Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address
Please accept the terms
‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett’: An Explosive Southern Soul Album
In Depth

‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett’: An Explosive Southern Soul Album

Stuffed with killer soul songs, ‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett’ was a perfectly named album from the ‘Wicked’ soul icon.

Back

Na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, na na na, na na na, na-na na nahhh! It’s one of the most exciting opening lines to a song, ever. And it works as the opening salvo on The Exciting Wilson Pickett, too. There he is, dressed in pink on the cover, leaping in the air like a man ecstatically hailing a cab; and the background is also pink. The 60s was a period of extreme prejudice, so it took audacity to be a Black man posing in cerise. But this was Wilson Pickett, the baddest brother in soul. They called him The Wicked Wilson Pickett. If he wanted to jump around in pink, fine. As long as he kept singing the way he did, screaming the way he did, and giving his all, let the fella alone. Because what he could do, nobody else could do. Just ask Chris Kenner, who wrote and recorded Land Of 1,000 Dances: a great record, given an equally great treatment by Cannibal And The Head Hunters. But nobody handled it like Pickett.

Buy ‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett’ on clear vinyl at the Dig! store.

The background: Creating soul history

Atlantic Records had signed Pickett fresh out of The Falcons, a group blessed with future soul legends, Joe Stubbs and Eddie Floyd among them. He’d cut a single, If You Need Me, for Lloyd Price’s Double L label, but when he sent it to Atlantic, they had their established star Solomon Burke cover it, and Burke scored the hit.

Pragmatically, Pickett didn’t hold a grudge: he’d seen what Atlantic had done for Burke, and fancied a piece of it himself. After a couple of misfires, the label sent Pickett down to a Memphis studio they’d been doing business with for a while, Stax. It was 1965. Pickett reckoned it had been his idea to head South, inspired by Otis Redding records; Atlantic claimed it was theirs. Either way, Pickett didn’t like visiting the segregated South much, it made him edgy. He’d headed North from Alabama to Detroit in 1955, and was now very much a city slicker. But Memphis had the sound of soul, and Pickett struck up a handy writing partnership with Stax’s stalwart guitarist Steve Cropper. They were about to create soul history.

The first hit to come from the pairing was In The Midnight Hour, a brute of a tune that set Pickett on the path to becoming one of the best soul singers of his era. An In The Midnight Hour album followed. The song’s brittle rhythm had been shaped by Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who asked the band to emphasise the second beat of every bar so it fitted the jerk, the youth dance craze of 1965. So far, so wicked. Pickett’s next big hit was 634-5789 (Soulsville, USA), a jab at Stax’s northern rivals, Motown, which called itself Hitsville USA; it drew inspiration from another Motown tune, The Marvelettes’ Beechwood 4-5789. Pickett was now red hot, a contender for Soul Brother No.1.

The recording: More engaged than anyone you could imagine

A spanner jammed the works when Jim Stewart, Stax’s boss, decided the company ought to be focused on its own releases and placed a moratorium on recording outside artists. Pickett’s own behaviour may have been a factor: Stewart told rock writer Peter Guralnick, “Wilson couldn’t get along with anyone.” So Wexler sent Pickett down to FAME Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which again made the singer twitchy, but the creation of classic songs continued unabated.

The first session there yielded Land Of 1,000 Dances, a US No.6 and one of the best Wilson Pickett songs – a track eternally associated with Pickett’s riotous breed of soul music. “I feel alright,” he announced, sounding like somebody had set fire to his mohair suit. Pickett also tackled Chris Kenner’s R&B standard Something You Got. There were soon sufficient killer tracks for another album, The Exciting Wilson Pickett. Not a word went to waste in that title. He was exciting. He was The Wilson Pickett. There sure wasn’t another.

Atlantic added In The Midnight Hour, the title track of Pickett’s previous album, to The Exciting Wilson Pickett, in case listeners didn’t get the message last time. There was also the portentous-sounding hit Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do), whose intro sounded like a prototype for the guitar riff from Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water; the rolling 634-5789; a surprisingly level-headed Danger Zone; and a genuinely touching ballad, It’s All Over, co-authored with Steve Cropper. Presumably the latter was included in case record-buyers thought Pickett was made entirely of testosterone.

As was the way back in the day, he covers a couple of contemporary hits, bustling through an uptempo take on Don Covay’s Mercy Mercy, in which he refers to himself simply as “Pickett”, and delivering Robert Parker’s Barefootin’ in the manner of somebody who would never take off his $250 shoes, in case they got stolen. That’s too glib, though: Pickett sounds fully engaged, which means way more engaged than anyone you could imagine. The Exciting Wilson Pickett closes with the chugging She’s So Good To Me, penned for Pickett by the great Bobby Womack, who’d rebuild his damaged reputation by writing numerous great tunes for The Wicked Wilson Pickett.

The release: solving the energy crisis singlehanded

Released in August 1966, The Exciting Wilson Pickett crackles with Pickett’s electricity, and it remains one of the best soul albums of all time. If he were still around, Pickett could solve the energy crisis singlehanded. Luckily, he left some behind: The Exciting Wilson Pickett – what an understatement.

Buy ‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett’ on clear vinyl at the Dig! store.

More Like This

‘Caustic Love’: Behind Paolo Nutini’s Bold And Adventurous Third Album
In Depth

‘Caustic Love’: Behind Paolo Nutini’s Bold And Adventurous Third Album

Sharp-tongued and full of vigour, Paolo Nutini’s third album, ‘Caustic Love’, broke a four-year silence from the Scottish singer-songwriter.

‘Twisted Tenderness’: How Electronic Bowed Out On A Creative High
In Depth

‘Twisted Tenderness’: How Electronic Bowed Out On A Creative High

Electronic’s third album was also their swansong, but ‘Twisted Tenderness’ contained some of Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner’s finest songs.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up