Energetic American soul singer and performer Jack Leroy Wilson Jr. tragically died on January 21, 1984, at age 49 from complications of pneumonia.
He was born on June 9, 1934, in Detroit, Michigan, Wilson often visited his family in Columbus and was greatly influenced by the choir at Billups Chapel. Growing up in the suburban Detroit enclave of Highland Park, Wilson joined a gang called the Shakers and often got himself in trouble. Wilson’s alcoholic father was frequently absent and usually unemployed. His parents separated shortly after Jackie’s ninth birthday. Jackie Wilson began singing as a youth, accompanying his mother, an excellent church choir singer. In his early teens he joined a quartet, the Ever Ready Gospel Singers, who gained popularity in local churches. Wilson was not very religious, but he enjoyed singing in public. The money the quartet earned from performing was often spent on alcohol, and Wilson began drinking at an early age.
Wilson dropped out of high school at age 15, having been sentenced to detention in the Lansing Corrections system for juveniles twice. During his second stint in detention, Wilson learned to box and began competing in the Detroit amateur circuit at age 16. Wilson’s record in the Golden Gloves was 2 and 8. After his mother forced Jackie to quit boxing, Wilson was forced by his father to marry Freda Hood, and he became a father at age 17. It is estimated that Wilson had fathered at least 10 other children before marrying Freda. He began working at Lee’s Sensation Club as a solo singer, then formed a group called the Falcons that included cousin Levi Stubbs, who later led the Four Tops. (Two other Wilson cousins, Hubert Johnson and Levi’s brother Joe, later became members of the Contours.) The other Falcons joined Hank Ballard as part of the Midnighters including Alonzo Tucker and Billy Davis, who worked with Wilson several years later as a solo artist. Tucker and Wilson collaborated as songwriters on a few songs Wilson recorded, including his 1963 hit “Baby Workout”.
Jackie Wilson was discovered by talent agent Johnny Otis, who recruited him for a group called the Thrillers. That group evolved into the Royals (who later became R&B group, the Midnighters, though Wilson was not part of the group. Wilson signed on with manager Al Green (not to be confused with R&B singer Al Green, nor Albert “Al” Green of the now defunct National Records). Green, who also managed LaVern Baker, Little Willie John, Johnnie Ray and Della Reese, owned two music publishing companies, Pearl Music and Merrimac Music, and Detroit’s Flame Show Bar, where Wilson met Baker. After recording Jackie Wilson’s first version of “Danny Boy” and a few other tracks on Dizzy Gillespie’s record label Dee Gee Records under the name Sonny Wilson (his nickname), Wilson joined a group called the Dominoes in 1953 to replace the immensely popular Clyde McPhatter, who left the Dominoes and formed the Drifters.
Before leaving the Dominoes, McPhatter coached Wilson on the sound Billy Ward wanted for his group, influencing Wilson’s singing style and stage presence. The 1940s Blues singer Roy Brown was also a major influence on him; and Wilson grew up listening to the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan and Al Jolson. Wilson was the group’s lead singer for three years and In 1956 the Dominoes recorded Wilson with an unlikely interpretation of the pop hit “St. Therese of the Roses”,
In 1957 Jackie Wilson left the Dominoes, and collaborated with his cousin Levi, and secured performances at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar. Later, Al Green secured a deal with Decca Records, and Wilson was signed to its subsidiary label Brunswick and Wilson’s first single was released, “Reet Petite” (from his first album He’s So Fine), which became a modest R&B success (many years later, an international smash hit). “Reet Petite” was written by Berry Gordy Jr. (another former boxer who was a native son of Detroit), in which co-wrote “Reet Petite” with partner Roquel “Billy” Davis (often referred to as the pseudonym Tyran Carlo) and Gordy’s sister Gwendolyn. The trio composed and produced six additional singles for Wilson, in which were: “To Be Loved”, “I’m Wanderin'”, “We Have Love”, “That’s Why (I Love You So)”, “I’ll Be Satisfied” and “Lonely Teardrops”, which sold over one million copies, and established Wilson as an R&B superstar known for his extraordinary, operatic multi-octave vocal range, and was also awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
Due to Wilson’s fervor when performing, with his dynamic dance moves, impassioned singing and impeccable dress, he was soon christened “Mr. Excitement”, a title Wilson kept for the remainder of his career. Jackie Wilson’s stagecraft in his live shows inspired James Brown, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, and many others. Presley was so impressed with Wilson that he made it a point to meet him, and the two instantly became good friends. In a photo of the two posing together, Presley’s caption in the autograph reads “You got you a friend for life”. Wilson was sometimes called “The Black Elvis”. Reportedly, when asked about this Presley said, “I guess that makes me the white Jackie Wilson.” Wilson also said he was influenced by Presley, saying,
Wilson’s powerful, electrifying live performances rarely failed to bring audiences to a state of frenzy. His live performances consisted of knee-drops, splits, spins, back-flips, one-footed across-the-floor slides, removing his tie and jacket and throwing them off the stage, basic boxing steps like advance and retreat shuffling, and one of his favorite routines, getting some of the less attractive women in the audience to come up to the stage and kiss him. Jackie Wilson was also a regular on TV, making regular appearances on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, Shindig!, Shivaree and Hullabaloo. His only movie appearance was in the rock and roll film Go, Johnny, Go!, where he performed his 1959 hit song “You Better Know It”.
In 1958, Davis and Gordy left Wilson and Brunswick after royalty disputes escalated between them and Nat Tarnopol. Davis soon became a successful staff songwriter and producer for Chess Records, while Gordy borrowed money from his family and used money he earned from royalties writing for Wilson to start his own recording studio, Hitsville USA, the foundation of Motown Records in his native Detroit. Meanwhile, convinced that Wilson could venture out of R&B and rock and roll, Tarnopol had the singer record operatic ballads and easy listening material, pairing him with Dick Jacobs.
Jackie Wilson scored hits as he entered the 1960s With “Doggin’ Around”, “Night”, and “Baby Workout”, which he composed with The Midnighters member Alonzo Tucker. His songwriting alliance with Tucker also turned out other songs, including “No Pity (In The Naked City)” and “I’m So Lonely.” The songs Alone At Last” and “My Empty Arms” were also hits. In 1961, Wilson recorded a tribute album to Al Jolson, Nowstalgia … You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, sadly The album was a commercial failure. Following the success of “Baby Workout”, Wilson experienced a lull in his career between 1964 and 1966 as Tarnopol and Brunswick Records released a succession of unsuccessful albums and singles. Despite the lack of sales success, Wilson still made artistic gains as he recorded an album with Count Basie, as well as a series of duets with R & B artist LaVern Baker and gospel singer Linda Hopkins.
In 1966, Jackie Wilson released the songs “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)”, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”, “I Get the Sweetest Feeling”, which has sincespawned numerous cover versions by other artists such as Edwin Starr, Will Young, Erma Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s sister) and Liz McClarnon.A key to Jackie Wilson’s musical rebirth was recording with legendary Detroit musicians normally employed by Motown Records, plus Other Chicago-based session players and The Detroit based Funk Brothers. By 1975, Wilson and the Chi-Lites were the only significant artists left on Brunswick’s roster. Wilson had continued to record singles that found success on the R&B chart, but found no significant pop chart success. His final hit, “You Got Me Walkin'”, written by Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites, was released in 1972 with the Chi-Lites backing him on vocals and instruments.
Sadly On September 29, 1975, suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed on stage, while performing “Lonely Teardrops” on Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue, hosted by the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Cornell Gunter of the Coasters, who was backstage, noticed Wilson was not breathing. Gunter was able to resuscitate him and Wilson was then rushed to a nearby hospital. Medical personnel worked to stabilize Wilson’s vital signs, but the lack of oxygen to his brain caused him to slip into a coma. He briefly recovered in early 1976, and was even able to take a few wobbly steps. Sadly he slipped back into a semi-comatose state. Wilson was deemed conscious but incapacitated in early June 1976, unable to speak but aware of his surroundings. Wilson was a resident of the Medford Leas Retirement Center in Medford, New Jersey, when he was admitted into Memorial Hospital of Burlington County in Mount Holly, New Jersey. He was initially buried in an unmarked grave at Westlawn Cemetery near Detroit. However In 1987, a fundraiser by a Detroit radio station collected enough money to purchase a headstone.