Like Little Richard, Wilson Pickett is not a man to mince words. For instance, Pickett--who'll wrap up the Orange County Blues Festival in Dana Point on Sunday night--isn't at all reluctant to discuss the way his devoutly Christian family came to accept his move from gospel music in the '50s into the more lucrative but "sinful" world of R&B; in the '60s.
"You know how old people were down South," says the 54-year-old native of Prattville, Ala. "It was, 'You can't serve God and the devil at the same time.' [My family] would say, 'You should come back to God' or 'You should be a minister.' I told them, 'You can't tell me what I should do.' When I started buying my mother all these homes, like a second home in Kentucky, where I moved most of my family, they began to rely on my wallet. They didn't say much after that!"
Pickett could afford to buy a lot of things in the '60s. Among his numerous pop and R&B; hits were such galvanic soul workouts as "In the Midnight Hour," "Mustang Sally" and "Land of 1000 Dances." The Wicked Pickett established himself as one of the most exciting and visceral performers of the era and even proved to be a moving ballad singer when he hit with a cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude" in 1969.
Now, 23 years since he made the Top 40, he is living in New Jersey and says he is itching to re-establish himself in the biz. He is shopping for a record label and a producer who, he says, can help him fashion a modern sounding album.
"I'd like to get in the studio and see if we can't find a new soul bag for Wilson Pickett," he says. "I want to freshen it up some and make it excitable for people who are listening to nowadays music. We don't want to stone-age 'em anymore."
He acknowledges, though, that "singing like I do is very hard, and as you get older, it's getting harder and harder all the time. I sing the songs in the same identical key that I recorded them in. I'm 54 now. Well, when I'm 60, it'll be about time to start thinking about hanging this mess up." Indeed, he says he intends to stop performing when he feels he no longer can approach the degrees of power and passion that people equate with him in his prime.
In recent years, his life has been fraught with controversy and hardship. In 1992, Jean Cusseaux, his live-in girlfriend of 10 years, filed a domestic violence complaint against him. In 1993, he was convicted of DWI and aggravated assault with a motor vehicle. He spent most of 1994 in New Jersey's Bergen County Jail. And there, during a scuffle with a fellow inmate, he suffered a serious eye injury that required two operations.
"That was really, really tough," he says of his stay in jail. "In the first place, you're not used to nothing like that. There was a lot of danger surrounding me. . . . Like [Mike] Tyson said, 'You don't want to be in jail because [other inmates] prey upon entertainers. They're jealous of them.' Anyone who does anything to anyone who is famous, that's another notch in his belt."
Pickett says there were nights in jail when he was so fearful that he refused to sleep. But he claims his stint in the stir didn't really alter his personality or perspective. "I don't think it changed me any. I'm the same person that I was. I don't bother anybody, but I don't let people walk over me.
"When I get into these scrapes I don't talk to the papers. The only things people read and hear about are what the other person [in the dispute] says. I have these lawyers who tell me it's better not to talk in the papers because it damages your chances of getting out of it in court."
Pickett's troubles started just a few years after he received widespread recognition for his contributions to pop music. In 1991 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same year saw the release of "The Commitments," Alan Parker's film about a group of youths in Dublin who play soul music and who want to meet and perform with their idol--Wilson Pickett.
Pickett did not appear in the film. In fact, he says, the filmmakers didn't even notify him that he would be mentioned in it, and he still finds it irksome that the film portrayed him as an unapproachable rock star. Still, he adds, he was honored enough by the film that he agreed to perform with the singers and musicians from "The Commitments" at three screenings in the U.S.
So which aspect of his long career has made him most proud?
"I'm most proud of having some voice left!" he answers with a laugh. "Also, I can get up and go when I got to go, if you know what I mean. So far I haven't had to cancel any gigs because of illness or anything like that. So that's what I'm grateful for."
* Wilson Pickett sings Sunday at 8 p.m. at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point as the final act of the third annual Orange County Blues Festival, which starts Saturday at 10 a.m. Tickets per day are $12 in advance, $15 at the gate. Two-day passes, purchased in advance for $30, are good for preferred seating and discounts on drink prices. Parking: $5. (714) 650-5483.