State of the Art

The forgotten tragedy of Jackie Wilson

Jackie Wilson may be singing his hit “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)” in this photo.
Jackie Wilson may be singing his hit “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)” in this photo.

I’ve been playing a lot of Jackie Wilson lately. There’s never a bad time to listen to Mr. Excitement, as he was nicknamed, but he’s been on my mind: He died at the age of 49 in Mount Holly, N.J., a mile and a half from the house where my parents still live. Last week, I stood in the lobby of the hospital where he passed away and thought about him.

Wilson was performing in Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue at the Latin Casino, a night club in nearby Cherry Hill, in September 1975. He had a massive heart attack on the stage, collapsing during his hit “Lonely Teardrops.” He went to a nursing home in Medford, the town next to mine, but he never recovered and died in 1984.

People who didn’t grow up with him have no idea why he electrified audiences, so here’s a little taste of his talent in “Baby Workout.”

His contemporaries certainly knew. Van Morrison wrote a song called “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile).” Michael Jackson dedicated his Album of the Year Grammy for “Thriller” to Wilson, and the Commodores recorded “Nightshift” as a tribute to Marvin Gaye and Wilson, who died months apart.

Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who co-wrote some of Wilson’s early hits, called Wilson “the greatest singer I’ve ever heard.” (Gordy reportedly used the royalties as a down payment on his Hitsville USA studio.) And when someone told Elvis Presley that Wilson had been dubbed “The Black Elvis,” big E replied, “I guess that makes me the white Jackie Wilson.”

His nearly three-octave range let him do schmaltzy ballads (“Danny Boy”), dramatic story songs (“No Pity in the Naked City”), rave-ups (“I’ll Be Satisfied”) and even comic numbers (“Reet Petite”).

More than any other singer, he was suited to hyperemotional pop versions of classical music. Writers turned “Vesti la giubba” from the opera “I Pagliacci” into “My Empty Arms” and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto into “At Last,” and Wilson belted them with complete conviction. Here he sings “Night,” an adaptation of the aria with which Delilah bewitches Samson in Saint-Saens’ opera “Samson et Dalila:”

Like many entertainers, he had an unsavory private life: He dropped out of high school, fathered a child at 17 (and had many others out of wedlock, according to reports), got shot by a crazy fan or an angry girlfriend in 1961 – depending on which account you prefer – abused drink and drugs and had money troubles.

But when you listen to that soaring tenor, all the unfortunate aspects of his life drop away. He often goes over the top, as befits someone who grew up admiring quintessential hambone Al Jolson. Yet there’s something magnificent about the way this daredevil singer throws himself into every number he performs. R.I.P., Mr. Excitement.

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