Over the years, curious friends have sometimes asked me to identify negative things about Jackie Wilson recordings. Often they are being playful, but at times, I think, they believe they are testing my objectivity where Our Hero is concerned.
“Come on,” they say, “Surely he had characteristics as a vocalist that you didn’t like? Yes, as a matter of fact, he did. I almost always wince when JW uses the phrase “sorta” as a verbal spacer. It usually disrupts the tone he’s established, and sometimes it makes no sense at all. And I really don’t like that “crying tenor” choke he picked up from Clyde McPhatter, either, although I admit it works well in a few recordings.
“Well, what about songs he recorded—did he record songs you didn’t like?” Plenty, especially late in his career. As I noted in my first Northern Soul post, the lyrics for most of the songs that Jackie Wilson recorded with Carl Davis are just statements about emotions rather than language that evokes emotion, and almost all of these songs are tuneless. But these are not the only bad songs Jackie Wilson recorded. There were also a few bad ones earlier in his career, in the days when his repertoire had the benefit of some outstanding songwriters.
“Okay, so name a really bad song that isn’t a Carl Davis recording.” Well, only a few days ago I was reminded of one that is so horrible I hope I never hear it again. In fact, it’s so wretched that I won’t put up a link for it.
Berry Gordy Jr once wrote that he had never heard Jackie Wilson sing a bad note. To be more precise, Gordy said that he had heard Jackie Wilson sing some bad songs, but never a bad note. Well, I don’t think Berry ever heard Jackie’s recording of “People.” Jackie hits a note in that recording he should have saved for a Ravi Shankar collaboration. It sure as hell doesn’t belong in the popular song canon for the Western hemisphere.
No, I definitely will not put up a link for this recording. Find it yourself if you’re masochistic. [Insert laughter here.]
To be certain, the song itself is terrible. “People” has to tie with “Feelings” in the category of Sophomoric Sentiments Most Frequently Sung. But the problem is not just a crappy song containing one really bad note. The record is just awful throughout—the arrangement, Jackie’s phrasing, the works. In fact, the “badness” of Jackie’s recorded version is worthy of one of those old Saturday Night Live skits with Dan Ackroyd as Leonard Plinth-Garnell, the bored critic who explicated Bad Opera, Bad Poetry, Bad Cabaret, and so on.
My vision: Jackie records “People.” How did a recording this awful come about? Well, I do have a theory.
Jackie, after days of great pain, is lying on a gurney about to undergo some form of surgery. Just as the anesthesiologist begins to put Jackie under, there is an interruption, and the proceedings are halted. Drowsy and unaware of his surroundings, Our Hero begins to warble the last song he heard, something that had been playing on a transistor radio back in the pre-operative prep area. A quick-witted medical staffer turns on a tiny, tinny cassette tape recorder, one that records slightly off speed. Later the little cassette is sold to Nat Tarnopol, who quickly calculates the savings in production costs if he just combines this five-dollar investment with an outtake of an orchestral backing track . . .