Wilson Pickett, the raw and intense soul singer who helped shaped modern R&B while recording for Atlantic Records during the 1960s, died Thursday after suffering a heart attack in Virginia. He was 64.
The “Wicked Pickett” had been in poor health for the past year.
Pickett’s best-known recordings, “Mustang Sally” and “In the Midnight Hour,” became standards in the genre and have been oft-covered by rock acts; virtually every rock musician learned those tunes in their youth over the last 40-plus years. In 1967, Pickett landed six singles in the R&B top 20.
Born in Pratville, Ala., he moved to Detroit in 1955. From 1961 to ’63, he performed with the Falcons, a vocal group that also included future R&B stars Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice.
Pickett’s style was fueled by a throat-shredding, fire-and-brimstone intensity that was as apparent on his first hit, the Falcons’ “I Found a Love” in 1962, as it was on “Fire and Water,” which closed out his top-40 career 10 years later.
After recording three singles for Double-L as a solo act, Pickett signed with Atlantic Records. After a few recordings were deemed not up to snuff, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler sent him to Memphis, Tenn., to record with the Stax house band led by guitarist Steve Cropper. Wexler put Pickett and Cropper in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey and told them to write. “In the Midnight Hour” was the result.
“Midnight Hour” debuted in June 1965 and was the first of Pickett’s major hits with Atlantic, where he recorded through 1973. In 1966, Pickett would score with “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.),” “Land of 1000 Dances” (his biggest hit at the time) and “Mustang Sally.” A year later, his “Funky Broadway” would hit No. 1 R&B/No. 8 pop.
As the ’60s closed, Pickett started recording soul versions of songs that were already rock hits, including “Hey Jude”; he turned “Abraham, Martin and John” into a tribute to dead black music icons, “Cole, Cooke & Redding.”
Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. He received the R&B Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1993.
That same year saw the release of pic “The Commitments,” which centered on a Dublin soul band attempting to meet and perform with Pickett. He performed with the Commitments at the film premieres in Los Angeles and New York.
A year later, however, Pickett was convicted of drunken driving and hitting a pedestrian with his car. He served a year in jail.
In the last 25 years, Pickett made only two albums. His 1999 disc “It’s Harder Now” (Rounder/Bullseye Records) garnered him three W.C. Handy Awards, including soul/blues male artist of the year.
Pickett is survived by two sons and two daughters.
A viewing is being arranged in Virginia next week, and he then will be buried next to his mother in Louisville, Ky.