A Soulman's Suburban Twilight

Neighbor Thanh Nguyen holds Wilson Pickett's CD
Neighbor Thanh Nguyen holds Wilson Pickett's CD "It's Harder Now" and the program from Pickett's visitation in Leesburg. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 28, 2006

After the drugs and the diamonds, the rabble-rousing and the 1960s hit song "Mustang Sally," Wilson Pickett simply wanted what many people want: a quiet slice of suburbia, soaring ceilings and a nearby airport.

So, from 1999 until his death last week, the legendary singer lived in a tranquil subdivision of stately homes in Ashburn. There, the hotblooded soul icon, who once was accused of shouting death threats while driving his car across a neighbor's lawn in New Jersey, became known as a smiling, private man who enjoyed fishing and was always the first to wave.

Sure, he was a little different -- nearly everyone on Hyde Park Drive has small children, and Pickett lived alone. Then there were the limousines and taxis that often pulled up to his house in Loudoun County. But to most, Pickett was just another neighbor.

"He took walks like everyone else," said Melinda DiPrinzio, who lives down the street from the two-story, brick-facade home where Pickett lived until his death Jan. 19, by heart attack, at age 64. Funeral services are to be held today in Louisville.

Not that anyone was in the dark about Pickett's past when he came to town. News that the famed songster had bought property in the 143-home subdivision, called the Regency, circulated before he arrived.

"Here we are in suburbia, you know?" Cheryl Ganzer, who lives two houses away, remembered thinking when she heard. "It was wild!"

Still, Sandy Visco, Pickett's next-door neighbor, did what she would do for any newcomer: She took him muffins. The gesture spawned a neighborly friendship. Pickett would sit with Visco while she watched her kids splash in the pool. She gave him a recommendation for an interior decorator, who ended up doing Pickett's house in his "eclectic" style, Visco said: a white baby grand, a dining set custom-made in Africa, loads of family photos.

"I'm sure he was a pistol in his day," said Visco, 44, who only vaguely knew of Pickett's fiery, grunt-punctuated music before meeting him. "But the Wilson I knew was a very sweet man."

By most accounts, Pickett, whose cheeky ways earned him the nickname "Wicked Pickett," was indeed a pistol. The Alabama native shot onto the charts in the mid-'60s with "In the Midnight Hour" and followed it with several other Top 40 singles, including the legendary number about Sally and her '65 Mustang. Over the years, Pickett had run-ins with the law; in the 1990s, he did jail time for drunken driving and was arrested on cocaine possession and domestic violence charges. In 1991, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Some neighbors said Pickett might have had relatives in Maryland. But most who knew him said he chose the Ashburn home, whose floor plan was the same as the two houses next to it, because it was private, had acoustics-friendly ceilings and was seven minutes from Dulles International Airport. Pickett toured until the end of 2004, when his health began failing.

Thanh Nguyen, another next-door neighbor, said Pickett loved to blast his own CDs and explain the lyrics' meanings. One song on Pickett's last album, he told Nguyen, was loosely about life in Ashburn. It was called "Outskirts of Town."

Nguyen and his wife were moving in when Pickett, a lifelong angler, spotted Nguyen's fishing rods. They became buddies, often fishing together at Ashburn ponds and in the Chesapeake Bay -- where, Nguyen recalled, Pickett once whipped out his driver's license to prove his identity to a doubting boatman. Nguyen borrowed Pickett's snowblower; Pickett asked Nguyen's advice on jumper cables for his Jeep Cherokee. The week before he died, Pickett sent over four baby outfits for Nguyen's newborn son.

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