Wilson Pickett, 64; Soul Legend Sang Hits ‘In the Midnight Hour,’ ‘Mustang Sally’

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Wilson Pickett, the Alabama-born soul singer who brought a raw groove and growling energy to 1960s R & B music, with hits such as “In the Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally,” died Thursday. He was 64.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member died at a hospital near his Reston, Va., home after suffering a heart attack, according to a statement released by his personal manager, Margo Lewis. Chris Tuthill, of the management company Talent Source, said Pickett had been suffering from health problems for the last year.

His career spanned four decades and, before slowing down in 2005, he had continued to perform, earning a Grammy nomination for the 1999 album “It’s Harder Now,” which also received three W.C. Handy Awards, the in-genre trophy for blues and soul recordings.


Despite his longevity as a recording artist, his career was truly defined by his raspy, forceful delivery on a run of ‘60s R & B hits, among them “Land of 1000 Dances,” “Funky Broadway” and the telephonic “634-5789.”

The singer was nicknamed “the Wicked Pickett” for his gruff power, and no recording captured that intensity more famously than the revving 1966 hit “Mustang Sally,” released by Atlantic Records. That song and “In the Midnight Hour” were touchstone hits for young 1960s music fans, and they were revived memorably for a new generation by the 1991 Alan Parker film “The Commitments” and its hit soundtrack. The popular film’s plot is about a scruffy collective of young Irish musicians and their ill-fated attempt to meet and perform with their hero, Pickett.

Pickett never actually appears in the film (he did show up in two less-celebrated movies, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” in 1978, and “Blues Brothers 2000”) but he tapped into the film’s spirit and success by performing at the Los Angeles and New York premieres of the movie.

That was a shining moment, but his own youth had been as gritty and melancholy as the hard-luck north Dublin characters in “The Commitments.”

Pickett was born March 18, 1941, in Prattville, Ala., and his earliest music experience was in Baptist church choirs. His home life, as the youngest of 11 children, was less uplifting.

“The baddest woman in my book ... my mother,” the singer told author Gerri Hirshey for the book “Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music.” “I get scared of her now. She used to hit me with anything, skillets, stove wood ... [one time I ran away and] cried for a week. Stayed in the woods, me and my little dog.”


Pickett recalled that he got another beating when his preacher grandfather caught him with a copy of Louis Jordan’s raucous but tame hit, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.”

Eventually he had enough, and as a teen he went north to live with his father in Detroit. There, Pickett performed in the gospel harmony group the Violinaires in the 1950s, but by the end of the decade he was pushing into more secular sounds, as were many of his contemporaries who had brought their Southern church sounds north but were ready to move on.

In 1959, Pickett became a member of the Falcons, along with future Memphis soul notables Joe Stubbs (brother of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops), Sir Mack Rice and Eddie Floyd. The Falcons’ hit “I Found a Love” helped land Pickett a deal with Atlantic Records. There he hooked up with renowned producer Jerry Wexler.

Wexler would be a guiding hand during the 1965 sessions for Stax Records that included the memorable recording of “In the Midnight Hour,” a hit that found Pickett delivering a performance that was somehow both polished and raw at the same time. Wexler, who had worked with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Dusty Springfield, said those Pickett sessions were easily among his most memorable moments.

“There was something about those records and Wilson’s voice -- those were some of the funkiest, deepest-grooving, in-the-pocket recordings I ever heard,” Wexler said Thursday from his home in Florida. “The thing about Wilson was he was just a great screamer, but he did it with control. James Brown would scream and it was a scream, but Wilson could scream notes. His voice was powerful, like a buzz saw, but it wasn’t ever out of his control, it was always melodic.”

Wexler described Pickett as a “black panther” in those days before the term took on a political connotation. The expression spoke to the singer’s glower and confidence, but those same traits may have hindered Pickett’s career.


Steve Cropper, the guitarist in Booker T and the MGs, was a key sideman in the soul explosion of the 1960s, and he co-wrote “In the Midnight Hour” with Pickett. He said Thursday that the same passion that produced magic on vinyl could rub people raw in person -- it was also one of the reasons that Pickett’s career never earned the acclaim of singers such as Al Green and Sam Cooke or the fiery but charismatic Otis Redding.

“It’s absolutely true, and I think some of that had to do with Wilson himself,” Cropper said. “He could be difficult and he didn’t really reach out to people. It wasn’t like Otis -- if you met Otis, he was your best friend on the spot. He engaged people. Wilson was more distant and sometimes he had that angry-at-the-world attitude. But if you got in a studio, he was amazing. Just amazing.”

That disconnect, between ability and acclaim, was made clear in a Times review from 1982 of the singer’s show at a local club. Months earlier, Brown had sold out the venue, but Pickett came to the stage to find the room half empty. Still, he raced though an intense performance that included “dramatic spoken passages, extended vocal cadenzas (usually delivered in falsetto) and dropping to bended knees

Pickett is survived by two sons, Lynderrick and Michael; and two daughters, Veda and Saphan. A viewing is being arranged in Virginia next week. Pickett will be interred with his mother, Lena, in Louisville, Ky.