Jackie Wilson

Article @2003 by Thomas Wynn


One of the greatest singers of an age inordinately blessed with great singers, Jackie Wilson stands out as not only one of the defining vocalists of the rock and roll era, but also one of the most magnetic performers in the history of American popular music. Matching jaw-dropping vocal pyrotechnics with an athletic, sexy stage persona, Wilson personified the uneasy marriage of cuddly pop music innocence with the more up-front sensuality of hard R&B.

Writing in the Village Voice, fan Bill Pollak recalls Jackie Wilson on stage being "as exciting in 1961 as James Brown was in 1966. I once saw him perform at one of Murray the K's holiday shows at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre. He strutted onstage in a black sharkskin suit, continental bow tie, pants tightly pegged and cut about two inches too short, pointy black patent-leather boots, and hair processed into a shiny pompadour. The audience, which had been subdued and restless during the opening acts, exploded when Jackie walked on stage.

"His voice was astonishing. Often, without warning, he would roll his eyes and leap to notes octaves apart, then glide through 10 quick descending notes, all on one syllable. His honey-rich tenor quivered with emotion as he curled his upper lip, shook his hips, and twitched his forehead and eyebrows passionately with every line he sang.

"He punctuated these vocal gymnastics with shocking splits, drops to the knees, quick spins, and one-legged dance steps. By the end of the performance, his hair hung over his eyes, his shirt clung to his body, and the audience was on the brink of hysteria."

"On stage, Jackie drove the women simply out of their minds," remembers Etta James. "He was the most exciting person on stage I'd ever seen and we used to call him "The Dandy Man." He would dress just so and he had an athletic, boxer's body and he walked on his toes everywhere he went, holding a cigarette like Jimmy Cagney. His hair did a thing that nobody elses could: when it fell in his face, he would flick it back with a shake of his head and it would fall right back into place. In the rock and roll era, there was nobody more magnetic than Jackie Wilson."

Dubbed "Mr. Excitement," Wilson seemed determined to keep his personal life as fiery as his incendiary performances. He drove like a maniac, chain-smoked, drank from morning to night and pursued tempestuous affairs with dozens of women, many of them white and some of them the wives and girlfriends of other personalities of the day. Wilson lived the highlife, and came close to paying the ultimate price on several occasions. At one show he was savagely beaten during a fistfight with Louisiana police. He carried a bullet his back from the time a jilted lover nearly killed him. During a contract dispute with some gangsters, Wilson was held out a high window by his ankles.

A former boxer from Detroit who paid two visits to reform school early in his youth, Jackie Wilson's all or nothing attitude was partly a consequence of his impoverished origins and partly a function of the cynicism with which he seemed to often view the world. Jackie Wilson had been born poor, but he was determined he would never be poor again not when he knew just how far the world would bend over backwards for an attractive, intelligent, spectacularly talented young man willing to demand of the world its all. He exuded this attitude in every aspect of his life, from his affairs, to his career wrangling, to his music, which still sizzles with the man's determination, energy and self-confidence.