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

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.

The integrated band, supplemented with the well-known "Memphis horns" sound, provided a rhythmic drive that perfectly matched the dynamic vitality of Mr. Pickett's singing. He and guitarist Steve Cropper wrote "In the Midnight Hour," which became a leading R&B hit and reached No. 21 on the pop charts.

He followed this early success with nine albums in the next five years. In 1966 alone, he had major hits with "634-5789," "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)," "Mustang Sally" and "Land of 1,000 Dances," which reached No. 6 on the pop charts and was his best-selling single ever.

Moving farther south to a studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., Mr. Pickett recorded "Funky Broadway," which became a hit in 1967, and a surprisingly subdued version of the Beatles' "Hey Jude" (1969), with the then-unknown guitarist Duane Allman.

Between 1965 and 1972, Mr. Pickett had 16 Top 40 hits and enjoyed all the accouterments that went with fame, including diamonds, furs and a Rolls-Royce. He received his nickname, "Wicked Pickett," in the recording studio in 1966.

"One of the secretaries at Atlantic Records caught me pinching one of the other secretaries," he told the Boston Herald in 1999. "She said, 'My, you sure are wicked.' I had to live up to the name after I got it."

Long known for his volatile personality, his personal excesses and for settling what he called "disagreements of a personal nature" with his fists, Mr. Pickett hit bottom in the early 1990s while living in New Jersey.

In 1991, he was arrested for driving his car across the lawn of his neighbor -- the mayor of Englewood, N.J. -- while shouting death threats. The next year, he was sentenced to five years of probation for injuring an 86-year-old man while driving drunk. He was also arrested for cocaine possession and for domestic violence against his live-in girlfriend.

After a drunk-driving conviction, Mr. Pickett spent most of 1994 in a New Jersey jail. During a fight with a fellow inmate, he suffered an eye injury that required several operations.

By 1999, he had resettled in Virginia and resumed an active performing career, singing his songs from the '60s as well as new tunes he had written. He was proud that his voice was still in such good shape that he could sing all his early hits in the original key.

"If I wasn't in show business, I don't know what I would have been -- a wanderer or something, you know?" he told the Ottawa Citizen in 2001. "But God blessed me with the talent and the chance. I knocked on enough doors, and this is what I can give myself credit for."

Survivors include his fiancee, Gail Webb of Ashburn; and four children.

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