Jackie Wilson was one of the premier black vocalists and performers of the late 1950s and the 1960s. No other singer of his generation so perfectly combined James Brown’s rough, sexy style and Sam Cooke’s smooth, gospel-polished pop.
Wilson grew up in a rough section of Detroit. In the late ’40s, he lied about his age, entered the Golden Gloves, and won in his division. He later quit at his mother’s request. He had sung throughout his childhood, and after high school, he began performing in local clubs. He was discovered by Johnny Otis at a talent show in 1951. In 1953 Wilson successfully auditioned for Billy Ward and His Dominoes, replacing Clyde McPhatter, who had left and formed the Drifters. Wilson sang lead on “St. Therese of the Roses,” the group’s second pop Top 20 hit in 1956.
Later that same year Wilson went solo, signing with Brunswick Records. His first single, the sassy “‘Reet Petite” (Number 62 pop, Number 11 R&B), written by his friend Berry Gordy Jr., appeared in 1957. In 1958 Wilson began making his mark with “To Be Loved” (Number 22 pop, Number 11 R&B) and “Lonely Teardrops” (Number Seven pop, Number One R&B), two more Gordy tunes. He hit his commercial stride in 1959 with “That’s Why (I Love You So)” (Number 13 pop, Number Two R&B), “I’ll Be Satisfied” (Number 20 pop, Number Six R&B), “You Better Know It” (Number 37 pop, Number One R&B), and “Talk That Talk” (Number 34 pop, Number Three R&B). His success continued in 1960 with “Night” b/w “Doggin’ Around” (Number Four pop, Number One R&B), “All My Love,” and “Am I the Man” b/w “Alone at Last” (Number Eight pop, Number 10 R&B). His stage show was as athletic as James Brown’s, and the sexual hysteria surrounding was unparalleled. In 1961 he was shot and seriously wounded by a female fan in his New York apartment. That year he hit big with “My Empty Arms” (Number Nine pop, Number 10 R&B).
With the exception of the frenzied “Baby Workout” (Number Five pop, Number One R&B) in 1963, Wilson’s next few years yielded few hits. Then in 1966 he was matched with veteran producer Carl Davis, with whom he scored two hits: “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)” (Number 11 pop, Number Five R&B) and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (Number Six pop, Number One R&B). Unfortunately, these were Wilson’s last great recordings, although he continued to chart singles as a pop-style crooner through 1972. By 1975 he was playing the oldies circuit. On September 25, 1975, at a Dick Clark revue in the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, he suffered a heart attack onstage while singing “Lonely Teardrops,” and was hospitalized and in a coma from which he emerged with significant brain damage. Eight years after the heart attack, Wilson died. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.