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Happy Birthday, the Late, Great Wilson Pickett!

Few R&B artists have made such an indelible impact as the great Wilson Pickett. Born March 18, 1941, he remains one of America's greatest soul singers, even after his passing at age 64 on January 19, 2006. Such was his stellar reputation that he placed more than 50 songs on the R&B and pop charts, among them the classic tracks "In the Midnight Hour," "Land of 1,000 Dances," "Mustang Sally," and "Funky Broadway." It was his singing and songwriting that earned him entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

Pickett's passionate vocals -- a hallmark of his signature style -- evolved from his early experience performing in church and on the streets of his native Detroit. His first serious attempt at making music began at age 14 with a gospel group called the Violinaires with which he toured across the country. He left them in 1959, opting instead to take the secular route with the Falcons, an ensemble that integrated both gospel and pop music into their repertoire. The experience gave Pickett his first soul hit, "I Found a Love," which gained placement in the R&B Top Ten.

If you haven't seen The Commitments, please do

A few subsequent solo hits of modest means followed, and when his composition "If You Need Me" was successfully covered by Solomon Burke, it was clear Pickett was coming into his own. After scoring a Top Ten success on his own with "It's Too Late," he managed to attract the attention of Atlantic Records, then emerging as the nation's most prominent R&B label. That led to one of the biggest hits of his career, "In the Midnight Hour," a song that scaled both the pop and R&B charts, achieving million-selling status in the process.

"In the Midnight Hour" was recorded at Stax Studio in Memphis with the famed session team of Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn, and Al Jackson, and he continued to record at Stax throughout 1965, producing other notable tracks in the form of "Don't Fight It," "Ninety Nine and a Half (Won't Do)," and ""634-5789." Unfortunately, when he attempted to return to Stax and continue that success the following year, he was told the studio was closed to outside interests. 

He then relocated to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he recorded "Land of 1,000 Dances", his third R&B number one and his biggest pop hit ever. It was followed by "Mustang Sally" and "Funky Broadway," both of which would also become million sellers. 

As the 1960s rolled on, Pickett would continue to do relatively well, but with the exception of a cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude," his prominence on the pop charts had all but ended. Even so, he managed another million-selling single with "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You," recorded with Philadelphia hit makers Gamble and Huff, and a final R&B number-one hit, "Don't Knock My Love, Pt. 1," racking up another million copies in the process.

Pickett left Atlantic Records for RCA in the early '70s, achieving modest success until the label unceremoniously dropped him in 1975. He continued to tour consistently until dropping from public view in the '90s, although he did make a cameo appearance in the ill-conceived 1998 film Blues Brothers 2000, performing "634-5789" along with Eddie Floyd and Jonny Lang.

The man once famously known as the "Wicked Pickett" leaves behind a bountiful legacy that consists of songs also covered extensively by others. Here's a partial list of the astonishing array of artists who have covered Pickett standards:

"If You Need Me" by the Rolling Stones on their album 12 x 5.

"Don't Fight It" by Van Halen on a Warner Bros. promotion only disc Loony Toons Merrie Melodies sampler.

"Don't Cry No More" by Cyndi Lauper on the album Memphis Blues.

"If You Need Me" by Solomon Burke on his album The Best Of.

"634-5789" by Ry Cooder on the album Why Don't You Try Me Tonight: The Best of Ry Cooder.

"Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)" by Creedence Clearwater Revival on Woodstock - the 25th Anniversary Edition.

"Mustang Sally" by Los Lobos.

"I'm in Love" by Aretha Franklin on The Very Best of Aretha Franklin: The '70s.

And the most popular Wilson Pickett song of all, "In the Midnight Hour" covered by:
Roxy Music on their album Flesh + Blood, the Grateful Dead on Ladies and Gentlemen: Fillmore East April 1971, the Jam on the album This Is the Modern World, the Young Rascals on the album Greatest Hits, Booker T & MGs' And Now!, Echo & the Bunnymen on the album Crystal Days,

Chris Farlowe on his album Out of Time, and Bruce Springsteen in concert.

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Lee Zimmerman

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