In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett by Tony Fletcher

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In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett by Tony Fletcher

Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A warts-and-all biography of the man who was one of the soul-singing greats of the mid-sixties, yet during a lengthy career sadly failed to exploit his initial success. Fletcher charts the highs, the lows, the greatest hits and the demons in painstaking detail, with insight, objectivity and sympathy.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2017
Publisher: OUP USA
ISBN: 978-0190252946

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Tamla Motown groups and singers apart, in the mid-sixties there were three major names in the soul music field who mattered above all. James Brown was something of a cult name who rarely bothered about or troubled the singles charts, and Otis Redding was on the verge of shooting into the stratosphere when he died in an aeroplane crash. The other was the man from Alabama, 'the wicked Pickett'.

Starting off as a gospel singer, and then becoming one of the first names to cut his teeth with the pioneering Stax and Atlantic labels, Wilson Pickett hit the big time on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965 with the undisputed classic 'In The Midnight Hour'. It should have been the start of a glorious career. He was no one-hit wonder, as follow-ups like 'Land of a Thousand Dances', 'Mustang Sally' (later given a new lease of life by The Commitments – see below) and surprisingly, successful cover versions of such diverse hits for others like 'Hey Jude' and 'Sugar Sugar' very soon after the originals, were quick to prove. With that inimitable voice, a powerful yet controlled scream, and a tight band which at times briefly included the then almost unknown young guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, it seems he had everything going for him.

As this immaculately-researched biography demonstrates, he was one of those people who sadly threw it all away. At times I found myself wondering – what if Otis Redding had lived as long, and Wilson had died instead just two years after becoming a household name? A difficult man to work with professionally, well-known for his short fuse, a good (too good, in fact) pair of fists, a fondness for guns, a prey to the wrong addictions, and nothing short of a monster to his associates and family, he was often his own worst enemy. It goes without saying that any African-Americans in showbiz at that time encountered more than their share of racism, but from this account he seems to have suffered no worse than any of his peers.

Fletcher, whose previous books include a searching biography of another musical maverick, Keith Moon, has talked to and interviewed many people who knew him personally – including family - or worked with him on a professional basis. He chronicles the highs and lows in detail, with insight and with admirable detachment. In the process he sets his subject's career against an ever-changing musical landscape, with switches from one record company to another, and the impact of disco from the mid-seventies onwards which left many an artist forced to rethink his or her career, often with mixed results. Wilson worked hard in the recording studio and on the live circuit, but after four years or so of regular success his career never really got back on track – or his records into the charts again. Was it a matter of not being able to keep up with trends, bad luck, or the usual demons?

All things considered, it's a sad story, not least the episode when he was on the receiving end for once, with the result that he was almost blinded after someone lost patience and went for him with a towel rail. As The Guardian observed in his obituary, he was the singer 'who revolutionized the sound of 60s soul', but never quite reaped the full rewards. Thank you Mr Fletcher for this warts-and-all portrait which shows us why.

For further recommended reading, may we also suggest Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, a memoir by one of the many singers who idolised Pickett as a teenager. The Commitments by Roddy Doyle is a novel about a soul group who were particularly influenced by his music.

Buy In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett by Tony Fletcher at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett by Tony Fletcher at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett by Tony Fletcher at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett by Tony Fletcher at Amazon.com.


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