Some artists across all music genres suffer from being connected with one particular song – a song that was so popular or so damn all-pervading that it ends up defining the performer. In the soul field one such “song-defined-artist” is Wilson Pickett and the song, of, course, is 1965’s ‘In The Midnight Hour’. Singer and song defined mid sixties soul music. It was big, beefy, brassy and oh so catchy while Pickett’s delivery was a classic example of chest beating machismo. Soul buffs know though that there was more to the self-titled “Wicked One” than that song… ‘Funky Broadway’, ‘Land Of 1,000 Dances’, ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘634-5789’ for starters. But none had the impact or status of ‘Midnight Hour’ and by the 70s the hits had started to dry up.
In an attempt to score more hits, Pickett’s Atlantic label bosses sent him to Philadelphia to work with the up and coming team of Gamble and Huff and though the trio enjoyed success with ‘Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You’ and ‘Get Me Back On Time Engine No. 9’ Atlantic execs (notably Jerry Wexler) didn’t like the new, more polished Pickett sound and they let him go and in ’73 the singer signed with RCA.
On this new double CD set, Real Gone Records collect together all of Pickett’s RCA recordings – essentially the albums ‘Mr Magic Man’, ‘Miz Lena’s Boy’, ‘Pickett In The Pocket’ and ‘Join Me And Let’s Be Free’. Across a generous 42 cuts you can hear Pickett and his various producers searching for a formula that would yield hits but even a casual listen reveals that Jerry Wexler was right (if you know anything about Wexler you know he was rarely wrong). Pickett’s rough hewn, chest-beating sound was the sound of the sixties and not what the more sophisticated audiences of the seventies wanted and on many of the tracks here he sounds at odds with the production and/or the song. Best example is his version of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ (from ‘Miz Lena’s Boy’). It’s the tenderest of love songs but Mr P simply tears into it with no passion, sentiment or feeling. It’s marginally better than the man’s version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis Tennessee’ – a classic mismatch of singer and song.
That said, there are some decent cuts here – notably Bobby Eli’s ‘Magic Man’ and the yearning ballad ‘What It Is’ but there’s just too much that’s simply average. Sadly Wilson Pickett’s RCA output is another example of how when an artist leaves the label that nurtured and defined him/her (think Motown, Stax and Pickett’s own Atlantic) the magic seems to fade.