted singer of considerable range and an athletic showman who commanded a stage like few before or since. He possessed a natural tenor, sang with the graceful control of Sam Cooke and moved with the intense energy of James Brown. With all the flair and finesse at his disposal, he routinely drove audiences to the brink of hysteria. A mainstay of the R&B and pop charts from 1958 to 1968, Wilson amassed two dozen Top 40 singles, all released on Brunswick Records.
Born Jack Leroy Wilson, Jr. on June 9th, 1934, in Detroit, MI, he turned to R&B after stints as a gospel singer and a Golden Gloves boxer. He joined Billy Ward and His Dominoes as lead singer in 1953, replacing Clyde McPhatter when he left to join the Drifters. Wilson remained with the Dominoes for more than 3 years, singing on such high-charting numbers as “St. Therese of the Roses.”
Wilson launched his solo career in November 1957 with the single “Reet Petite.” “Lonely Teardrops,” was Wilson’s breakthrough, topping the R&B chart and becoming a Top 10 hit on the pop side. More R&B chart-toppers followed in quick succession: “You Better Know It,” “Doggin’ Around,” “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend.” Wilson would alternate harder-grooving R&B songs like “Doggin’ Around” with almost operatic ballads such as “Night” in an attempt to cover all the bases.
Wilson’s unabated success and output were astonishing, impacting the R&B charts in every year from 1958 through 1973.
All totaled, he amassed 47 R&B hits, 24 of which crossed over to the pop Top 40. He was unfailingly versatile, too, handling up-tempo R&B and pop balladry with style and charisma. Wilson not only was “Mr. Excitement” but also, as some dubbed him, “the black Elvis.”
On September 29th, 1975 while playing a Dick Clark Good Ol’ Rock & Roll Revue at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey he was stricken by a massive heart attack. He was performing “Lonely Teardrops” when he fell and hit his head. Although he hung on for a little over eight years in and out of comas, he never fully recovered and died on January 21st, 1984 at the age of 49. Wilson had an enormous impact on the artists of his time and the generation that followed. There has never been and perhaps never will again be a signer to match his effortless versatility and showmanship.
Wilson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.