By Dean Goodman
Veteran soul singer Wilson Pickett, known for such hits as "Mustang Sally" and "In the Midnight Hour," died on Thursday of a heart attack in Virginia, his manager said. He was 64.
Pickett, an Alabama native famed for his trademark screams, flaming delivery and flamboyant costumes, performed on a regular basis until about a year ago, when he began suffering from health problems, said his manager, Margo Lewis.
Dubbed "Wicked" Wilson Pickett by Jerry Wexler, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, where he enjoyed his greatest success, Pickett was one of the leading exponents of the hard-edged Memphis sound, a grittier alternative to the pop singles being churned out by Motown Records in Detroit.
Often recording with the house band of Memphis-based Stax Records, Booker T and the MGs, he enjoyed a long string of hits during the 1960s, including the R&B chart-toppers "634-5789," "Land of 1,000 Dances" and "Funky Broadway."
"We've lost a giant, we've lost a legend, we've lost a man who created his own charisma and made it work around the world," soul singer Solomon Burke, a close friend of Pickett's, told Reuters. "It's just hard for me to really grasp that Wilson is already traveling toward the greater place."
"In the Midnight Hour" was his breakthrough hit, transforming the relative unknown into a soul sensation virtually overnight in 1965. Pickett co-wrote the tune with MGs guitarist Steve Cropper in about an hour, and it spent a week atop the R&B singles chart in August of that year.
His luck ran out by the early 1970s, when he switched labels and suffered what he once described as a "career breakdown." An ambitious plan hatched in 1981 to tour as the "Soul Clan" with fellow R&B veterans Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Don Covay and Ben E. King quickly fizzled.
Somewhat bitter about his diminishing fortunes, he endured various domestic disputes, and got into trouble with the law during the 1990s for cocaine possession and drunk-driving.
Burke said Pickett had turned his life around, and the two of them were planning to reunite with King, Covay and "Mustang Sally" songwriter Mack Rice to record an album this year.
Born March 18, 1941 in Prattville, Alabama, Pickett grew up in a poor household with 10 brothers and sisters, an abusive mother, and a preacher grandfather who beat him whenever he sang secular songs. He moved up to Detroit in his mid-teens to live with his father, and quickly gravitated to the sounds being purveyed by the likes of local singers Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John.
Although he considered himself a gospel singer, Pickett was invited to join an R&B group called the Falcons. He wrote and sang lead on their 1962 hit "I Found A Love." He became a prolific songwriter and enjoyed a handful of modest solo hits including "If You Need Me," a tune that was also covered by both Burke and the Rolling Stones.
Pickett signed with Atlantic in 1964, and was sent down to record in Memphis after his first few singles disappeared without a trace. "Midnight Hour," one of three recorded in one night, became the subject of an authorship dispute in later years. Pickett told music writer Gerri Hirshey in her 1984 book "Nowhere to Run" that he deserved sole credit. Cropper told Reuters a decade later that Pickett was "completely crazy" and "had nothing to do with writing that music."
Although Pickett was best known for his urgent, propulsive tunes, he also earned acclaim with non-R&B fare, most notably his 1969 cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude," which featured Duane Allman on guitar. He also recorded bold interpretations of such tunes as Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" and even make-believe group the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar."
Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and experienced a career renaissance that same year with the release of the movie "The Commitments," which revolved around a Dublin band that idolized him. He released his last album, the Grammy-nominated "It's Harder Now," in 1999.
He is survived by a fiancĂŠe, two sons and two daughters. A viewing will take place in Virginia next week, and then he will be interred with his mother in Louisville, Kentucky, his manager said.
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