Tony Fletcher’s research is impeccable, his sources are unimpeachable, and his style is thoroughly engaging.
In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett by Tony Fletcher. Oxford University Press, 302 pp. $27.95 (hardcover)
By Blake Maddux
“Indeed, so ubiquitous is his music that it can be difficult to date one’s introduction to it,” popular music biographer Tony Fletcher writes in the preface of his new book In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett.
Despite this claim, Fletcher is fairly confident that he first heard a Wilson Pickett song via The Jam’s 1977 cover of “In the Midnight Hour.”
Given that Fletcher was a teenager in England when The Jam was en route to becoming the country’s most popular band, this is not surprising. It is also unremarkable that Fletcher’s introduction was in the form of a cover version, as Pickett’s career had hit the pretty much rockiest of bottoms by 1977. Finally, since Fletcher is himself a white Brit (though he is now a resident of Mount Tremper, NY), it comes as no shock that the cover version was by fellow white Brits.
If memory serves me correctly, my first experience of Wilson Pickett was by way of the song “Land of 1,000 Dances.” As with Mr. Fletcher, the version that I heard was not being sung by the man himself. Rather, it was a recording by members of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), including “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Junkyard Dog, and future Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura. This rendition—which catalogued wrestling and dance moves—was released on a bizarre 1985 artifact called The Wrestling Album, of which I received a cassette copy at Christmas because I was a huge wrestling fan at age nine.
Whereas Fletcher’s immediate response to hearing “[s]imilar contemporary interpretations of classic soul songs” was to seek out the originals, it was not until few years later that I can remember hearing Pickett’s voice. In this case, “Land of 1,000 Dances” was playing over the closing credits of the 1988 movie The Great Outdoors. I would not have known the name of the singer had someone asked me at the time who it was, but I probably would have guessed Otis Redding.
The fact that Fletcher and I can both approximate our introductions to Wilson Pickett’s music reinforces Fletcher’s point about its ubiquity. Both of us heard it by virtue of others being inspired to record his songs—although Pickett’s “1,000 Dances” was itself a cover—and we each heard first heard him at a time when Pickett was far from the creative and commercial force that he had once been.
Unlike Fletcher, I cannot even guess when I first learned the name Wilson Pickett or knew that he sang the songs that he did. Until and even after I did, the man and his work would still seem less familiar to me than that of contemporaries such as Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown. This may have been because the latter two had huge pop hits in the ’80s, whereas Pickett most certainly did not.
I felt less bad about my lack of familiarity with the legendary performer when I read Fletcher write that as recently as 2012, he “had never come across a biography of the man….” Although Louella Pickett-New—a sister of the singer and the “my little Lucy” referenced in “Land of 1,000 Dances”—published Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You: A Sibling’s Memoir of Legendary Soul Singer Wilson Pickett in 2014, Fletcher has now corrected the problem that he had more than four years ago.
Pickett’s story is unquestionably inspiring. He grew up poor in rural Alabama, but wound up making enough money to buy not only himself a house but to move several family members into houses of their own.
As with many people, famous or otherwise, Pickett led a contradiction-riddled life.
At one point he was making $17,000 per week performing in Las Vegas and enjoying the fruits of a seven-figure contract with RCA. Alas, he was also spending $3,000 a week on drugs and, in his words, “didn’t sell one fucking record.”
While many musicians described working with him as the most rewarding thing that they ever did, Fletcher quotes one as saying, “If you see Wilson in a restaurant, go to another restaurant. If he’s in the hotel bar, go to another bar, anywhere but where he is. You can have a very pleasant evening.”
(Wilson Pickett was “the first to take the word ‘funk’ into the charts….”)
His female companions, of which there were many, spoke of him as being as spectacularly lovable as he was dangerously temperamental. The latter trait undoubtedly sprung from the fact that he, as Fletcher writes, “inherit[ed] his father’s tendency to drink [and] his mother’s temper, her quick resort to anger and even violence.”
Thus, Pickett may very well have been a classic case of a spectacularly committed and talented professional who was inversely admirable as a human being. His several children and many siblings, alone with the aforementioned musicians and women, also testify to this fact throughout In the Midnight Hour.
Fletcher deserves kudos the being thorough. He recognizes that his responsibility as a biographer is to tell his subject’s story even that person was no longer tearing up the charts. The chapters that deal with his post-Atlantic Records peak reveal as much as do those about his ascension and eventually conquering of the soul music mountain.
As, for the book’s shortcomings, Fletcher could have more deeply explored Pickett’s influence on fellow musicians. He mentions The Jam’s version of “In the Midnight Hour,” but what about the ones by English bands such as Roxy Music and Echo & the Bunnymen and American acts like The Grateful Dead, B.B. King, and John Hiatt?
While it might be tempting to give Fletcher a pass on this point, Fletcher never mentions The Wrestling Album. Granted, it was not one of the more distinguished uses of a Pickett song, but WWF wrestling was huge in the mid-1980s. It may not have the singer’s name any more familiar, but this recording was indicative how deeply ingrained in American culture the songs that he made famous were. A mention of it by Fletcher may have helped drive home the sad state of Pickett’s career at a time when had not recorded an album in four years.
Fletcher also comes across at a couple of points as too easily dismissive of Pickett’s exceedingly short fuse. Referring specifically to the singer’s unapologetic willingness to brandish a firearm, Fletcher writes, “for all the times he waved his gun around, and for the occasions where he fired his gun, he never actually put a bullet in anyone.” (Wow…whatta guy!)
Finally, in discussing Pickett’s version of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” Fletcher writes that the song “had recently topped the charts in a version by rock band Badfinger.”
Huh? The British band Badfinger never recorded a version of that song, let along topped the chart with it. Presumably he means the American band Three Dog Night, but how could one possibly confuse the two? Maybe I should just let this go, but it befuddles me that a biographer as reputable as Fletcher would make such an error and that no one who proofread drafts ever caught it. Granted, this does not undercut the overall quality of the book, nor is it one in a string of factual errors, but—perhaps for those very reasons—it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Yes, Fletcher could have been more imaginative than to use the name of Pickett’s most famous song as the title of the biography. But this is nitpicking. Fletcher’s research is impeccable, his sources are unimpeachable, and his style is thoroughly engaging.
In the Midnight Hour may or may not prove to be the definitive biography of “Wicked” Pickett, but Tony Fletcher has given all who seek to equal of surpass it an intimidatingly steep hill to climb.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who also contributes to The Somerville Times, DigBoston, Lynn Happens, and various Wicked Local publications on the North Shore. In 2013, he received an MLA from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding Thesis in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts