Wilson Pickett was born in the small town of Prattville, Alabama, where he lived with his mother, grandfather, and ten brothers and sisters.
Home life was turbulent. His mother would hit him with anything she could find, and his grandfather beat him when he was caught with a copy of Louis Jordan’s 1947 R&B hit Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.
In his teens, Pickett became part of the rural black migration northwards and joined his father in Detroit in the early 1950s.
There he sang gospel music with The Violinaires, modelling his singing on the abandoned vocal style of the Reverend Julius Cheeks, leader of one of the era’s most prestigious black religious groups, the Sensational Nightingales.
Pickett was lured into the secular music business and became lead vocalist with The Falcons (a group which also included another future soul star, Eddie Floyd, and Joe Stubbs – brother of The Four Tops‘ Levi Stubbs). The band often performed with The Primettes, a female group who would later become The Supremes.
After writing and singing on the million-seller I Found A Love with The Falcons, Pickett went solo, and his first record – If You Need Me – became an R&B hit.
After signing to Atlantic in 1964 Pickett recorded a series of soul classics including In The Midnight Hour and Ninety-Nine And A Half Won’t Do (both co-written by Pickett and Steve Cropper from Booker T & The MG’s),634-5789, Mustang Sally, Funky Broadway, Land Of A Thousand Dances and Soul Dance Number Three.
Pickett (pictured at left in 1966 with Jimi Hendrix on guitar) had one of the most powerful sets of vocal chords in the business, and while slow numbers often highlighted his inability to deal with any emotion outside the crudely assertive or straightforwardly raving, on harder, up-tempo numbers his raucous and tortured delivery was virtually unchallenged.
After recording the 1970 US hit Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You he left Atlantic to sign with RCA where he developed a more restrained sound than on his classic Atlantic singles.
As the seventies continued, the advent of Disco put Pickett’s soul-based musical style out of step with the current trends in R&B, and in pop music in general. In 1975, with Pickett’s career on the wane, RCA dropped him from the label.
Formal recognition came with Pickett’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1991. The same year saw the release of Alan Parker’s movie of Roddy Doyle’s novel The Commitments, a homage to 60s soul in general, and Pickett’s place within it. Meanwhile, his personal life was beginning to disintegrate.
In the early 1990s he was involved in a series of drink or drug-related incidents. These included shouting death threats while driving across the mayor’s front lawn in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and culminated in a 12-month jail sentence for drunken driving in 1993.
By 1999 Pickett had moved to Ashburn, Virginia, and made a triumphant return to the music scene with his highly acclaimed album It’s Harder Now.
He spent the twilight of his career playing dozens of concert dates a year up until 2004 when he began suffering from health problems.
He died of a heart attack on 19 January 2006 in hospital near his home and was buried next to his mother in Louisville, Kentucky. He was survived by his fiancée, Gail Webb, two sons and two daughters. Little Richard gave the eulogy and preached briefly at the funeral.