Harlean Harris Wilson, widow of the legendary R&B singer Jackie Wilson and a top model in the 1950s and ’60s, died Saturday at 81.
She passed away less than two week before she was to represent her late husband, who died in 1984, at his Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony Sept. 4.
“Though we are deeply saddened that Harlean will not be with us physically to accept Jackie’s star on September 4, we are certain that she will be there with Jackie in spirit,” said Paul Tarnopol of Brunswick Records, Jackie Wilson’s record label. “Harlean Wilson was a beautiful woman inside and out who lived her life with tremendous grace and dignity and was loved by us all.”
Wilson, who was born Dec. 20, 1937, was well known as a model before marrying the singer, appearing on the covers of magazines like Ebony, Jet and Hue, and appearing in celebrity columns for dating Sam Cooke, Ronald Isley and Sammy Davis, Jr. before wedding Wilson.
She described herself as thrilled about her husband receiving the Walk of Fame honor, and being able to speak for him at the ceremony, in an interview she did just two weeks before her death.
“I’m so elated for him, so ecstatic about my husband getting this star,” she said of her husband, who was a second-year inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “That title Mr. Excitement wasn’t just given to him; he worked for it.” She remembered her husband as “very vibrant, very effervescent, generous to a fault. He loved to sing and he loved life.”
Born in White Plains, New York, Harlean Harris had been serving as president of the Billy Ward and the Dominoes Fan Club when, like many, she was distressed to learn that Clyde McPhatter was leaving the group and would be replaced with a young unknown named Jackie Wilson. And then she saw him sing at the Apollo.
“I had never heard a black entertainer sing on Jackie’s level, at all,” she said. “Nobody had.” Eventually she received a phone call from Jackie, whose memory of her from the fan club was jogged by seeing her on the cover of Ebony. Several years after becoming a couple, in May 1967, they wed, shortly before the singer released the signature hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”
In 1975, Jackie Wilson suffered a massive heart attack while singing at a New Jersey nightclub, and was rushed, in a coma, to a nearby hospital. She became his caretaker, as the performer never fully regained his ability to function. A series of legal situations continued before and after his death on January 21, 1984, almost a decade after his collapse. “I was the administrator of the estate because I was his court-appointed guardian,” she said recently, “and everybody wanted to take the estate from me, with all kinds of excuses. Everybody came out of the woodwork. The whole matter went into federal court when it first happened and it’s still going on. Jackie wasn’t a businessman.”
In later years Harlean Wilson was described as cherishing her summers on Martha’s Vineyard, with hobbies that included being an avid tennis fan and a breeder of doves.
A spokesperson for the family said she died of natural causes. Wilson is survived by the couple’s son John Wilson, a grandson, Robert Wilson, and great-grandchildren Zanyah, Liana, Robert Jr. and Valentino, along with two sisters, Cheryl and Brenda.