The Gospel Roots of Wilson Pickett

I listened, yesterday morning, to “The Exciting Wilson Pickett,” the Atlantic album from 1966. I have it on vinyl, and it played its lopsided self while my wife, my 16-year-old son and I read the morning papers.

In southern India, “indigenous people” armed with bows and arrows fought the construction of a $12 billion steel mill. Said one of the leaders of the resistance, “They are trying to turn us into beggars.”

On Africa’s Ivory Coast, thousands of young people protested an international decision to disband their country’s National Assembly: one kid without a shirt beating against the UN’s iron-walled compound with a sledge hammer, another declaring, “We don’t listen to anybody. We want the complete liberation of Ivory Coast.”

A full-page ad on the next page called for people to “bring the noise and drown out Bush’s lies” in a nationwide protest scheduled to coincide with the State of the Union address.

Pickett’s obituary, on page B8, mentioned “In the Midnight Hour,” which is on the Atlantic album. It hinges on a gospel catch-phrase, and that only makes sense: Pickett, born in Alabama, helped found a gospel group called The Violinaires after he’d moved up to Detroit. He was with them from the age of 14 till he was about 18.

After I drove my son to high school, I put on some Violinaires. They continued long after Pickett had left to launch his soul career. But Robert Blair, their lead singer, sounds like Pickett. Or, maybe it’s the other way around. Or, more likely, both of the raspy, driven vocalists sound like they’ve listened long and hard to gospel greats Archie Brownlee and June Cheeks. “Hard” gospel singers, their music seemed to roar along on sheer will power. They didn’t beg God for mercy, or plead with Him for forgiveness. They shouted Him down, kicking at His front door with their big, heavy voices.

In gospel music, the midnight hour is the hour of reckoning, the hour of the wolf. It’s when you confront your God. Steve Cropper, Pickett’s co-writer on the pop tune, listened to how the singer would end his gospel tunes by riffing on that idea. The two of them wrote a secular version powered by horn lines and an unrepentant bass. The phrase that always gets to me is how Pickett’s gonna wait till the midnight hour to get together with his girl, because that’s when his “love comes tumbling down.” As if love was an outside force that happened to him. Like a landslide. But a landslide with a schedule: it always tumbled at midnight.

Though Pickett borrowed religious language for the pop song (and for another off the same album, “Ninety-nine and a Half Won’t Do”), it’s the sound — more than the words — that ties his soul music to his gospel. He was a master of the ragged shout. On songs like “Mustang Sally,” “Land of a Thousand Dances,” “Funky Broadway,” he declared himself with a roar and then took that roar apart, examined each sinew, stretched it, cut it short with a gruff pop, could soften it down to almost a purr, then crank it back up till it rattled the iron bars in the windows.

And the windows always had bars. His voice made sure you knew that. Listen to his soul hits and how he steers the music ­ how he presents himself against the beat ­ and you hear a voice of resistance. A sledge hammer. A half-naked man trying to stop a steel mill. Which is to say, a gospel singer.

I didn’t read Wilson Pickett’s obituary in the midnight hour. It was more like eight in the morning. This side of the world had sunlight on it.

DANIEL WOLFF is a poet and author of the excellent biography of the great Sam Cooke, You Send Me, as well as the recent collection of Ernest Withers’ photographs The Memphis Blues Again. Wolff’s Grammy-nominated essay on Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers is one of the highlights of CounterPunch’s collection on art, music and sex: Serpents in the Garden. Most recently, Wolff wrote the text for the collection of Ernest Wither’s photographs in Negro League Baseball. His latest book is 4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land (Bloomsbury USA) He can be reached at:



Daniel Wolff’s most recent books are Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 and How to Become an American: a History of Immigration, Assimilation and Loneliness.