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WILSON PICKETT: THE TOP 20 PERFORMANCES ON YOUTUBE


This playlist brings together twenty of the greatest Wilson Pickett performances currently on YouTube. Other than the opening clip, none of them are the recorded versions of his many hits, but rather live renditions and TV appearances, with a couple of oddities thrown in for good measure. They include the German TV special from 1968 which features his superb backing band at the time, the Midnight Movers; the headlining performance at Soul To Soul in Ghana, March 1971; a raucous TV duet with Tom Jones; two clips from two different Soul Train appearances in the 1970s; a rare appearance onstage with James Brown; a couple of rather corny clips from the 1980s; two magnificent performances on the Letterman show from his successful comeback around 1999; and the emotional all-star tribute to him at the Grammys in 2006, shortly after he died. Several of these clips have been specifically referenced in my biography, IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: THE LIFE & SOUL OF WILSON PICKETT, published by Oxford University Press.

 

NUMBER 1: IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR, un-named television show 1965.

This is the only lip-synch on the whole playlist; I couldn’t find a live performance of Wilson Pickett any earlier than 1966. And I couldn’t find earlier videos of Pickett in any capacity prior to a couple of 1965 TV performances promoting the seminal Stax studio version of “In the Midnight Hour.” Pickett and band look a little stiff as they go through their paces, but the glee in the singer’s eye, the smile on his face as he mimes his way through what he must know to be a hit record, is palpable.


NUMBER 2: MUSTANG SALLY, unspecified television show, c. 1967.

Forget the claim in the description that this is 1965; Pickett didn’t record “Mustang Sally” (at Fame in Muscle Shoals) until 1966, and the size and the look of this group indicates it’s from around 1967. Gone is the stiffness of the previous clip; this group swings, they rock, they roll and oh man, do they have soul, with Pickett in full screaming mode. In coming years, poor old Mustang Sally would become such a lazy bar-band staple that some can’t bear to hear it; this version shows the emotive breadth of the song back when Pickett was at his peak.


NUMBER 3: EVERYBODY NEEDS SOMEBODY TO LOVE, German TV special, early 1968.

Pickett with the best backing band of his career, the Midnight Movers, captured in mesmerizing form on this German television special from early 1968, by director Reinhard Hauff. The full concert, available elsewhere on YouTube, shows the band warming up with the likes of “Soul Finger” before a young Jack Philpot, one of the only hold-overs from Pickett’s previous group, introduces the singer. Pickett bounds on to deliver a fiercesome “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,” written by his friend Solomon Burke but a bigger hit in Pickett’s hands; he ad-libs into some of “In The Midnight Hour,” while the interracial crowd jumps to its feet and dances stage-front in delight.


NUMBER 4: STAGGER LEE, German TV special, early 1968.

Pickett had recently recorded the standard “Stagger Lee” at American Studios for the I’m In Love LP, and the Midnight Movers do more than adequate duty taking on the studio parts of some of the finest musicians in the south. With Skip Pitts on guitar, Ernest Smith on bass, “Woody” Woodson on drums, George Patterson on tenor sax and Curtis Pope on trumpet (all recently poached from Gene Chandler), joined by longer-standing Pickett band members Jack Philpot on sax and Chris Lowe on trumpet, the new group is in a league of its own, while Pickett’s vocal roar, louder than any rock singer of his era, puts the whole sound thoroughly over the top.


NUMBER 5: DEBORAH, Sanremo Music Festival, Italy, February 1968.

We back up slightly to the Sanremo Music Festival, an annual song contest held in the Italian Riviera, where Pickett brought his Midnight Movers to back him in lieu of the traditional Italian orchestra favored by all other entrants, including American artists Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey, and Eartha Kitt. Recorded for Italian single release in a New York studio just a few weeks earlier, “Deborah” found Pickett alternating between Italian-language operatic verses, and full-on soulful choruses referencing “good times walking down Broadway.” As seen here in Sanremo itself, albeit with some dubious audio-video synching, Pickett pulls it off in an entirely live rendition, George Patterson hard at work directing the band behind him while juggling cornet and saxophone. Check Pickett’s squalls off-mic just before the two-minute mark. He and the band were rewarded for their efforts with a fourth-place finish, the highest of any non-Italian entrants. He’d be back the next year.


NUMBER 6: FUNKY BROADWAY, German TV special, early 1968.

No Pickett show was complete without someone dancing on stage with him, but rarely did the occasion spill over into such an exuberant full-scale stage invasion as at the German TV special of 1968 for Funky Broadway, the set’s penultimate song. Around the two minute mark, Pickett smiles as he sees his stage swamped, backs off briefly and then reclaims the mike with an appropriate holler of “you got me feeling alright… lord have mercy.” While the Midnight Movers hold tight on the riff – Skip Pitts’ guitar the driving force – the audience struts its stuff in front of, around and almost on top of the musicians. It’s hard not to take note of their integrated composition (likely including many American servicemen and/or their offspring) and wonder how many cities in the States would have allowed such mingling even in 1968. More so, it’s hard not to be impressed by the joy they bring to the occasion, vocally expressed at points as one of the cameras leans into their midst. Pickett laps it all up – though even he seems taken aback by the passion with which one long-legged lady embraces him. This is soul music as social force writ large.


NUMBER 7: BAREFOOTING’, IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR and HEY JUDE, This Is Tom Jones, c. 1969

Don’t worry about the quality of the video. Nor that the trailed song is “Barefooting.” Once Tom Jones and Wilson Pickett lock into the groove together on this live performance on the former’s TV show, from what is almost certainly 1969, you will not be able to take your eyes off them. As they riff back and forth, the unseen live band with its own admirable arrangements, they morph into “In The Midnight Hour” before concluding with an ecstatic duet of “Hey Jude.” Two things should be transparent: 1) An understanding of why studio musicians say they so loved recording with Wilson, that he brought energy and vitality to his surroundings and instantly lifted their game. 2) Why I call Jones “one of the finest soul singers ever to come out of the United Kingdom.”


NUMBER 8: IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR, Soul To Soul, Ghana, 1971

For my money, this event, at which Pickett headlined the first ever black American post-jazz package to visit Africa, represents the zenith of his career. To quote directly from the book: “the moment they broke into the descending chords of “In the Midnight Hour,” the crowd’s reaction was electric. The young African men who had commandeered the front rows fell into the pogoing mosh-pit of a punk rock movement still several years and a continent away—jumping, leaping, dancing, and excitedly shoving those around them. And the police broke from their official baton-wielding crowd control duties to join in with the joy of the moment. Still others in the frenzied crowd stared upward at Wilson Pickett as if in the presence of a deity.


NUMBER 9: LAND OF 1000 DANCES, Soul To Soul, Ghana, 1971

No Pickett show was complete without someone dancing on stage with him, but rarely did the occasion spill over into such an exuberant full-scale stage invasion as at the German TV special of 1968 for Funky Broadway, the set’s penultimate song. Around the two minute mark, Pickett smiles as he sees his stage swamped, backs off briefly and then reclaims the mike with an appropriate holler of “you got me feeling alright… lord have mercy.” While the Midnight Movers hold tight on the riff – Skip Pitts’ guitar the driving force – the audience struts its stuff in front of, around and almost on top of the musicians. It’s hard not to take note of their integrated composition (likely including many American servicemen and/or their offspring) and wonder how many cities in the States would have allowed such mingling even in 1968. More so, it’s hard not to be impressed by the joy they bring to the occasion, vocally expressed at points as one of the cameras leans into their midst. Pickett laps it all up – though even he seems taken aback by the passion with which one long-legged lady embraces him. This is soul music as social force writ large.


NUMBER 10: FIRE AND WATER, Soul Train, 1972

An important clip for several reasons. As I point out in my biography, host Don Cornelius’s generous introduction probably played its part in boosting Pickett’s claims as the singer set about securing himself a more lavish record deal, one that would soon see him depart Atlantic for RCA where, despite a million dollar signing fee, his career quickly floundered. Additionally, the choice of song – written and originally recorded by the band Free – demonstrates Pickett’s ability to take a rock song and make it better: this version, as produced by Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford, made number 2 on the R&B charts. The performance of it on Soul Train is entirely live, and the band is certainly grooving, but for the first time, the singer’s voice sounds strained – and also for the first time, we see him in sequins, evidence that the 1970s have truly kicked in, with ultimately devastating results for gospel shouters like Pickett. Finally, of course, there are the dancers. We Brits were not exposed to Soul Train in its heyday; Top of the Pops was as risqué as it came. As such, I can watch clips like this until the proverbial cows come home. So, hopefully, can you.


NUMBER 11: SCHITZ MALT LIQUOR TV commercial, late 1970s.

We now take a brief intermission – and what better way to do so than with a Wilson Pickett television commercial. This advertisement for Schlitz Malt Liquor is painfully ironic, given that at the time it was shot, most likely in the late 1970s, he was descending into alcoholism. Not that you would know as much by his confident presentation, which portrays him the way he no doubt wanted to be perceived – as a cool, calm, collected man of great means who nonetheless enjoys nothing more than an old-fashioned, down-home, inexpensive beer. (The raging bull was part of Schlitz’s ongoing marketing campaign.) Pickett was sufficiently photogenic that a career in TV or film might have beckoned, but for the fact that his illiteracy prevented him reading his own scripts in detail, and that he was developing a reputation for unreliability, aided – or not, depending how you read grammar – by his drinking.


NUMBER 12: THE BEST PART OF A MAN, Soul Train, 1976

Four years following his last appearance on Soul Train – during which time he had signed to RCA, released four increasingly disappointing LPs and eventually been dropped, a mere shadow of his former superstar self – Wilson Pickett returned to America’s pre-eminent black music show to unveil the singles from his new album, Chocolate Mountain. Disco, clearly, was the new soul vision, and the changes in musical taste are revealed by the audience’s dancing, so much more restrained than back in 1972, and by Pickett appearing on stage alone, for the first time in this playlist, lip-synching to the track. An attempt at bonhomie with host Don Cornelius is stilted (and likely scripted), but though Pickett looks out of sorts without a backing band, “The Best Part of a Man” is no slouch of a contemporary dance song: recorded in Nashville, it has a slick, but never saccharine approach, and for this author’s money, was his strongest foray into late 1970s dance music. But although “The Best Part of a Man” returned Pickett to the Soul Top 30 for the first time in two years, it would be his last ever such appearance in the former R&B charts that he had dominated throughout the 1960s. Chocolate Mountain proved but a brief return to form, and the relationship with T.K. ended abruptly when Pickett found out he did not in fact own his imprint.


NUMBER 13, IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR, American TV, 1980s

I can not make out the name of this television show (from the blurred neon logo) to therefore date this appearance accurately. Safe to say that it has to be the 1980s, and that Pickett’s recording career is essentially behind him, yet he could always be relied upon to brighten up a broadcast with a blistering live delivery of his trademark hit. As with the Soul Train performance of a few years earlier (see number 12), he’s alone at the front of the stage, out of the comfort zone usually provided by his backing band. Relief, for him perhaps if not for us in 2017, comes in the form of four female dancers during the instrumental break, though Pickett’s uneasy dancing in the face of pure sexual allure indicates that footwork was never his strongest point. But the voice! For all his sins (which, here, include a black leather outfit, better suited to his period doppelganger Eddie Murphy), Pickett always sang like a man possessed. His future sax player Dan Cipriano told me that Pickett never phrased “In The Midnight Hour” the same way twice through the hundreds of times they played together, and this clip offers a prime example of such improvisation – a hallmark, perhaps, of a truly great soul singer.


NUMBER 14: COLD SWEAT/IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR, James Brown & Friends, 1987

This concert, recorded at the Taboo club in Detroit, was billed, broadcast and later released as James Brown & Friends, but in the case of the Godfather of Soul and the Wicked Pickett, it would be fair to say that theirs was more of a rivalry. Though capable of perfectly good manners on the surface, you can see them analyze and play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses in this clip. Pickett is invited up to take the initial verse on “Cold Sweat” and promptly nails it, but not before he begs the sure-footed Brown, “Don’t do no dancing, OK?” to which the Godfather replies, ominously, “Or what?” When it then comes time for “In The Midnight Hour,” Pickett taunts his host: “You know the notes?” at which Brown leaves Pickett to sing the song himself, but then interjects with some screams on a reprised coda, recalling Jerry Wexler’s famous quote, “When James Brown used to scream, it was a scream. When Pickett screamed, it was a musical note.” A finale of “Living in America,” also available on YouTube, brings Pickett back on stage, but he’s in a supporting role to Aretha Franklin and Robert Palmer, alongside Brown’s other “friends” Joe Cocker and Billie Vera. This is the only footage I can find of the two of them onstage together, though they shared the bill many a time over the years. Meantime, Pickett’s derogatory comments about James Brown, as put to Nick Kent in 1979, are among the most hilarious (and often cited) quotes from my biography.


NUMBER 15: MEDLEY, Los Angeles Forum TV special, 1987.

Not truly one of Pickett’s “Top 20 performances” per the playlist heading, but instructive in terms of the singer’s chronology, this video, uploaded by Pickett’s musical director and lead trumpeter at the time, Curtis Pope, shows part of a televised concert from the Los Angeles Forum in 1987, upon the release of his lone Motown album, American Soul Man. It’s the only film I can find from that event, and is all the more fascinating because we don’t hear an actual song in over five minutes of playing, but rather the endless conclusion of one number, and the eternal introduction of another.

Within that, we can sense, certainly, the “padding” of the set that becomes standard procedure as great singers grow older. (I saw Mavis Staples in Memphis in 2015, and though she was amazing when she sang, I doubt she did so for even than half the set.) Yet we can also hear how Pickett still has the voice, the scream, and the charisma, even as his body has filled out and his face looks puffy. (I love how he gloats about the size of the stage one moment but is down on his knees as if in church the next.)

Most importantly, and unfortunately, there is a definite sense of time and place with this line-up of what is once again named the Midnight Movers. “The band,” as I write in my biography, “reflected the era’s tendency towards overindulgent playing. Guitarist Ronnie Hinton and bass player Kevin Walker filled nearly every half-beat on classic soul songs otherwise known for their sense of space.” Walker, who had been part of the group since he was around sixteen years old, would not last much longer. On the subsequent tour of Europe, attacked without provocation by a raging, drunken Pickett, he retaliated with a towel rack and put his employer in hospital. Motown dropped Wilson Pickett almost immediately and it would be twelve years before he released another album. The shows, however, would continue.


NUMBER 16: HEY JUDE/FUNKY BROADWAY, Diamond Festival, Antwerp, Belgium, December 1994

As with the previous clip, this video was uploaded by one of the musicians on stage – lead guitarist Bobby Manriquez, whose brief tenure in Wilson Pickett’s group he details on pages 236-7 of my biography. Unlike the previous clip from seven years earlier, however, Pickett is in good shape physically, and from what we can see of this European festival performance from December 1994, in great form musically. The good vibes emanating outwards from the central focus of the stage might explain why, when he came across them at the festival, Pickett apologized to Sam Moore and his wife Joyce McRae-Moore for his essentially psychotic behavior on a European tour of over a decade earlier. (Those of you who have read the extended extract in Mojo will know the one.) Although many of the band members on stage recall an equally great adventure to Brazil a few months later, the good times were not to last. Pickett was arrested in April 1996 after a domestic incident, and jailed, for the second time that decade, in July, for cocaine possession. It must have appeared uncertain at that point if he was ever to play such a good show again.


NUMBER 17: 634-5789, David Letterman Show, 1998. With Eddie Floyd and the Blues Brothers Band.

After release from his second jail term, Wilson Pickett was given one more golden opportunity to redeem himself when offered a role in the remake, I mean the sequel, to the Blues Brothers movie, appearing alongside Eddie Floyd on a duet of the Floyd-Cropper composition (and Pickett #1 R&B hit) “634-5789.” Their duet in Blues Brothers 2000 is not quit as unwatchable as the rest of the film, but then it’s a pretty low bar. Fortunately, as I write in the book:

“When the movie was released in early 1998, Pickett and Floyd were invited to perform “634-5789” on Late Night with David Letterman. Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn were on guitar and bass, Paul Schaffer on piano, and Matt “Guitar” Murphy took the Jonny Lang role. Aykroyd, Goodman, and Bonifant wisely stood in the lead duo’s shadows, and the two former Falcons absolutely killed it with a call-and-response performance that confirmed not only their continued star power but the ongoing might of soul as an incomparable live musical form. Pickett appeared in finer voice than for many, many years, ascending into an impressive falsetto on his first line, reviving it on the last verse, and resorting to familiar screams and squalls at the song’s conclusion.” Amen.


NUMBER 18: IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR, with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, New York, 1999.

In the spring of 1999, a reinvigorated Wilson Pickett was invited to the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan to perform alongside Bruce Springsteen, who was being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It was an auspicious moment, coming eight years after Pickett stood up the Boss – and the entire ceremony – by failing to show for his own Induction. To say Pickett had been in his cups back then would have been an understatement, but time has a habit of healing wounds, if not necessarily alcoholism itself, and in this clip the Wicked, tuxed to the max, comes storming out of the gate to prove that he still has it, threatening (verbally as well as musically) to upstage the Boss at the latter’s own party. Bruce takes the challenge lightly, and the two singers pass it back and forth over a suitably extended version. Pickett screams and growls, hoots and hollers, like he knows he has something to prove – which includes a new album, finally, in the can. Bruce, comfortable as always in his skin, offers a comparatively mellow counter voice (and a low-end harmony), while behind them, the E Street Band, augmented by Billy Joel and conducted by Paul Schaffer, play around with one of most ubiquitous chord patterns in all of modern music. It’s all delightful, end of the night, good-natured family fun, and when it’s over, not only has Bruce joined Wilson in the Hall of Fame, but Pickett has finally put the ghost of his former no-show behind him.


NUMBER 19: SOUL SURVIVOR, DAVID LETTERMAN SHOW, 1999.

After that barn-storming duet with Eddie Floyd a year earlier (see #17), how could David Letterman not invite Wilson Pickett back upon release of It’s Harder Now, not only the singer’s first new album in twelve years, but a damn good one at that? “Soul Survivor” is Alabama boy Dan Penn’s lyrical recollection (written with producers Jon and Sally Tiven) of his upbringing in the heart of southern soul, and Pickett’s literal interpretation explains why he references himself in the third person. But that’s by the by. What you have here is a supremely comfortable Wilson Pickett, looking fighting fit and dressed to kill as always, backed confidently by his own band (the video was uploaded by sax player Dan Cipriano) with, once again, Paul Schaffer in the picture, this time on piano. Watching the 58-year old Pickett give it everything, hearing his voice yowl its way around the nostalgic but defiant lyrics, it would have been easy to imagine this as but the start of his recording comeback. Regrettably, It’s Harder Now was to be his final outing. At least he ended on a high.


NUMBER 20: IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR all-star tribute, GRAMMY AWARDS, Los Angeles, 2006.

And then it was all over. The last of the Pickett Top 20 is the only one not to include Pickett, but for good reason. For if it’s true that soul music is all about the performance, then this all-star rendition of Wilson Pickett’s signature tune, paid in tribute to the singer shortly after his death in early 2006, is among the finest examples of the genre. I won’t deny that it brought me to tears when I came to writing about it at the conclusion of my Wilson Pickett biography. To quote:

For all the hundreds of times that “In the Midnight Hour” had been performed on television—and for the hundreds of thousands of times that it had been covered in bars, clubs, theaters, concert halls, and stadiums around the world—this was an especially spirited, emotionally evocative rendition. “This is for the Wicked Pickett,” roared Springsteen as the second verse gave way to the famous horn instrumental, and it was evident that he was doing so not just on behalf of the musicians on stage, but on behalf of every soul fan who had ever been touched by one of the greatest voices and, yes, one of the most volatile personalities of the last fifty years.

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