'Midnight Hour,' 'Mustang Sally' R& B Singer Wilson Pickett, 64

Wilson Pickett had his biggest hits in the 1960s before drugs and violence curtailed his career. He staged a successful comeback in the 1990s.
Wilson Pickett had his biggest hits in the 1960s before drugs and violence curtailed his career. He staged a successful comeback in the 1990s. (By Regis Martin -- Getty Images)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

Wilson Pickett, 64, the impassioned, raw-voiced soul singer who brought a hard-edged, sensuous urgency to a string of rhythm-and-blues hits of the 1960s, died Jan. 19 of a heart attack at Reston Hospital Center. He had lived in Ashburn since 1999.

One of the most exciting performers of his era, Mr. Pickett helped define the sound of classic soul music of the 1960s, along with Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, James Brown and Smokey Robinson. He often punctuated his songs with shouts, screams and grunts, giving his music a visceral quality that few other performers could match.

He imbued his leading hits, including "In the Midnight Hour," "Mustang Sally," "Funky Broadway" and "Land of 1,000 Dances," with a rough, sweaty undertone that contained more than a hint of danger and lust.

The title of one of his best-selling records was "The Wicked Pickett," which became a nickname that Mr. Pickett wore with some well-earned justification. Throughout his life, a penchant for drugs and violence kept him in trouble, but his voice remained unchanged until his health forced him to stop performing about two years ago.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and received a further career boost that year when his music was featured in the film "The Commitments," about an Irish soul band. Mr. Pickett performed at the New York premiere of the movie and gained a new generation of fans.

After a long period of eclipse, which included time in jail, Mr. Pickett made a strong comeback in 1999 with a new album, "It's Harder Now," that was nominated for a Grammy Award and received three W.C. Handy Blues Awards.

Mr. Pickett was born in Prattville, Ala., on March 18, 1941. The youngest of 11 children, he grew up in a stern home with a mother he called "the baddest woman in my book."

"She used to hit me with anything, skillets, stove wood," he told Gerri Hirshey in "Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music."

Still, there was the solace of the church, where the young Mr. Pickett learned to sing. At 14, he moved to Detroit with his family and quickly joined informal groups singing on street corners.

"Me and a million other dudes said 'later' to picking cotton," he told Hirshey.

In 1959, he joined the Detroit vocal group the Falcons, which included future star Eddie Floyd and Joe Stubbs, the brother of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. Mr. Pickett wrote the group's 1962 hit, "I Found a Love," before going out on his own as a solo performer.

He signed with Atlantic Records in 1964 but didn't find his musical stride until producer Jerry Wexler had the inspired idea of sending Mr. Pickett back to the South to record with Booker T. & the MG's, the house band of Stax Records in Memphis.

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