Our summer holiday of 1966, on the intermittently sunny North Yorkshire Riviera, extended that year’s effervescent English exhilaration. Our national football team had given us all the World Cup willies for 3 weeks in July but they had only gone & won the thing (never again). The seaside sojourn’s soundtrack, coming through loud & clear from Radio 270, Yorkshire’s own pirate radio station, was headed by The Beatles’ current double whammy, the ground-breaking “Eleanor Rigby” & the psych-nursery rhyme “Yellow Submarine”. Each week brought a rush & a push of bright shiny new music that demanded your attention. We didn’t know yet that this was a classic time for pop music but we had an idea that it was. Here’s one that was picked to click in August 1966.
Oh Yeah ! 1-2-3 ! Still does it. For the 2nd week of the holiday I was joined by my best friend, brand new teenagers given a pass that we didn’t get at home.(Back then I thought my parents were like, old people, looking back they were pretty cool). We hijacked the family transistor radio, headed for the cliffs, just the two of us, the North Sea & Emperor Rosko’s drive-time show, a little bit of Wolfman Jack, on Radio Caroline. Summer evenings had never been better …up to now. Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a 1000 Dances” consolidated a whole bunch of future possibilities, power, passion, abandon. I didn’t know how to Pony, let alone like Bony Maronie but I sure intended to learn.
It was a familiar path for Wilson Pickett, from Detroit via Alabama. A gospel grounding, hits with the Falcons, his vocal group, before a solo career. An approach to Atlantic Records did not go his way when his song “I Found a Love” was given to Solomon Burke but his talent, his raw, impassioned testification, meant that Atlantic signed him. After a couple of releases recorded in New York Pickett was sent down to Memphis where, at Stax studios, an abrasive, modern soul sound was forged between the singer & musicians.
While we had not yet heard Cannibal & the Headhunters earlier version of “Land…” we did know about Wilson. The 1st 45 he recorded at Stax was “In the Midnight Hour”, a flawless Pickett/Steve Cropper tune, an instant, enduring soul standard . I think that a law was passed that it had to be played any place anyone danced. Maybe…it was a long time ago. The succeeding run of singles, “Don’t Fight It”, “634-5789” & “99 & a Half (Won’t Do)” established him as a major star. “Land…” was Wilson’s 3rd R&B #1 & it was followed by “Mustang Sally”. Good God Y’all !
Wilson Pickett was officially “Wicked”. His, let’s say, headstrong attitude ruffled the feathers of the tight knit group at Stax but Atlantic (that would be Jerry Wexler) were cultivating another talented coterie at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. The hits just kept on coming. He was never a prolific songwriter, Bobby Womack was around at FAME at this time & had some good songs for Pickett. In September 1967 a cover of Dyke & the Blazers “Funky Broadway” was another R&B #1 between James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” & “Higher & Higher” by Jackie Wilson. It was Soul’s Golden Age & Wilson Pickett was right up there with all this great music. In person, live, well click on the “99 & a Half” clip…it’s nuts in the best way.
His final single of 1968 was a cover of “Hey Jude”, the Beatles’ current smash, an epic, shrieking vocal, an incendiary guitar solo by young Southern longhair Duane Allman. “Funky Broadway” had been the first chart record to include this new adjective & the leading lights of Soul were introducing innovatory sounds as the 60s ended. Pickett’s muscular cover versions of rock classics, “Born To Be Wild”, “Hey Joe”, seemed a little obvious at the time. Now they sound like psycho-soul juggernauts, heck even “Sugar Sugar”, a bubblegum song I really do not like, sounds good.
Of course Wilson Pickett was still amongst the biggest names. In 1971 he headlined “Soul to Soul”, a major concert in Accra, Ghana which included Santana, the Staples Singers & Ike & Tina Turner. In Africa he was “Soul Brother #2” only headed by James Brown. A workmate of mine, Emmanuel, was at that gig. I loved to hear his stories of a momentous day in that young country’s cultural history. In the same year “Don’t Knock My Love” was his 5th & final #1 R&B hit & in 1972 he recorded “Fire & Water” an imaginative & appropriate version of Free’s British Blues belter. On “Soul Train”, wearing the brightest suit ever made, he gives it plenty. The Midnight Movers, his backing band, are pretty good too. Pickett kept on keeping on even though public taste was for a smoother Soul than his rugged sound. There were still a Grammy award & many accolades before his death in 2006.
In 1966 I voted in the New Musical Express end-of-year poll. Best Group the Beatles, Best Single “Good Vibrations”, Best Male Singer Wilson Pickett. As I said up there music was moving fast back then. The more subtle supplications of Otis Redding, the relentless dedication to the funk by James Brown & Aretha’s unmatched quality were irresistible. In 1968 Atlantic released “This Is Soul”, a ready made collection of super music for just 62.5p ($1). The LP opened with “Mustang Sally”, closed with “Land of a 1000 Dances”. I was glad to have these songs around. Now I’m discovering LP tracks that I’ve not heard before while I’m still dancing to “…Midnight Hour” & still marvelling at the energy of “Land of a 1000 Dances”.