Before I return to commenting on books written about Jackie Wilson, I want to say something more about the way America consumes information from and about entertainers.
The more I look at material on the Fifties and Sixties, the more I cringe. On the one hand, we have rich harvest of memoirs, biographies, appreciations, and criticism on, by, or about the recording artists of that period. However, the unspoken-but-guiding principle in composing these books seems to be “it’s only info-tainment,” that ugly term coined a decade or so ago to cover the “information + entertainment” fluff pieces about anything from the revelation of a talent show contestant’s arrest record to printing Mel Gibson’s mug shot to analyzing Kanye West’s drunken behavior at an awards banquet.
The Info-tainment Principle goes something like this: “Truth is of no consequence because entertainers are not really important people; in fact, even if they were, so what? Even the President of the United States can be misrepresented and ridiculed unfairly, as long as it’s about his private life—and particularly if it’s about his sex life.”
Curiously, in the Fifties and Sixties, movie stars and other celebrities engaged in what were called “publicity stunts,” which were activities meant to help shape their images for the public, and their press agents concocted stories for gossip columnists as a way to further influence public opinion about their clients. Sometimes the objective was merely keeping the clients’ names in the public’s working memory. (Check this link for a sample of a press agent’s work, a story planted about Sam Cooke and Harlean Harris, the woman who would later become Jackie Wilson’s second wife.)
Yet, while all this fakery went on, “hard news” reporters worked to keep the facts straight, and biographers and critics went out of their way to prove or disprove certain events and widely-held beliefs about the big names of the entertainment industry.
Today we have a curious partnership of falsehoods vying for our attention: The Info-tainment Principle entwines itself around old lies, the ones composed and distributed by press agents and the stars who recited lines written by press agents, creating even more complex works of fiction.
For example, both Doug Saint Carter in The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson and Tony Douglas in Lonely Teardrops: The Jackie Wilson Story make use of an article printed in Musician magazine decades ago, an article that included extensive quotations from the late Dick Jacobs about his first interactions with Jackie Wilson. Both Carter and Douglas recycle the story as though it is an accurate account by Jacobs, although Jacobs is clearly offering a mere story, the work of press agents.
In the Musician article, Jacobs relates meeting with Jackie in order to determine how to write the arrangements for their first recording session together, which will include “Reet Petite” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” He spills forth an elaborate yarn based on Jackie not being able to sing that day due to a severe cold and sore throat. Supposedly, each time Jacobs strikes some chords on the piano, Jackie signals that he wants the arrangement in a higher key. After Jacobs goes through what he describes as all the usual “male” keys and a number of the usual “female” keys, he excuses himself to go to another room to confer with the boss, Bob Thiele, about whether or not they’ve signed a “real singer.” The boss says it will probably be the only recording session they do with the kid, so let him have his way.
Excuse me for groaning here, but these guys worked for Decca.
At the moment these two were supposedly having their despairing conversation over Jackie Wilson, Decca artists included Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Only the year before, just after coming to Decca from King/Federal, Billy Ward and His Dominoes scored a Top Twenty hit with “St. Therese of the Roses.” The lead singer on the recording was Jackie Wilson.
But this gets worse. Jacobs then describes how he hires the top session men in New York City to play on “Reet Petite.” (Sure, you pay for the best when you think you are going to scrap what you record.) And then Jacobs tells us that when they first heard Jackie sing, all the session men went slack-jawed in awe.
Oh, sure, they did. None of New York’s top session men had ever heard of Billy Ward and His Dominoes, a group that had become popular with its first lead tenor, Clyde McPhatter, and maintained its success when McPhatter gave way to Jackie Wilson, who sang the tenor leads for almost four years. It is simply amazing how ignorant of popular music those who manufacture it can be, isn’t it?
Like compound interest reported on your bank statement, the balance in a “falsehoods account” increases when someone recycles a piece of fiction as though it were fact. Yet this process works comfortably alongside The Info-tainment Principle.
At least both Carter and Douglas realized that the famous Norm N Nite interview with Jackie Wilson was full of fiction. Jackie was never a Golden Gloves contestant, much less a champion, and of course the story of Jackie being shot while intervening in a fan’s attempted suicide was also a flawlessly recited fib. The lie, of course, had been devised to make a hero of Jackie in the midst of whatever the specific embarrassing reality was—probably that Jackie, a married man, was trying to keep one of his girlfriends, Juanita Jones, from shooting another of his girlfriends, Harlean Harris. (See Jackie Wilson Biography.)
The value of the Norm N Nite interview rests in hearing Jackie’s speaking voice and detecting his genuine enthusiasm for Elvis Presley and his late friend Sam Cooke. There is precious little truth in the whole audiotape. Maybe that’s why there were so few interviews with Jackie Wilson. The man obviously loved to laugh and smile. He probably couldn’t keep a straight face for interviewers.