Sunday, October 22, 2017

Jackie Wilson: The Early '70s Charting Singles

Jackie Wilson was one of the entertainment world's lightning bolts, a singer with boundless expressive range, a dancer envied by James Brown and idolized by Michael Jackson, and a stage performer who may as well have invented the concept. He first made a name for himself as a member of Billy Ward and His Dominoes (replacing Clyde McPhatter), after which, as a solo act from 1957 onward, he became a steady radio and chart presence with songs like "Reet Petite," "Lonely Teardrops," "Baby Workout," and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher."

That last song was a 1967 smash recorded with the Motown studio's Funk Brothers and Andantes as an expression of gratitude from Berry Gordy (a co-writer of "Reet Petite," the first hit for both men). It tends to be remembered as Wilson's farewell song, his "Dock of the Bay," but the Jackie Wilson radio songs of the early seventies form a distinct and final career era worth exploring. Even for the man known as Mr. Excitement, whose off-stage life seemed destined to shudder from extreme ups and downs, these were difficult years. In September 1970, his sixteen-year-old son Jackie Jr. was gunned down in Detroit, which cast a pall over his efforts to revitalize his career. In 1975, Wilson would suffer a heart attack on stage at the "Dick Clark Good Ole Rock 'N Roll Revue," after which he'd spend the rest of his life in a semi-comatose state until his death in 1984 at the age of 49. His headstone in Wayne, Michigan, says "No More Lonely Teardrops" and "Jackie - The Complete Entertainer."

All of the following singles, except for a few bonuses thrown in for context, made Billboard chart appearances between 1970 and 1975. (The album image above comes from the Spain edition of It's All a Part of Love, which contained no charting singles.)


"Let This Be a Letter
(To My Baby)" (1970) 
Jackie Wilson

Written by Eugene Record * Johnny Moore and Jack Daniels * Produced by Carl Davis and Eugene Record * 45: "Let This Be a Letter (To My Baby)" / "Didn't I" * LP: This Love Is Real * Label: Brunswick * Billboard charts: Soul (#34), Hot 100 (#91) * Entered: 1970-05-09 (soul), 1970-05-16 (Hot 100)

Jackie Wilson started out the decade with a big, bursting love hymn featuring solo female-in-a-cloud operatics for the intro. It's an arrangement tactic, though, that inevitably suggests angels receiving a departing spirit, so knowledge of where the song placed in Wilson's catalog—the first charting song for his final decade as a hitmaker—can make you hear it with a sense of foreboding. It was written by chief Chi-Lite (and Brunswick label mate) Eugene Record, who would write another letter song ("A Letter to Myself") as the title track for one of his group's 1973 albums.

The Chi-Lites' voices can be heard accompanying Wilson on the flipside "Didn't I," which also appeared on the This Love Is Real album (released at the end of the year). It credits Jack Daniels and Bonnie Thompson as composers; Daniels was a frequent collaborator with Johnny Moore (not to be confused with the one in the Drifters or the Three Blazers). The unheralded Chicago songwriter and vocalist Moore had gotten into the habit of occasionally gifting songwriter credits to his girlfriend Thompson, the way he'd earlier done for Syl Johnson's "We Did It" and Tyrone Davis's "Turn Back the Hands of Time." Grapevine Records released a compilation of Moore's vocal recordings in 2003 called Lonely Heart in the City.

All of Wilson's early '70s singles were recorded in Chicago, with a rhythm section Carl Davis identifies in his 2011 memoir The Man Behind the Music as including bassist Bernard Reed, Quinton Joseph on drums ("the first and last drummer that I ever saw who played standing up"), and Floyd Morris on keyboards.

Side A: "Let This Be a Letter (To My Baby)"


Side B: "Didn't I"



"(I Can Feel Those Vibrations)
This Love Is Real" (1970)
Jackie Wilson

Written by Johnny Moore and Jack Daniels * Produced by Carl Davis * Arranged by Sonny Henderson * 45: "(I Can Feel those Vibrations) This Love Is Real" / "Love Uprising" * LP: This Love Is Real * Label: Brunswick * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#49), soul (#9) * Entered: 1970-12-12 (soul), 1970-12-19 (Hot 100)

This top ten soul chart hit, which featured Wilson's famous octave leaps in the choruses, payed general tribute to the Temptations' "The Way You Do the Things You Do," while in the intro and at the 1:42 mark (thanks to arranger Sonny Henderson), it payed specific tribute to "Danny Boy," which Wilson had taken to the charts in 1965. Songwriting credits went to Johnny Moore and Jack Daniels, who had also written "Didn't I" for the previous single. On the B side was "Love Uprising," written by Eugene Record, who happened to write the A side of the previous single.

Side A: "(I Can Feel Those Vibrations) This Love Is Real"


Side B: "Love Uprising"



"Love Is Funny That Way" (1971)
Jackie Wilson

Written by Floyd Smith and Ritchie Tufano * Produced by Carl Davs * 45: "Love Is Funny That Way" / "Try It Again" * LP: You Got Me Walking * Label: Brunswick * Billboard charts: Soul (#18), Hot 100 (#95) * Entered: 1971-11-13 (soul), 1971-11-27 (Hot 100)

Chicago songwriters Floyd Smith (Loleatta Holloway's husband) and Rich Tufo (a frequent keyboardist for Curtis Mayfield credited here as Ritchie Tufano) gave Jackie Wilson his leadoff single for his You Got Me Walking album. Its main melodic hook comes directly from the Temptations' "I Wish It Would Rain." The B side pumps with an increased dose of vintage Jackie Wilson vivaciousness; it's a song called "Try It Again" written by Ronnie Shannon, the man who'd written "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and "Baby I Love You" for Aretha Franklin.


Side A: "Love Is Funny That Way"


Side B: "Try It Again"



"You Got Me Walking" (1971)
Jackie Wilson

Written by Eugene Record * Produced by Carl Davis * 45: "You Got Me Walking" / "The Fountain" * LP: You Got Me Walking * Label: Brunswick * Billboard charts: Soul (#22), Hot 100 (#93) * Entered: 1972-02-19 (soul), 1972-02-26 (Hot 100)

The title track to Jackie Wilson's You Got Me Walkin' album ended up being his final Hot 100 appearance in Billboard. Written by label mate Eugene Record, as were many of Wilson's early '70s recordings, it suffered from a confusing lyrical gimmick, which had his woman being so good to him that he was reacting negatively—"walking" floors, "talking" to himself, and "knocking" on wrong doors (emphasized by snare drum raps). On side B, he checked in with a social-issues litany, also written by Record, that had him seeking a mysterious "fountain" later revealed to be one of faith, hope, love, and money.

Side A: "You Got Me Walkin'"


Side B: "The Fountain"



"The Girl Turned Me On" (1972)
Jackie Wilson

Written by Leo Graham and Dennis Miller * Produced by Carl Davis and Willie Henderson * 45: "The Girl Turned Me On" / "Forever and a Day" * LP: You Got Me Walking * Billboard charts: Soul (#44) * Entered: 1972-05-14

Wilson would manage to get three more songs to the lower regions of Billboard's soul charts before his career as an active recording artist came to an end in 1975. "The Girl Turned Me On"—written by Chicagoans Leo Graham and Dennis Miller—is one of Wilson's lost dance floor classics, boosted by majestic horns and a moody piano break at 2:03. "Forever and a Day," by Daniels and Moore, follows B side etiquette by not upstaging the A side in any way, although it does play a trick by borrowing the title of a minor hit Wilson had in 1962, which was a dramatic tuxedo chanson that seemed light years away from this. Speaking of chansons, it bears mentioning that Wilson's You Got Me Walking album contained a version of "My Way," the French melody given new lyrics by Paul Anka for Frank Sinatra as an intended swan song. Sinatra ended up having more years to give, but that doesn't preclude the song's ominous, fate-tempting elements.

Side A: "The Girl Turned Me On"


Side B: "Forever and a Day"



*UK Bonus*
"I Get the Sweetest Feeling" (1968)
Jackie Wilson

Written by Alicia Evan and Van McCoy * Produced by Carl Davis * 45: "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" / "Soul Galore" * LP: I Get the Sweetest Feeling * Label (UK reissue): MCA * Charts (UK reissue): UK #9

In mid-1972, a reissue of Jackie Wilson's sublime sunshine-soul "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" (1968) zoomed up to #9 on the British singles chart, where it had never registered the first time around (but reached #34 in the US). Among the reasons for its success might have been the fact that Wilson had royalty status in burgeoning "northern soul" dance halls where soul obscurities from yesteryear ruled, and where a song like his previous "The Girl Turned Me On" would eventually be treated like a Top 5 hit.

Another possible helper might have been the release of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)," a song that didn't end up charting at all in the UK—and came out only two weeks before the Wilson reissue—but had a high enough profile to possibly get some ripples in motion. (An early 1982 cover by Dexy's Midnight Runners would hit #5 over there.) Coincidentally, "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" is a Wilson song that has a "smile" component ("when you turn on your smile / I feel my heart go wild"). Another dance-friendly Wilson track from 1966 called "Soul Galore" written by Eugene Hamilton appeared on the B side.

In the late eighties, three more Jackie Wilson reissues would storm the UK chart: "Reet Petite" (#1 in 1986), "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" again (#3 in 1987), and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" (#15 in 1987).

Side A: "I Get the Sweetest Feeling"


Side B: "Soul Galore"



"Because of You" (1973)
Jackie Wilson

Written by Edward E. Little Jr. and Jeffrey Perry * Produced by Carl Davis and William Sanders * 45: "Because of You" / "Go Away" * LP: Beautiful Day * Billboard charts: Soul (#45) * Entered: 1973-05-12

One of the identifying characteristics of Jackie Wilson's Beautiful Day album, aside from the scenic cover, is the participation of Jeffrey Perry as a co-composer on every song. He was one of five Chicago Perry brothers (with Greg, Zachary, Leonard and Dennis) all of whom worked as songwriters. He'd later record one album of his own in 1979 as "Jeffree" Palmer, and videos of him singing on Soul Train can be found on YouTube. The flipside "Go Away" is a co-write between Jeff and his brother Zachary with a soaring vocal by Wilson that might have served as a stronger plug side than "Because of You."

Side A: "Because of You"


Side B: "Go Away"




"Sing a Little Song" (1973) 
Jackie Wilson

Written by Desmond Dacres * Produced by Bob Mersey * 45: "Sing a Little Song" / "No More Goodbyes" * Label: Brunswick * Billboard charts: Soul (#94) * Entered: 1973-07-28

On "Sing a Little Song," Jackie Wilson went on a little detour with producer Bob Mersey, a longtime CBS music director with abundant easy listening credentials (and who had worked with Wilson in 1961 as the arranger for "My Heart Belongs to You"). The new song came from Desmond Dacres, aka Desmond Dekker, who was at the forefront of the early seventies surge in Caribbean sounds with his late sixties US top ten song "Israelites" (along with contributions to the soundtrack for the Jamaican film The Harder They Come). On this single, which never appeared on an album, Jackie Wilson provided a swingier (and stringier) take on a tune Dekker had released the same year with a decidedly more reggae rhythm. In 1975, though, Dekker would put out a spruced up redo more informed by Wilson's interpretation. (Where Wilson's version used a steel pan drum, though, Dekker's would use a piano.) Side B contained a lush track called "No More Goodbyes," co-written by Mersey and Harold Orenstein and sprinkled with Philly soul orchestra glitter.

Side A: "Sing a Little Song"


Side B: "No More Goodbyes"




*1975 Bonus* 
"Don't Burn No Bridges" (1975) 
Jackie Wilson and the Chi-Lites

Written by Romaine Anderson * Produced by Carl Davis and Sonny Sanders * 45: "Don't Burn No Bridges" / "Don't Burn No Bridges (Instrumental)" * LP: Nobody But You (1976) * Label: Brunswick * Billboard charts: Soul (#91) * Entered: 1975-11-15

Jackie Wilson's career-ending heart attack occurred on September 29, 1975, while at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He was performing as the headliner and collapsed during a performance of "Lonely Teardrops," with its "my heart is crying" refrain. Although Wilson's well-known demonstrative nature onstage made it hard for anyone to discern if it was just an act, Cornell Gunter of the Coasters was able to act fast enough to resuscitate him, but not enough to prevent him from slipping into a comatose state, where he remained until his death in 1984. Another dark coda for the year 1975 involved Wilson's longtime label Brunswick, whose head Nat Tarnopol faced federal charges of financial misconduct, including unpaid royalties of one million dollars for Wilson (which, evidently, were never paid).

That year, Wilson had been readying a new album with Carl Davis, back in his familiar role as producer and with participation from Eugene Record and the Chi-Lites. The single "Don't Burn Bridges," backed by an instrumental version, came out two months after Wilson's heart attack. It had a Temptations flair, with its minor-key vocal trade-offs and a reference to the "month of December" that reminded listeners of the "third of September" opener of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." If Wilson and the Chi-Lites merely borrowed a vibe from the Temptations, the Trammps would record a song for their 1977 Disco Inferno album that bordered on plagiarism. It was also called "Don't Burn No Bridges" and sounded similar enough to be considered an interpretation, but it credited two different writers: Allan Felder and Ronald Tyson. Maybe they had made a deal with the mysterious Romaine Anderson.

The picture sleeve presented here comes from the Spain release. It's too good not to include.

"Don't Burn No Bridges"



*Non-Charting Bonus*
"Nobody But You" (1975)
Jackie Wilson

Written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil * Produced by Carl Davis and Sonny Sanders * 45: "Nobody But You" / "I've Learned About Life" * LP: Nobody But You (1976) * Label: Brunswick * Billboard charts: —

Jackie Wilson's final album was called Nobody But You, and it saw release in 1976, the year after the heart attack that brought his career as Mr. Excitement to a close. The record was a more-than-worthy final statement, with a Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil title track (previously recorded in 1975 by the Righteous Brothers) that could function as a thank you to his audience, leading that same audience to wonder how they could repay a man who generated so much happiness in so short a time.

"Nobody But You"

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