Wilson Pickett's raw return
By Ted Drozdowski
OCTOBER 18, 1999: The howl is unmistakable. Raw as fresh meat, gritty and powerful as sandblasting. That's Wilson Pickett shouting thunder over the fatback grooves of a new album called It's Harder Now (Bullseye Blues & Jazz). And it's a shock. Not only because Pickett hasn't made an album since the mid '80s, but because his voice still has all the torque and flexibility -- the chained-but-snapping emotionalism -- that it did at the peak of his career, when he was one of the top soul-music stars in the world.
That was back in the mid '60s and early '70s. Then, it seemed his hits would never stop coming on like a freight train. "In the Midnight Hour," "Mustang Sally," "Funky Broadway," "634-5789," "Land of 1,000 Dances," "Don't Knock My Love," even a balls-out version of the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and nine more all ran from his mouth straight up the Top 40. But the classic soul sound got elbowed aside by disco in the mid '70s, saccharine pop made a comeback, rock got progressive and regressive and then entered a new wave. Music-biz tastemakers changed their ways.
"I think they all went crazy from living in the city or something," the Alabama-born soul man relates by phone from his Virginia home. "I didn't know what happened. From program directors to label men to the DJs, they all changed at the same time. Something happened and I ain't understood it yet."
What Pickett, who's 58 this year, understands is how to make a story stand up and bark until it raises the hairs on your neck. It's Harder Now isn't simply the R&B return of the year -- it's the comeback of the '90s. Songs like the star-crossed love ballad "Outskirts of Town," the howler "Taxi Love," the pheromone-stirring "All About Sex" and "What's Under That Dress," and the introspective "It's Harder Now" deliver the one-two rhythm-and-vocal combination punch that's always made the best R&B a knockout. That's why bar bands all over the world have used "Midnight Hour" and "Mustang Sally" to stoke fun-hungry crowds for decades. None, of course, has ever brought Pickett's crackling magic to those songs. But just evoking the spirit he infused them with touches a spark.
In the context of his times, the man whose performing prowess earned him the nickname "Wicked" Wilson Pickett ignited something deeper, too. The audible power and control in his voice was a call to African-American liberation during the height of the civil-rights struggles. His unrestrained expressions of desire screamed "freedom" as loud as Dr. King's speeches, and with the untempered passion of the marchers in places like his home state's Birmingham and Selma.
So why has it taken the fire-breathing singer -- whose voice still packs the dynamic wallop of a kick drum -- this long to hop back into the game?
"I went into a great depression," Pickett explains. "I said, 'To hell with it.' I was getting nowhere. I was sinking my own money into recording projects and never getting my money back out of it. So I thought I might as well relax with this.
"I didn't relax, though. I got very depressed. I went into my house and didn't come out for about 10 years. I just went to the grocery store or the post office. Sometimes I'd sneak out and go fishing.
"People thought I was dead or something. They would drive by and try to peek to see if they could see Wilson Pickett. They'd ring the bell, but I didn't answer. I didn't want to talk to nobody."
Pickett snapped out of his malaise as he saw the resurgence that blues and soul music have enjoyed in recent years. He moved south from his hideout in Englewood, New Jersey, and put the word out that he was looking for a producer. Jon Tiven, a savvy songwriter and engineer, got the gig. Tiven and Pickett co-wrote some material for the CD. The great R&B songwriters Dan Penn and Don Covay also contributed. Then Tiven, who plays guitar on the album too, put together a band. It is a beautiful disc -- a living testament to great soul music's ability to transcend time and genre, to reach the deep human center of anyone who hears it.
Now, just back from a pre-release tour of Europe, Pickett's itching to hit America's highways again, with dates scheduled for David Letterman's Late Show and New York City's Irving Plaza. Does he still climb the speakers, jump off the stage, howl and prowl the way a bulldog fusses and fights? Oh yeah, he says. "I still do 70 minutes of hard show business! But see, I don't go out partying after gigs like I used to do. You know, you grab four or five chicks and go party all night long. I don't have that kind of energy anymore. I'm always able to do my gig because I take my butt to the hotel, take a good hot bath, and get into bed."
So, you're not as "wicked" as you used to be?
"Well," says Pickett, "if you call that wicked! I sure did love it! Hah-hah!"
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