By Sophie Severs, Staff Writer
To celebrate Black Music Month, we are excited to be bringing back our Vault of Soul series by spotlighting a soul artist every Thursday of June. Step inside the vault to discover the life and legacy of some of the world's greatest soul artists, both past and present. Continue reading to learn about Jackie Wilson's music career and lasting influence.
Jackie Wilson — often called “Mr. Excitement” for his dynamic showmanship and charismatic way of pouring energy into any crowd — was born on June 9th, 1934 in Highland Park, Michigan as Jack Leroy Wilson Jr.
Wilson’s childhood was full of music, as he would often tag along with his mother to her choir practices at Billups Chapel. He joined the Ever Ready Gospel Singers when he was a young teen, and began to earn profits off of singing through his participation with the group. Though, much of Wilson’s adolescence was marked with tumult. His parents were divorced by the time Wilson was 9 and he frequently ran into trouble as a member of the Shakers gang in Detroit. He began competitive boxing at age 16 after dropping out of high school. But later, Wilson abruptly changed careers after he had a child at age 17 with Freda Hood and the two wed.
OUT OF THE BOXING RING AND ONTO THE STAGE
In 1953, Wilson pivoted his direction and fully devoted himself to music. With his bright tenor vocals, he started out bringing joy to patrons of Lee’s Sensation Club in Detroit. He moved on to join many groups, such as The Falcons and The Midnighters. Talent agent Johnny Otis noticed this young up-and-coming singer and took him under his wing, helping to drive his career to new heights.
Wilson went on to spearhead the group Billy Ward and His Dominoes as their lead singer. Wilson reinvigorated the group, taking the helm on hits such as “Stardust” and “Rags to Riches,” after their previous lead singer, Clyde McPhatter departed. It was while he was performing in the Dominoes that Wilson received the stage name that would follow him for the rest of his life: “Jackie Wilson.” His resonant lead vocals stuck in listeners' ears, while his energetic and captivating dance moves sealed memories of his performances in audiences’ minds forever.
Wilson launched a solo career in 1957, with his single “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Want to Meet),” which landed him a place on the pop charts. He continued to churn out hit after hit throughout his entire career. He ended up with 26 solo albums and over four decades of performing under his belt. His last chart topper in 1967 was the bright and poppy track that continues to get radio play to this day, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”
A LEGACY THAT KEEPS LIFTING HIGHER AND HIGHER
On September 29th, 1975, Wilson was performing at a New Jersey nightclub singing “Lonely Teardrops” when he abruptly suffered a heart attack mid-song. He would spend the next nine years slipping in and out of a semi-comatose state, and eventually passed away at age 49 in Mount Holly, New Jersey in 1984. He left behind six children from two of his marriages, and a few other children that he had outside of wedlock.
Though it was cut short, Wilson’s career effectively paved the way for hundreds of Black musicians to take a place on the pop charts for many years after his death. Wilson’s music fused doo-wop, rock, and R&B to make the soul genre that gained major on-air time on the radio during the 1960s. Where Black artists had once been catty-cornered into the R&B genre, categorized by the race record system, and forced to sing songs that were more palatable for the ears of the White population, they now had increased liberties to explore and take up space in the music world. Wilson’s career, albeit short, carved out a space in the music industry for Black artists all over the United States. He gifted countless generations of Black musicians the courage to begin their musical journeys.
WHO INFLUENCED JACKIE WILSON
Wilson’s vocal stylings were heavily influenced by his days singing in choir as a young boy, as well as by the Dominoes’ previous lead singer, Clyde McPhatter. McPhatter coached Wilson before leaving the group, and thus, Wilson took ample inspiration from the singer’s unique and powerful vocals. Wilson also grew up listening to several vocal jazz groups, such as the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan and Al Jolson. He adeptly melded these softer, mellow and more whispery styles with his brassy four-octave tenor belt, creating a unique and bold sound that stuck with people long after they first heard his voice.
WHO JACKIE WILSON INFLUENCED
Jackie Wilson’s career helped kickstart the careers of many Black musicians who wished to enter the pop charts. Both Prince and Michael Jackson cited him as a major source of inspiration, with Michael Jackson even dedicating his 1984 Grammy win to Wilson.
Elements of Wilson’s performance are also evident in Elvis Presley’s renowned stage presence. Wilson’s own stage presence was magnetic — whenever he stepped foot on stage, all eyes were glued to him for the entirety of his set. Whether he was throwing himself into one of his classic knee-drops, or flirtatiously traipsing around the stage with effortless suave, his vocals remained on point. Presley often pulled similar dance moves from the soul singer, borrowing the same charismatic stage presence that Wilson had.
Wilson’s son, Bobby Brook Wilson, carries on Wilson’s performing legacy to this day. Brook Wilson grew up in the foster care system in South Carolina, but discovered that he was Wilson’s son after someone mentioned that he looked like the deceased singer. After the truth about his identity was revealed, Brook Wilson set out to keep his father’s legacy alive. He now performs tribute shows for eager audiences who long to reconnect with the songs of the late Jackie Wilson. Brook Wilson pulls heavy inspiration from his father’s performance stylings, while remaining a standout performer in his own right.
HONORS & AWARDS
- Nominated for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance for “Lonely Teardrops” (Grammys, 1961)
- Nominated for Best Male R&B Solo Vocal Performance for “Higher and Higher” (Grammys, 1968)
- Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987)
- Honored with the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Legacy Tribute Award (2003)
- Ranked by Rolling Stone as No. 69 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time (2004)
- Voted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame (2005)
- Inducted into the R&B Music Hall of Fame (2013)
- Honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2019)
“REET PETITE” (1957)
Full to the brim with complicated riffs and energetic brass horn melodies, it’s no wonder that “Reet Petite” was the song that truly launched Wilson’s career. The track ultimately reached a high of number 62 on the Billboard Hot 100. Wilson tackles the challenging vocals with ease. As one listens, they can visualize the cheeky smile Wilson had on his face as he sang this jovial tune.
This single was originally written by Berry Gordy and Tyran Carlo. Gordy utilized the royalties from this song to borrow money needed to start up Motown Records, which, as a label, offered many Black artists the platform to share their music with the rest of the world.
In this roughly three-minute track, Wilson sings of a beautiful girl he has just spotted. He eagerly exclaims, “She's so fine, fine, fine. She's really sweet, the kindest girl you ever want to meet.” He cannot seem to get over his pure elation at finding the perfect girl, as he continues to describe her as “The finest girl you ever wanna meet.” Wilson’s sparkling tenor echoes over the blaring brass, giving listeners a spunky tune to get up and dance their cares away to.
“LONELY TEARDROPS” (1958)
This upbeat and skillful melding of doo-wop and soul scored Wilson his first No. 1 spot on the R&B charts as well as No. 7 on the Top 10 U.S Pop Charts. It also landed him an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand show.
The upbeat melody comes directly in contrast with the track’s lyrics, as Wilson croons to his lost lover, “Just give me another chance for our romance. Come on and tell me that one day you'll return. 'Cause, every day that you've been gone away, you know my heart does nothing but burn, crying.'' He begs her to return with every deeply agonized phrase he sings. Backed by a chorus of cheery doo-wop singers, Wilson leads listeners through a wave of emotions, summoning feelings of sympathy for this poor, jilted lover who only wants a second chance at romance.
The track is beloved by many fellow musicians, such as Jay and the Americans, John Fogerty, Narvel Felts, and Victor Wood, who have all released covers of the single. And while listeners might never know if the lover in the song got a second chance, the song will certainly get a second play.
“(YOUR LOVE KEEPS LIFTING ME) HIGHER AND HIGHER” (1967)
This track undeniably remains Wilson’s most iconic hit to this day. Originally recorded by The Dells, Wilson puts a spin on the tune, picking up the tempo and adding some classic soul cadence to the tune. The track is a certified way to get any party started, with Wilson’s husky growls and shouts accompanied by the energetic background vocals.
The song reached No. 1 on the US Billboard R&B chart, and peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 6. Wilson sings of a love that makes him feel truly good. His pure jubilation is evident as he gleefully expresses to his lover, “Your love, lifting me higher, than I've ever been lifted before. So keep it up, quench my desire, and I'll be at your side, forever more.” He promises everlasting love to the one who brightens up his days, eager to accompany them through the highs and lows of life.
This track was ranked as No. 246 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Wilson is forever memorialized in the message of this song, as his music continues to lift listeners up, “Higher and Higher.”
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown,
Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and more.
Interested in exploring the Soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Let host D Danubian wind you up and simmer you down with a blend of R&B, Soul, and Slow Jams.
Also, be sure to check out ERS+, our new HD radio experience. Take a deep dive into R&B and Hip Hop with the legendary voices of Soul alongside new and pioneering MCs. Find ERS+: Boston's Black Experience online at WERSPlus.Org