Jack Leroy “Jackie” Wilson, Jr. (born in Detroit on 9 June 1934) was an African-American singer who played an important part in the transition of rhythm and blues into soul.
In his teens he was a Golden Gloves boxer but his mother dissuaded him from pursuing a career in the ring.
Gaining fame in his early years when he replaced Clyde McPhatter as lead vocalist of Billy Ward’s R&B vocal group, The Dominoes, Wilson went solo in 1957 and recorded over fifty hit singles over a repertoire that included R&B, pop, soul, doo-wop and easy listening.
His old boxing pal Berry Gordy turned out a series of effervescent pop hits for Wilson: the squealing Reet Petite, the bluesy To Be Loved, Lonely Teardrops (Wilson’s first million-seller, in 1958), That’s Why (I Love You) and I’ll Be Satisfied.
These initial hits, all recorded for New York’s Brunswick Records, seemed to auger well for a long and prolific career.
The hits did indeed keep coming, at least for a while: Talk That Talk (1959), Doggin’ Around (1960), Night (1960), A Woman, A Lover, A Friend (1960), Alone At Last (1960), the incendiary Am I The Man? (1960), The Tear Of The Year (1961), Baby Workout (1963) and Shake! Shake! Shake! (1963).
But the seeds of Wilson’s ultimate professional disarray had been sown the moment he had signed with Brunswick, which encumbered him with a stable of bland and utterly bluesless white arrangers and musicians.
That Wilson was so often able to transcend the label’s hack musical settings – replete with gooey string sections and “ooh”- ing white choruses – was a tribute to his talents.
In his heyday in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Wilson – billed by American DJ Alan Freed as ‘Mr Excitement’ – was a master showman.
Blessed with striking good looks and a near-operatic vocal range, he would take the stage in tight, Continental-cut sharkskin suits and whip audiences into a clothes-tearing frenzy with his syncopated spins, sudden knee-drops and piercing, blues-drenched wails.
Just as often, though, his own quasi-operatic inclinations led him into such schlocky (but popular) productions as Night, and – much later in his career – even a whole album of Al Jolson standards.
But not even being shot in 1961 could slow him down for long.
Wilson was shot twice in the chest by Juanita Jones – described at the time as a ‘deranged female fan’, but most likely an aggrieved lover – in his New York apartment.
Wilson survived, but his injuries meant he lost a kidney, and one of the bullets had to be left in place because it was too close to his spine to be removed.
When he was discharged from hospital after a few weeks he discovered that, despite being at the peak of his success, he was flat broke and his house had been repossessed by the Internal Revenue Service.
Wilson was always a heavy drinker and brawler and had a few dubious business connections. His wife divorced him in 1965 because of his serial adultery.
He had his last major hit in 1967 with (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher. By the Seventies, Jackie Wilson had been relegated to the oldies circuit.
In 1970 his 16-year old son was shot dead and on 29 September 1975 Jackie Wilson suffered a heart attack while performing Lonely Teardrops on stage at the Latin Casino dinner theatre in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, as part of a Dick Clark rock-revival show.
He remained, for the most part, comatose for the next eight years, laying in a series of New Jersey hospitals, intravenously fed and unable to move or communicate.
On 8 January 1984 he was moved from an old age home to a hospital in Mount Holly, New Jersey. He died there thirteen days later, on 21 January 1984, at the age of 49.
While his music had inspired a broad range of younger artists – Otis Redding, John Fogerty and Rita Coolidge all covered his early hits, and Van Morrison wrote Jackie Wilson Said (later a hit for Dexys Midnight Runners) about him – he ended up buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Jackie Wilson was later given a headstone and posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 1986 his re-released Reet Petite reached #1 in the UK.