When Wilson Pickett appeared at the Chesapeake Blues Festival in Anne Arundel County this past May, he looked resplendent. Sporting a short, crisp Afro and a thick mustache, he wore a long, canary-yellow coat over a pink-and-green shirt and gray slacks. And when he roused himself -- as he did for "Funky Broadway" -- he proved that he still possessed the big, soulful roar that led him to 32 Top 30 R&B hits between 1961 and 1971.
For much of the show, however, he kept that roar under wraps. He let his backing band play three songs; he coasted through several of his hits; he talked to the audience incessantly and kept calling up on stage good-looking women from the crowd. Like so many aging pop stars, Pickett hadn't lost his original gifts, but he had no motivation for focusing them.
That motivation has now arrived in the form of "It's Harder Now" (Rounder), his first new album in a dozen years. When he headlines over Betty Wright, Clarence Carter and Roy C on Saturday at Constitution Hall, Pickett will mix three songs from the new album in with the old hits, hoping to prove that his present is as important as his past.
"I took a long rest period," the 58-year-old singer admits. "I didn't know heads or tails of what anybody wanted; it seemed as if R&B had been put on the shelf. If you get the disco or rap format on the radio, an R&B record doesn't fit, because it will break up the mood. That knocked R&B flat on its back. I was investing a big bunch of my money, cutting albums, going from label to label and not getting anything done. I got disgusted and walked away from it.
"But recently, I noticed things were changing. Radio stations are playing R&B oldies, and R&B is selling to a wider variety -- white people, young people, people in rock bands. We're doing more and more tours worldwide; they're bringing people out of their grave to do these tours. I was just over in Europe and I kept crossing paths with Little Richard, Ray Charles, Buddy Miles and John Lee Hooker. So I decided to give recording another shot."
The specific catalyst for Pickett's return to the studio was Jon Tiven, a rock critic turned songwriter. Tiven had done impressive albums with Don Covay and Sir Mack Rice, Pickett's old soul cronies, so Pickett gave the baby boomer a call. That led to a marathon series of songwriting sessions in New York between Pickett, his keyboardist Sky Williams, Tiven and Tiven's wife, Sally. The result was 11 new songs in the classic old-soul style, all of them co-written by Tiven and five of them co-written by Pickett.
"I wanted to work with a new producer, put my ideas with him and see what we came up with," Pickett says. "We worked very hard and came up with some songs that reminded me of the older songs. The older songs were better songs, because they had lyrics with a story to tell. Aretha and Otis told stories.
"That's what happens on the ballad `It's Harder Now'; it tells the story of the troubles between me and a woman. `It used to be easy to mess up my mind, but it's harder now.' This tune was tailor-made for me, but I added something of my own to put it in the proper perspective."
The album's key cut is "Soul Survivor," written by Dan Penn and the Tivens. In both its lyrics and its music, it resurrects the heady days of the late-'60s in Memphis and in Muscle Shoals, Ala., when Pickett was sharing the studios and stages with the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, Solomon Burke and Covay. In his raspy, raucous roar, Pickett proves that not only is he a survivor, so is the music itself.
"We used to have a lot of fun," he recalls. "We got cheated out of a lot of money, but we seemed to enjoy ourselves anyway. These days, you come in your limo, do your set, go back to the hotel and never see any of the other entertainers. Back then we were all there together, sharing the same dressing room, sharing the same musicians, sharing the same stories. I sure hope the newcomers are having as much fun as we had then."
WILSON PICKETT -- Appearing Saturday at DAR Constitution Hall with Betty Wright, Clarence Carter and Roy C. * To hear a free Soundbite from Wilson Pickett, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8112. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)