By Mike Greenblatt
There’s a reason Jackie Wilson was known as “Mr. Excitement.”
No one had ever seen such daring before Wilson debuted on the historic 1958 package tour, “The Biggest Show Of Stars,” which was headlined by Sam Cooke and featured artists including Paul Anka, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Frankie Avalon, The Everly Brothers and Jimmy Reed.
The 24-year-old exploded on to the stage and brought down the house night after night with splits, unbelievable falsetto shrieks and the kind of animal attraction that had the women in the crowds practically fainting.
Van Morrison, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson all loved him. James Brown was jealous of him. During the Million Dollar Quartet sessions, Elvis tells the story of going to see Jackie Wilson four nights in a row in Las Vegas and then imitates Wilson singing “Don’t Be Cruel,” saying, “Man, he sure sung the hell out of that song.”
In later years, the two became good friends, with Elvis teasingly termed “The White Jackie Wilson,” and Wilson known as “The Black Elvis.”
“With his spins, slides, breathtaking sudden knee drops, and slow, impossibly arching re-ascents, [he] created a hothouse atmosphere that almost palpably exuded sex. Jackie was handsome, crude, brash, with a classically jaunty process [hair style] and a playful curl to his lip,” music historian Peter Guralinick writes in his book, “Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke.” “He was bold, feral, unrestrained, an extravagant showman with [his] ex-boxer’s lithe grace, a Dionysian celebrant so dedicated to a sense of orgiastic frenzy that he presented himself each night at the close of his act as if for sacrifice, flaunting himself at the edge of the stage until his female fans broke through security and clawed at his body, invariably leaving him bloody with their marks.”
Wilson’s voice was so strong, record producers and labels didn’t know exactly how to present it. They had him record material as far-reaching as “Danny Boy” (Wilson’s exuberant, almost operatic performance stands as the ultimate version), the totally cornball 1909 “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon” (he redeems even this one with a break-out performance) and the 1933 song “Stormy Weather.” Although burdened by unnecessary strings, brass and backup singers, Wilson’s voice — no matter what the material he was saddled with — broke on through to the other side with its clarion call and roused the listener into total submission. There was no halfway with Jackie Wilson.
Born Jack Leroy Wilson Jr. on June 9, 1934, in Detroit, Wilson began singing at a young age and joined a gospel group. That background came in handy when, at his first gig as lead singer for Billy Ward And The Dominoes (when Elvis saw him), he was asked to sing “St. Therese Of The Roses.” The performance was so spectacular, it elevated this simple prayer into a show-stopping blockbuster. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer recorded in every imaginable format and enjoyed hits his whole career.
Wilson’s personal life was just as wild as his performances on stage and on record. He was shot by an enraged ex-lover in 1961, which also cost him a kidney. He racked up several marriages (and divorces). He was preceded in death by three of his children. He struggled with addiction, the IRS, the mob and blatant racism.
In 1975, at the age of 41, Wilson suffered a massive heart attack onstage at The Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, N.J. He was part of Dick Clark’s “Good Old Rock ’n’ Roll Revue” and he was singing “Lonely Teardrops” at the time. Legend has it that on the line “my heart is crying, crying,” Wilson keeled over, and the fans thought it was part of the act. He slipped into a nine-year coma and died Jan. 21, 1984. Wilson was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave until fund-raising efforts generated enough money to pay for a stone that bears the epitaph “No More Lonely Teardrops.” GM