JANUARY 21, 1984 – Singer/songwriter JACKIE WILSON (b. June 9, 1934 in Detroit, Michigan as Jack Leroy Wilson Jr.) died at age 49 from complications of pneumonia in Mount Holly, New Jersey.
He was initially buried in an unmarked grave at Westlawn Cemetery near Detroit, but in 1987, a fundraiser by a Detroit radio station collected enough money to purchase a headstone.Wilson had remained in poor health during his later years after suffering a massive heart attack while playing a Dick Clark show at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey on September 29, 1975. He fell head-first to the stage while singing “Lonely Teardrops” and slipped into a coma due to brain damage. Audience members initially thought it was part of the act, but Clark sensed something was wrong and ordered the musicians to stop the music. Cornell Gunter of the Coasters, who was backstage, noticed Wilson was not breathing.
Gunter was able to resuscitate him and Wilson was then rushed to a nearby hospital. He’d briefly recovered in early 1976, and was even able to take a few wobbly steps, but slipped back into a semi-comatose state. He was deemed conscious but incapacitated in early June 1976, unable to speak but aware of his surroundings. He was a resident of the Medford Leas Retirement Center in Medford, New Jersey, when he was admitted into Memorial Hospital of Burlington County in Mount Holly, New Jersey, due to having trouble taking nourishment, according to Wilson’s attorney John Mulkerin.
Wilson was born as the only son of singer-songwriter, Jack Leroy Wilson, Sr. (1903–1983) and Eliza Mae Wilson (1907–1984), as she lost two previous children. Eliza Mae was born on the Billups-Whitfield Place in Columbus, Mississippi. Her parents were Tom and Virginia Ransom. Jackie often visited his family in Columbus and was greatly influenced by the choir at Billups Chapel. Growing up in the rough Detroit area of Highland Park, Wilson joined a gang called the Shakers and often got himself in trouble.
Wilson’s alcoholic father was frequently absent and usually out of work. Wilson began singing at an early age, accompanying his mother, once a choir singer, to church. In his early teens Jackie joined a quartet, the Ever Ready Gospel Singers, which became a popular feature of churches in the area. Jackie was not religious, but he enjoyed singing; the money he and his group earned from performing usually was spent on cheap wine, which Wilson began drinking at age nine. Jack Sr. and Eliza separated shortly after Jackie turned nine.Jackie became a sweetheart of Freda Hood when he was ten and she was 11. He dropped out of high school at the age of 15, having already been sentenced to detention in the Lansing Corrections system for juveniles twice. During his second stint in detention, he learned to box and began competing around the Detroit amateur circuit at the age of 16.
His record in the Golden Gloves was 2 and 8. After his mother forced him to quit boxing, Wilson married Freda Hood and became a father at 17. It is estimated that Wilson fathered at least 10 other children prior to getting married, and that he was forced to marry Hood by her father. He gave up boxing for music, first working at Lee’s Sensation club as a solo singer, then forming a group called the Falcons (The same Falcons Wilson Pickett was later a part of), that included cousin Levi Stubbs, who later went on to lead the Four Tops (two more of Wilson’s cousins, Hubert Johnson and Levi’s brother Joe, later became members of the Contours). The other members joined Hank Ballard as part of the Midnighters including Alonzo Tucker & Billy Davis, who would work with Wilson several years later as a solo artist. Tucker and Wilson collaborated as songwriters on a few songs Wilson recorded.In 1951, Jackie was discovered by talent agent Johnny Otis, who assigned him to join a group called the Thrillers.
That group would later be known as the Royals (who would later evolve into R&B group, the Midnighters, but Wilson wasn’t part of the group when it changed its name and signed with King Records). LaVern Baker, Little Willie John, Johnnie Ray and Della Reese were acts managed by Al Green (not to be confused with R&B singer Al Green, nor Albert “Al” Green of the now defunct National Records). Al Green owned two music publishing companies, Pearl Music and Merrimac Music, and Detroit’s Flame Show Bar where Wilson met Baker.After recording his first version of “Danny Boy” and a few other tracks on Dizzy Gillespie’s record label Dee Gee Records under the name Sonny Wilson (his nickname), Wilson was eventually hired by Billy Ward in 1953 to join a group Ward formed in 1950 called the Dominoes, after Wilson’s successful audition to replace the immensely popular Clyde McPhatter, who left the Dominoes and formed his own group, the Drifters.
Wilson almost blew his chance that day, showing up calling himself “S***” Wilson and bragging about being a better singer than McPhatter.Billy Ward felt a stage name would fit the Dominoes’ image, hence Jackie Wilson. Prior to leaving the Dominoes, McPhatter coached Wilson on the sound Billy Ward wanted for his group, influencing Wilson’s singing style and stage presence. “I learned a lot from Clyde, that high-pitched choke he used and other things…Clyde McPhatter was my man. Clyde and Billy Ward.” Forties blues singer Roy Brown was also a major influence on him, and Wilson grew up listening to the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan and Al Jolson.Wilson was the group’s lead singer for three years, but the Dominoes lost some of their stride with the departure of McPhatter. They were able to make appearances riding on the strength of the group’s earlier hits, until 1956 when the Dominoes recorded Wilson with an unlikely interpretation of the pop hit “St. Therese of the Roses”, giving the Dominoes another brief moment in the spotlight. Their only other post-McPhatter/Wilson successes were “Stardust”, released July 15, 1957, and “Deep Purple”, released October 7, 1957.
In 1957 Wilson set out to begin a solo career, leaving the Dominoes and collaborating with cousin Levi and got work at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar. Later, Al Green worked out a deal with Decca Records, and Wilson was signed to their subsidiary label, Brunswick.Shortly after Wilson signed a solo contract with Brunswick, Green suddenly died. Green’s business partner, Nat Tarnopol, took over as Wilson’s manager (and later rose to president of Brunswick). Wilson’s first single was released, “Reet Petite” from the album “He’s So Fine,” which became a modest R&B success (and many years later, an international smash hit). The song was written by another former boxer, Berry Gordy Jr. who co-wrote it with partner Roquel “Billy” Davis (who also went by the pseudonym Tyran Carlo) and Gordy’s sister Gwendolyn. The trio composed and produced six further singles for Wilson, which included “To Be Loved”, “I’m Wanderin'”, “We Have Love”, “That’s Why (I Love You So)”, “I’ll Be Satisfied” and his late-1958 signature song, “Lonely Teardrops”, which peaked at #7 on the pop charts, #1 on the R&B charts in the U.S., and established him as an R&B superstar known for his extraordinary, operatic multi-octave vocal range. “Lonely Teardrops” sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.Due to his fervor when performing, with his dynamic dance moves, singing and impeccable dress, he was soon christened “Mr. Excitement”, a title he would keep for the remainder of his career.
His stagecraft in his live shows inspired James Brown, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, as well as a host of other artists that followed. Presley was so impressed with Wilson that he made it a point to meet him, and the two instantly became good friends. In a photo of the two posing together, Presley’s caption in the autograph reads “You got you a friend for life.” Wilson was sometimes called “The Black Elvis”. Reportedly, when asked about this Presley said, “I guess that makes me the white Jackie Wilson.” Wilson also said he was influenced by Presley too, saying “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.”Wilson’s powerful, electrifying live performances rarely failed to bring audiences to a state of frenzy. His live performances consisted of knee-drops, splits, spins, back-flips, one-footed across-the-floor slides, removing his tie and jacket and throwing them off the stage, a lot of basic boxing steps (advance and retreat shuffling) and one of his favorite routines, getting some of the less attractive girls in the audience to come up and kiss him. “If I kiss the ugliest girl in the audience,” Wilson often said, “they’ll all think they can have me and keep coming back and buying my records.” Having women come up to kiss him is one reason Wilson kept bottles of mouthwash in his dressing room. Another reason was probably his attempt to hide the alcohol on his breath.Wilson was also a regular on TV, making regular appearances on such shows as “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “American Bandstand,” “Shindig,” “Shivaree” and “Hullabaloo.”
His only movie appearance was in the forgettable rock and roll film “Go Johnny Go”, where he performed his 1959 hit song “You Better Know It”.In 1958, Davis and Gordy left Wilson and Brunswick after royalty disputes escalated between them and Nat Tarnopol. Davis soon became a successful staff songwriter and producer for Chess Records, while Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and used money he earned from royalties writing for Wilson to start his own recording studio, Hitsville USA, the foundation of Motown Records in his native Detroit. Meanwhile, convinced that Wilson could venture out of R&B and rock and roll, Tarnopol had the singer record operatic ballads and easy listening material, pairing him with Decca Records’ veteran arranger Dick Jacobs.Wilson scored hits as he entered the 1960s with the #15 “Doggin’ Around”, the #1 pop ballad “Night”, another million-seller, and “Baby Workout”, another Top 10 hit (#5), which he composed with Midnighters member Alonzo Tucker. His songwriting alliance with Tucker also turned out other songs, including “No Pity (In The Naked City)” and “I’m So Lonely.” Top 10 hits continued with “Alone At Last” (#8 in 1960) and “My Empty Arms” (#9 in 1961).On February 15, 1961, in Manhattan, Wilson was injured in a shooting. It is said the real story behind this incident is that one of his girlfriends, Juanita Jones, shot and wounded him in a jealous rage when he returned to his Manhattan apartment with another woman, fashion model Harlean Harris, an ex-girlfriend of Sam Cooke’s. Wilson’s management supposedly concocted a story to protect Wilson’s reputation; that Jones was an obsessed fan who had threatened to shoot herself, and that Wilson’s intervention resulted in him being shot.
Wilson was shot in the stomach: The bullet would result in the loss of a kidney, and lodged too close to his spine to be operated on. In early 1975, during an interview with author Arnold Shaw, Wilson maintained it actually was a zealous fan whom he did not know that shot him. “We also had some trouble in 1961. That was when some crazy chick took a shot at me and nearly put me away for good…” The story of the zealous fan was accepted, and no charges were brought against Jones. A month and a half later after the shooting incident, Jackie was discharged from the hospital.Also in 1961, Wilson recorded a tribute album to Al Jolson called “Nowstalgia … You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet” which included the only album liner notes he ever wrote: “… to the greatest entertainer of this or any other era … I guess I have just about every recording he’s ever made, and I rarely missed listening to him on the radio … During the three years I’ve been making records, I’ve had the ambition to do an album of songs, which, to me, represent the great Jolson heritage … This is simply my humble tribute to the one man I admire most in this business … to keep the heritage of Jolson alive.” The album was a commercial failure.Following the success of “Baby Workout”, Wilson experienced a lull in his career between 1964 and 1966 as Tarnopol and Brunswick Records released a succession of unsuccessful albums and singles. Despite the lack of sales success, he still made artistic gains as he recorded an album with Count Basie, as well as a series of duets with rhythm and blues legend Lavern Baker and gospel singer Linda Hopkins.Around this time the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seized Jackie’s Detroit family home. Tarnopol and his accountants were supposed to take care of such matters. Fortunately, Jackie made arrangements with the IRS to make restitution on the unpaid taxes; he also re-purchased the family home at auction. As far as money troubles went, this was not even the beginning for Wilson. Nat Tarnopol had taken advantage of Wilson’s naïveté, mismanaging his money since becoming his manager. Tarnopol also had power-of-attorney over Wilson’s finances, giving him complete control over Wilson’s money. Unfortunately, Wilson was a rather trusting soul, trusting people he shouldn’t have like Tarnopol and some of Wilson’s other managers.Tarnopol and 18 other Brunswick executives were indicted on federal charges of mail fraud and tax evasion stemming from bribery and payola scandals in 1975. Also in the indictment was the charge that Tarnopol owed at least $1 million in royalties to Wilson. In 1976 Tarnopol and the others were found guilty; an appeals court overturned their conviction 18 months later. Although the conviction was overturned, judges went into detail, outlining that Tarnopol and Brunswick Records did defraud their artists of royalties, and that they were satisfied that there was sufficient evidence for Wilson to file a lawsuit. However, a trial to sue Tarnopol for royalties never took place, as Wilson lay in a nursing home semi-comatose. Tarnopol never paid Wilson monies he had coming to him, and Wilson died riddled with debt to the IRS and Brunswick Records
In 1966, Wilson scored the first of two big comeback singles with established Chicago soul producer Carl Davis with “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”, a #6 Pop smash in 1967, which became one of his final pop hits. In March 1967, Wilson and friend/drummer Jimmy Smith were arrested in South Carolina on “morals charges”; the two were entertaining two 24-year-old white women in their motel room. Despite the incident, his single “I Get the Sweetest Feeling”, rose in the US Billboard Pop to #34, has since become one of his biggest international chart successes, becoming a Top 10 hit in the UK twice, in 1972 and in 1987, and a Top 20 hit in the Dutch Top 40, and has spawned numerous cover versions by other artists such as Edwin Starr, Will Young, Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sister) and Liz McClarnon.
One key to his musical rebirth was that Davis insisted that Wilson no longer record with Brunswick’s musicians in New York; instead, he would record with legendary Detroit musicians normally employed by Motown Records and also Davis’ own Chicago-based session players. The Detroit musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, participated on Wilson’s recordings due to their respect for Davis and Wilson.His final hit, “You Got Me Walkin'”, written by Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites, was released in 1972 with the Chi-Lites backing him on vocals and instruments. By 1975, Wilson and the Chi-Lites were the only significant artists left on Brunswick’s roster. Wilson had continued to record singles that found success on the R&B chart, but found no significant pop chart success.
Freda Hood, Wilson’s first wife, with whom he had four children, divorced him in 1965 after 14 years of marriage, frustrated with his notorious womanizing. Although the divorce was amicable, Freda would regret her decision. Their 16-year-old son, Jackie Jr, was shot and killed on a neighbor’s porch in 1970. The death of Jackie Jr. devastated Wilson. He sank into a period of depression, and for the next couple of years remained mostly a recluse until his 1975 heart attack. Wilson’s second marriage in 1967 to model Harlean Harris (with whom he had three children) dissolved in 1970.
More tragedy hit when two of Wilson’s daughters died at a young age. His daughter Sandra died in 1977 at the age of 24 of an apparent heart attack. Jacqueline Wilson was killed in 1988 in a drug-related incident in Highland Park, Michigan. Wilson later met and lived with Lynn Guidry, a woman who would have two children with him. There was also a woman named Joyce McCrae, a fan who tried to take the role of Wilson’s caregiver while he was in the nursing home. He was with Guidry, who was under the impression that she was his legal wife, until his heart attack in 1975. However, as he and Harris never officially divorced, Harris took the role of Wilson’s caregiver for the singer’s remaining nine years.
His 1957 single “Reet Petite” became a posthumous #1 when re-issued in 1987 due in part to a new animated video made for the song, featuring a clay model of Wilson. Van Morrison wrote “Jackie Wilson Said” on his 1972 album “Saint Dominic’s Preview” which was covered by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Wilson is mentioned in the song “Gone But Not Forgotten” sung by artist TQ, which is a song dedicated to the memory of famous musicians who have died. The lyric goes “..and Jackie, will you teach me how to glide across the stage?”
Michael Jackson honored Jackie Wilson at the 1984 Grammy Awards by dedicating his Album of the Year Grammy for “Thriller” to Wilson, saying, “In the entertainment business, there are leaders and there are followers. And I just want to say that I think Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer…Jackie, where you are I want to say I love you and thank you so much.”
All totaled, Wilson amassed 47 R&B hits, 24 of which crossed over to the pop Top Forty. He was unfailingly versatile too, handling uptempo R&B and pop balladry with style and charisma. A two-time Grammy Hall of Fame Inductee, Wilson was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Jackie Wilson #69 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. A ceremony was held on Saturday, August 20, 2016 at WHPR TV & Radio. At the ceremony, Cottage Grove Street officially became Jackie Wilson Lane.