Headlining the Dick Clark show in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on September 25, 1975, Jackie Wilson was stricken by a massive heart attack while singing his classic hit Lonely Teardrops, with the lyric “My Heart Is Crying…Crying”. The audience and the crew at first thought it was part of his performance, but alas, this was not the case. Dick Clark saw that something was terribly wrong and told the musicians to kill the music.
In 1978, members of Wilson’s family waged a court battle against each other over guardianship of the incapacitated musician. The court ruled in favor of his second wife, Harlean Harris, over his son, Tony Wilson—one of his children from his first marriage to Freda Hood (whom he married in 1951 and with whom he had four children; the couple divorced in 1965). Harlean and Jackie, who wed in 1967, had been estranged for some time before his 1975 health crisis.
Harlean Harris was a glamorous Ebony model whom he met in 1961, and was previously Sam Cooke’s girlfriend. Jackie was a womanizer all his life and also had been having a relationship with a young woman, Juanita Jones. Early in the morning of February 15th 1961, Jones waited for Jackie and when he returned with Harlean to his Manhattan apartment, she ambushed him and shot him twice. Despite his wounds and with one bullet lodged near his spine, Jackie made it downstairs to the street, with the revolver he’d snatched still in his hand. Fortunately, a policeman raced him to nearby Mt. Sinai Hospital. Surgery and weeks of medical care saved him, although the bullet remained forever near his spine. For the remainder of his life, He suffered massive alcohol dependency and chronic addiction to painkillers and amphetamines.
Prior to his own death in 1977, his close friend Elvis Presley also helped pay a significant amount of Wilson’s medical bills.
They called him “Mr. Excitement,” and indeed Jackie Wilson was a gifted singer of considerable range and a charismatic showman who commanded a stage like few before or since. Wilson possessed a natural tenor. He sang with the graceful control of Sam Cooke and moved with the frenzied dynamism of James Brown. A mainstay of the R&B and pop charts from 1958 to 1968, Wilson amassed two dozen Top Forty singles, all released on the Brunswick label.
With all the flair and finesse at his disposal, Wilson, as a stage performer, routinely drove audiences to the brink of hysteria among females. He often courted danger by leaping into the audience where his clothes would be ripped to shreds.
In Southern states he played to segregated audiences which, naturally, irked him. There were numerous racially based incidents which placed him in real danger. During a particular performance in New Orleans in 1960, Larry Williams was scheduled to perform and the police had ordered him not to make his traditional leap into the audience. Jackie urged Williams that he should do his normal performance, so things became extremely tense. When a policeman grabbed a hold of Williams, Jackie saw red and punched the cop in the jaw, knocking him out. Total pandemonium broke out and a riot ensued. Wilson was arrested and was severely beaten by the police before being thrown out-of-town.
On record, he was often saddled with grandiose arrangements and dated material, but he transcended even the most bathetic settings with the tremulous excitement of his vocals. And while he was over-recorded, averaging two albums a year from 1959 to 1974, there are some genuinely noteworthy albums in his catalog, including Lonely Teardrops (1959), Jackie Sings the Blues (1960), Soul Time (1965) and Higher and Higher (1967)..
The Detroit-born Wilson turned to R&B after stints as a gospel singer and amateur boxer. (He won the American Amateur Golden Gloves Welterweight boxing title.) Wilson joined Billy Ward and His Dominoes as lead singer in 1953, replacing Clyde McPhatter when the latter left to join the Drifters. Wilson remained with the Dominoes until 1957, singing on such high-charting numbers as “St. Therese of the Roses.”
Wilson launched his solo career in November 1957 with the single “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want To Meet).” The song was written by Berry Gordy, Jr., a struggling songwriter who had yet to found his Motown empire. Another Gordy composition, “Lonely Teardrops,” was Wilson’s breakthrough, topping the R&B chart and becoming a Top Ten hit on the pop side. More R&B chart-toppers followed in quick succession: “You Better Know It,” “Doggin’ Around,” “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend.” He was now being managed by Nat Tarnapol, who aimed him more at the middle-of-the-road white market. A 1962 album, for instance, was recorded live at the Copacabana.
(Berry Gordy Jr. similarly groomed the Supremes and the Temptations for upscale rooms and Vegas venues.) Wilson would alternate harder-grooving R&B songs like “Doggin’ Around” (#1 R&B, #15 pop) with almost operatic balladry such as “Night” (#4 pop) in an attempt to cover all the bases. Jackie’s career remains a puzzle; he never did join Bery Gordy’s Motown empire, despite their early collaborations.
Wilson’s unabated success and output were astonishing, impacting the R&B charts in every year from 1958 through 1973. Scattered among a surfeit of schmaltzy ballads were such R&B gems as “Baby Workout,” “Think Twice” (a duet with LaVern Baker) and “Chain Gang” (with Count Basie). The exquisitely soulful “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” reached Number Six in 1967.
As you have noticed, I am a major Count Basie fan, and the Basie Band recorded three album with Jackie that captures them both at their finest. Give ’em a listen if you can.
All totaled, he amassed 47 R&B hits, 24 of which crossed over to the pop Top Forty. He was unfailingly versatile, too, handling uptempo R&B and pop balladry with style and charisma. Jackie Wilson not only was “Mr. Excitement” but also, as some dubbed him, “the Black Elvis.” Jackie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Here is a link to a rare Jackie Wilson Performance, ENJOY! https://youtu.be/1WXZmjUtlJw