Author Archives: jackiewilsonlover

Jackie’s death (4): “Think about me”

JW leather stage wearThere is a bootleg recording, reputedly from Jackie Wilson’s last complete concert, captured just days before he collapsed. The audio file may be his last recorded spoken words and the last recorded notes he sang.

If so, it testifies to how great Jackie was at the end, because the medley surrounding “Lonely Teardrops” is outstanding, the ethereal performance of “Doggin’ Around” is one of his most memorable, and the few lines he sings from “My Way” contain some of the sweetest notes you will ever hear.

However, his words just before singing that bit of “My Way” are chilling for listeners who know what happened:

You know, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be back, like I said, and God knows I hope to be back in the near future, very soon. Thank you very much. In the meanwhile, may I say . . . whatever goes up . . . has a tendency . . . most time . . . to come down. Now we all know that. We also know that what goes around eventually comes around. But I’d like to say that nobody . . . but nobody . . . does anything wrong . . . unless . . . they want to do it. By the same token, no one does anything right . . . unless . . . they want to do it. Think about me, and I’ll be damned if I won’t think about you. Listen . . .

You know, I planned each charted course,
And, oh Lord, I traveled each and every highway and byway,
Ah, but more, much more, much more, much more, oh, oh, oh Lord, much more than this

[spoken: Ha, ha, ha, ha]
I did it my . . . [spoken: I love you] . . . wa-ay.

Powerful people wanted Jackie Wilson forgotten, but we have the power to preserve his memory. Let’s think about Jackie and love him as he loved us, his fans.

Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke: 1964

JW and SC 01 presenting . . .  JW and SC 02 proudly presents . . .  JW and SC 03 tummy poke  JW and SC 04 Sam open-mouthed

SW and SC 05 reciprocal smiles  JW and SC 06 reciprocal grins  JW and SC 07 Jackie demonstrates  JW and SC 08 nose-to-nose

JW and SC 09 Jackie in full cry  JW and SC 10 side-by-side  JW and SC 11 corraling Sam  JW and SC 12 walking off

Blurry images of two impossibly handsome, incredibly talented young men . . . at the top of their game . . . just having a great time together. Possibly in 1960, maybe in 1964. If the latter, only a few months before Sam’s hideous death.

Sam Cooke was the first Black recording artist to figure it all out. He saw where the money was.
He understood why his fellow stars, such as his friend Jackie Wilson, made hit after hit without seeing the money they should be collecting.

Sam Cooke was one of the few not in the grip of the Mob because he was with the cleanest available outfit, RCA, was West-Coast based, and looked after his own interests from the point he left the gospel circuit to explode onto the pop music scene.

He wrote and published his own songs, so the Morris Levy types couldn’t take that huge chunk
of the profits from him. He began buying back his own masters from RCA, insuring he would eventually take in a healthy return on compilation albums. And in the early 1960s, he started his
own record company, SAR Records.

In 1964, Jackie Wilson was tortured (literally) into re-signing a contract with Brunswick/Tarnopol.
It’s a popular notion that Jackie wanted to go work at Motown, but I have never bought into that idea. I cannot see Jackie wanting to be under Berry Gordy’s thumb. My guess would be that he wanted to sign with his buddy Sam Cooke’s company.

And I think both the widely circulated story about Jackie’s torture (he was held outside an upper-story window) and the murder of Sam Cooke in December of that same year were acts meant to keep other entertainers in line.

The “official” story of Cooke’s death was obviously bunk. Killing Sam Cooke was a no-brainer for the Mob: they weren’t making any money off Sam anyway, and they needed to stop him before others got ideas about walking off the “plantation.”

Each time I watch the video of Jackie and Sam, I thank the Almighty for letting the good times roll that day for these fabulous talents . . . these great friends.

Jackie Wilson’s death (3): Brunswick and Tarnopol

IMG_0255Jackie Wilson collapsed September 29,1975,
deep in debt to his record company, Brunswick, for
“recoupments” on the many recordings he had made
for them. [Note: Check here for an introduction to
how recording contracts work for contemporary
artists—and remember that things were much worse
from the artist's standpoint in Jackie's day.] Jackie also
owed a staggering sum in back taxes to the Internal
Revenue Service, taxes he believed his manager,
Nat Tarnopol, had filed and paid on his behalf.

Off to Chicago. At the time of Jackie’s collapse
he had not had a major hit record in eight years.
He was trapped recording with Carl Davis in Chicago
and unhappy with the material he had to record. Furthermore, he had had an adversarial
relationship with Nat Tarnopol for many years, and by some accounts, Nat was no longer
technically Jackie’s manager.

Those accounts hold that Gaetano Vastola, a New Jersey mobster of the DeCavalcante
crime family and the gangster most closely associated with the recording industry, had
terminated Jackie’s management contract with Nat but left Jackie under contract to record
for Brunswick. If so, this was a distinction without a difference, as by now Nat Tarnopol
owned Brunswick.

Whether Tarnopol or Vastola made the decision to have Jackie record in Chicago is not known,
but it was necessary. Each time Jackie tried to enter New York City, Harlean Harris (tipped off to Jackie’s whereabouts by Nat Tarnopol) had Jackie picked up by the police for non-payment of support. Jackie was chronically short of funds at this point and at the mercy of Nat for what were termed “advancements,” although what was owed to Jackie and what Jackie owed were
dubious concepts, as pointed out in the ABC 20/20 story referenced below.

The “feds” take interest in the record business. Jackie’s heart attack (or stroke) occurred
as federal law enforcement agents were breathing down the necks of Nat Tarnopol and other
Brunswick executives for a variety of violations of the law. This video of an ABC 20/20 episode displays some of the legal documents at roughly the 6:00 mark as their reporter relates
the following:

Shortly before Wilson’s collapse in 1975, Nat Tarnopol and other Brunswick record executives were indicted for tax evasion and mail fraud in a bribery and payola scandal. Among other things, it was charged that Brunswick record artists, and Jackie Wilson was far and away the most popular, were defrauded of royalties, the money they were supposed to earn from sales of their records.

According to the indictment, Brunswick made hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of record shipments that were never put on the books, so the artists were never paid royalties on them. In essence, it was alleged that the same company that had run up debts in Wilson’s name was also cheating him out of the money he could have used to help pay them back.

Nat Tarnopol was convicted in 1976. A federal appeals court overturned the conviction eighteen months later, but the judges took pains to add in their opinion that they were satisfied there was evidence from which a jury could find that Brunswick artists had been defrauded.

A jury never got the chance to evaluate that evidence because a second trial never took place. And even if one had, Jackie Wilson would have been incapable of taking action or testifying because he lay in a nursing home, brain damaged from his collapse.

Specifically, there was no one who could have testified at either trial with anything close to
Jackie’s experience with and knowledge of Brunswick. There were not many artists on the
Brunswick label to begin with, and many of those had been associated with the label for only
short amounts of time. LaVern Baker was in the midst of her nearly two-decade stay in The Philippines, where many believed she was hiding to keep out of reach of underworld figures.
Once Jackie was eliminated, only Eugene Record of The Chi-Lites, associated with the Chicago
office of Brunswick (run by Carl Davis), was available.

How serious was the indictment of Brunswick’s executives? A successful prosecution of Brunswick’s executives could have opened the door to convicting Vastola himself as well as
his close friend and business associate, Morris Levy (“the godfather of the record industry”).
You will find Levy described elsewhere on this blog in the context of Tommy James’s book.
Levy was the head of Roulette Records, and Tarnopol was a Levy associate as well as being
a friend of Vastola.

Levy and Vastola were under investigation by federal authorities for many, many years before
they were ultimately charged as a result of an investigation into “cutout” deals (selling records
off the books without paying artist royalties—the very thing the judges noted in Tarnopol’s
appeal). In his memoir, Tommy James stated that Morris Levy was so contemptuous of the
Internal Revenue Service that he gave them their own office space at Roulette Records in
the late 1960s and had his accountant hand the IRS boys “some set of books” on an almost
daily basis.

In short, not only did the Brunswick executives have reason to worry about their impending
indictments: so did a number of others.

Nat had Jackie insured for a million dollars. Although Jackie Wilson no longer made hit
records, he had some value to Nat Tarnopol. Carl Davis told Tony Douglas, Jackie’s biographer,
that shortly after Jackie’s collapse, he (Carl) requested that Nat provide funds for equipment
for the Chicago office. Nat told him to hold off on the request a bit until Jackie died. At that time,
Nat assured Carl, “Our pockets will get the mumps.”

[Note: At some point I will post on Carl Davis's memoir. Davis felt that Nat Tarnopol wanted to make him the "fall guy," and he quickly protected himself by getting separate legal representation from the others listed in the indictment. There is a letter from Davis on the Internet that is very supportive of Tarnopol. The material in the letter was repudiated in the memoir, which Davis published as he reached the terminal stages of lung disease.]

Would Jackie have testified? The longstanding rumor relating Jackie to the legal proceedings stems from Jackie’s tax debt, reported to have been anything up to a quarter million dollars. Many believe Jackie agreed to testify against Brunswick in exchange for avoiding prosecution and years in prison for tax evasion.

Tony Douglas wrote that Jackie’s wife, Lynn, said that at the time of his collapse, Jackie had been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.

Next: Jackie Wilson’s death (4): Natural causes

Jackie Wilson’s death (2): Harlean Harris

Background note: If you want to see photos of Harlean Harris, check here, here and here. There are a number of photos of other young Black models that are at times labeled as Harlean. The stepladder photos and the Jet cover are really her, as she looked a few years after Jackie first met her, when he was eighteen and she was probably sixteen. Harlean’s age is a mystery in itself: note that the stepladder photos are from the same photo session, but Harlean is a different age in the two photos. Jackie had just joined The Dominoes when they met, and Harlean, whom Jackie called “Harris,” was one of the co-presidents of the Billy Ward and His Dominoes Fan Club . . . along with Juanita Jones, who years later shot Jackie twice in the abdomen as he tried to wrest a gun from her hands.

Juanita was not aiming for Jackie. Her intended target was Harlean.

The shooting took place in 1961, outside Jackie’s New York City apartment, where he was bringing Harlean home in the wee hours after what turned out to be the “Valentine’s Day Date From Hell.” Police reports, by the way, listed Juanita as twenty-eight. It’s not unlikely that Harlean was closer to that age than the twenty-three or twenty-four she claimed to be at that time.

Jackie’s estate. When Jackie Wilson collapsed, he was deeply in debt to Brunswick, his record label, for “recoupments” on the many hit recordings he made for them. (Check here for an introduction to how recording contracts work for contemporary artists—and remember that things were much worse from the artist’s standpoint in Jackie’s day.) Jackie also owed a staggering sum in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Why would anyone fight for control of such an estate, an estate that consisted of no valuables, no bank accounts, no known assets whatever? At the time of his death, there was no reason to assume that much money would come from the piddling royalties that would be owed to the estate on any future sales of Jackie’s recordings, given that Tarnopol claimed Jackie owed Brunswick so much money.

The most obvious reason to fight for control of the estate was, of course, to control access to information about the status and history of Jackie Wilson’s financial affairs.

Jackie’s domestic life. At the time of his collapse in late 1975, Jackie considered Lynn Crochet his wife. According to his major biographer, Tony Douglas, Jackie lived with Lynn in Detroit and ultimately in Georgia, where the couple had purchased land to build a kennel so that dog-loving Jackie could enjoy his retirement from show business as a small businessman, breeding Malenois.

Jackie Wilson singing a duet with Shirley Ellis
Jackie Wilson singing a duet with Shirley Ellis

It is noteworthy that Jackie was looking into retirement at age forty-one. Jackie and Lynn had two small children, one born in 1972 and another born in 1975, less than two months prior to Jackie’s collapse.

On the other hand, Jackie and Harlean Harris had been separated at least seven years at the time of his collapse, and they were neither friends nor even friendly throughout those years.

Jackie’s relationship with Harlean Harris had ended acrimoniously after little more than a year of their marriage, which had taken place in 1967. Jackie had left their apartment for good upon finding evidence that convinced him that Harlean was conducting an affair with his manager, Nat Tarnopol, and he never saw Harlean or their son (born in 1964) again after the breakup.

Although a financial agreement had been established by a court (allowing Harris to have Jackie arrested for non-payment of support any time he entered New York City), the final divorce degree was never granted, providing the legal loophole employed to establish Harlean Harris as Jackie’s wife and widow.

In such circumstances, no contemporary American court would recognize Harlean Harris as Jackie’s wife, putting Jackie’s physical well being in the control of an adversary. Why did it
happen back then?

To some degree, race could have been part of the decision-making process or at least a justification for the decision. Historically, it was a time when there were public debates about whether white couples should be permitted to adopt black children, and many Blacks were angered by celebrities of their own race dating or marrying whites. Indeed, many Blacks were angered when any of their race even dated whites. Harlean Harris was black. Lynn Crochet was white.

If there were no assets, what would Harlean Harris achieve by being declared Jackie’s wife? Any child support or alimony owed her would still be owed to her as an ex-wife, so what was her interest in being legally named Jackie’s wife?

One answer would be vanity, grabbing a last chance at the spotlight. Harris had once been a model, a stunningly beautiful young woman. However, by the time of Jackie’s collapse, Harlean Harris’s once-spectacular looks were deteriorating. In a photo taken of her with a celebrity helping to raise money for Jackie’s medical bills, she appears plump and unhealthy. Photos taken at Jackie’s funeral show Harlean fat, frumpy, and looking far older than the number of years she claimed to be.

Another possibility would be that Harlean Harris was thrust into a role she didn’t choose for herself. Perhaps she was made an offer that she could not refuse.

Harris could not afford the legal battles she undertook, so she must have had financial backers. Maybe her family helped out there—a wealthy aunt, or a generous sister . . . or possibly even a solicitous godfather?

Part Three of this series will address Brunswick and Jackie’s notorious manager, Nat Tarnopol.

Jackie Wilson’s death (1): An ugly mystery

Beautiful man, beautiful voice . . . silenced

Beautiful man, beautiful voice . . . silenced

Jackie Wilson died a terrible, slow death, dropping to
the stage floor mid-performance as a result of what
has been variously described as a heart attack or
stroke, and then surviving another eight years in a
state of living death, severely brain damaged. From
the time of his collapse, he was unable to speak or
walk, and he remained helpless in the hands of others.

Trapped in institutions labeled “care facilities” and
“nursing homes,” Jackie suffered neglect, abuse, or
both. Legal actions taken by his court-appointed
guardians cut off rehabilitative therapies whenever it
appeared he could recover.

A few who loved him, most notably Joyce Moore, then known as Joyce McRae, struggled and sacrificed to help him. These few were defeated by a coalition with the substantial financial resources needed to make use of New Jersey courts to undermine Jackie’s medical care and general well being. They established Harlean Harris as Jackie’s “wife” and ultimately his widow. They eventually barred Joyce McRae and Jackie’s real wife from even visiting him. And, of course, they took control of Jackie’s estate.

This blog. So far I have concentrated this blog mostly on positive topics related to Jackie Wilson: his journey to stardom, his relationships with other artists, the incredible recordings he left behind, and his legendary status as a live performer.

As the months have passed since I began the blog last summer, I have felt with increasing conviction that many people now want Jackie Wilson’s death discussed. I see this reflected on the blog’s “stats” page, which shows the search terms that have been employed to reach the blog.

I want to assure readers that I will continue highlighting the upbeat side of Jackie’s life story and celebrating the magnificent music he left us. However, beginning with this entry, there will also be a number of posts recounting the facts concerning Jackie Wilson’s death and posing the questions that have never been answered.

The next part of this series is Jackie Wilson’s Death: Harlean Harris.

Contact form

I have added a “contact form” at the top of the site for anyone who wants to send a comment, question, or suggestion directly to me.

As always, you can leave comments directly on the posts after signing in using your WordPress, Facebook, or Twitter account.

Rebecca (aka JackieWilson Lover)

Clyde McPhatter

Many people consider Clyde McPhatter the most widely imitated of all the great rhythm and blues singers. In his prime with Billy Ward and His Dominoes, Clyde was “The Man,” the singer other singers admired. Among these other singers was a teenager called Sonny Wilson, known only locally in the Detroit area at that time. Sonny Wilson would not become Jackie Wilson until he became a Domino and began learning Clyde’s leads directly from The Man himself.

clyde mcphatter stampUltimately, McPhatter’s talent and achievement received some of the critical acclaim he deserved, and he even appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 1993, but his solo career was a disappointment to him, despite his making a number of hit records, including the classic “A Lover’s Question.”

McPhatter was a member of a Harlem gospel quartet, the New Lebanon Singers, when he met Billy Ward, who was at the time a professional vocal coach who trained young gospel singers free of charge. When Ward decided to form a secular singing group, Clyde became the original lead singer for Billy Ward and The Dominoes.

A thrilling tenor voice. While Clyde sang the tenor leads for The Dominoes, the group consistently appeared on the R and B charts. The songs he recorded then ranged from pop standards to rockers. Listen to The Dominoes’ version of “These Foolish Things.” I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, and I still get goose bumps when I hear Clyde sing the phrase, “a cigarette bearing lipstick traces.” The upbeat “Have Mercy Baby” was a great hit for Billy Ward’s group, but just to get a look at very handsome Clyde in action, watch this rendition of the song from an Englilsh Bobby Darin TV special:

One of Clyde’s most recognizable vocal characteristics was a “choke” (sobbing sound), sometimes referred to as a “crying tenor.” Jackie picked this up right away when he started with the Dominoes and employed it then and throughout his solo career. Elvis picked it up from the Dominoes records he listened to (both Clyde’s and Jackie’s leads.) You can hear it on many songs, such as the blues ballad version “Lonely Teardrops” (the way Berry Gordy had intended that the song be sung) and Elvis’s “I Believe.”

Personal life. McPhatter was an alcoholic, and he died of complications resulting from that alcoholism. Clyde’s life was also complicated by depression. In the 1950’s in America, no one spoke openly about any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality. It was often written that Clyde believed his fans had deserted him, leading to his depression and increased drinking. That “conventional wisdom” was established at a time when sexual orientation was not openly discussed and few fans knew what his peers in the entertainment industry understood—that Clyde was bisexual.

At one point, Clyde was arrested for “loitering with intent to solicit illicit sexual conduct” or some such nonsense. Although he was not prosecuted, the experience was humiliating for him. Because Clyde was the son of a Baptist minister and was close to his family, and because the Baptist Church at that time had no tolerance for what would have then been considered “sexual deviation,” Clyde may also have felt he had disappointed or embarrassed his family.

Clyde McPhatter was not only a great singer: he was also a good person. He was admired and loved by other entertainers, he was adored by fans of rhythm and blues and the tenor voice, and he served his country honorably in the U.S. Army. Yet Clyde’s life illustrates what happens to a good person when a society criminalizes sexual orientations. Feeling increasingly alienated in his own homeland, Clyde ultimately moved to England in the twin hopes that living there would be less problematic and that British fans would help revive his career.

Clyde McPhatter died an early death, denied the satisfaction of seeing his talent and achievement fully appreciated.

New YouTube postings 2

Some recent postings of Jackie Wilson videos are well worth checking out. There are new cuts from “The Jerry Lewis Show” that have clearer pictures and better sound than the some of the old ones posted before.

Please listen to Jerry Lee’s introduction to Jackie on the “Higher and Higher” video. It is so true a statement of what should have been, had not so much evil been perpetrated against Jackie Wilson. Unfortunately, the video and audio tracks are not synchronized as the performance continues.

Here “Lonely Teardrops” is followed by “If I Had a Hammer.” In the last video Jackie sings an old gospel favorite of Jerry Lee’s, “I’ll Fly Away.”

New YouTube postings 1

Here are two fantastic videos from the old Dick Clark Beechnut Show. Both performances are lip synchronizations of songs written by Berry Gordy Jr and Billy Davis. The first is a much clearer copy than we have had before of Jackie performing “Lonely Teardrops,” complete with a leap from an upper step into some splits. Berry Gordy once expressed amazement that Jackie could do this sort of thing without, uh, “hurting something.” Well, Jackie continued to father children after this video was made.



The second video is one many of us had not seen since we were teenagers, Jackie doing “That’s Why (I Love You So).” He appears just after the 1:20 timing mark.


The wild and the beautiful

Soul Time LPAs far as I know, Ronnie Self wrote only two songs that Jackie Wilson recorded. Both appear on Soul Time (1965), one of Jackie’s greatest LPs.

Let me say from the outset that I have always just assumed that the “Self” listed as songwriter is the Ronnie Self I describe in this post. Nothing I have read about Ronnie Self associates the songwriter with the Soul Time tunes, but he had a contract to write songs for Decca in the early 1960s, and Brunswick was a Decca subsidiary.

Both the hard-rocking “Mama of My Song” and the wistful “An Ocean I’ll Cry” are brilliant; theoretically, they are songs many artists would embrace. Yet I have never heard of anyone other than Jackie Wilson recording either of them, and most people have never heard of either or them. Sadly, that “most people” includes many Jackie Wilson fans.

Ronnie Self was a performer as well as a songwriter, and he is still revered among rockabilly aficionados, particularly in England. Dubbed “Mr. Frantic,” Self’s best known recording is probably “Bop-a-Lena.” I don’t think any performance video of him is available on the Web, but he was good enough to make at least one appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

While Self’s alcoholism led to erratic and sometimes dangerous behavior that scarred his life both professionally and personally, he wrote great songs, including two big hits for country/pop star Brenda Lee, “Sweet Nothins” and “I’m Sorry.”

Ronnie Self

I’m mystified by the way the two Self compositions on Soul Time have escaped attention from those scrutinizing the Jackie Wilson canon. If for nothing else, the manic “Mama of My Song” should be forever remembered for the marvelous line, “You walk around on me, oh yeah, like I was your everyday shoes.”

And if there is one Jackie Wilson recording that always makes my personal favorites list, it has to be “An Ocean I’ll Cry,” which Our Hero sings soulfully yet simply. Yes, there are a few spoken words and some phrases crooned here and there, and Jackie being Jackie, there are syllables that multiply as we listen, such as “If you were the sky-y-y, I’d want to be your moo-oo-oon.” But there is nothing melodramatic about the way Jackie delivers the vocal. It’s straightforward and simply beautiful, a great lyric interpreted by a master singer’s technique.

I’ve provided the lyrics and links for the songs below, and if you are interested, you can join my Freshman English students in reading a rhetorical analysis of “An Ocean I’ll Cry” in an upcoming post by that title. Self’s words provide an effective tool for understanding the power of figurative language as well as magnificent material for Jackie Wilson.

“The Mama of My Song”
(Words and music by Ronnie Self)
Ah, yeah, yeah, baby, yeah, yeah . . .
Now, you’re the mama of my misery
You’re the mama of all my blues
You know, you walk around on me, oh yeah
Like I was your everyday shoes
Let me tell you, you’re the reason that I cry all night
You’re the reason these blues was born
You’re the mama of my misery
The mama that made a fool of me
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re the mama of my song
Baby, I’m the daddy you used to love
I’m that daddy you said you don’t want no more
Looka here, girl, I’m that daddy that you hurt so
And you left me walking the floor
Aaah, you’re the reason that I cry all night
You’re the reason these blues were born
You’re the mama of my misery
The girl that left me in misery
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re the mama of my song

Ah, yeah . . .
You’re the mama of my misery
You’re the mama of my blues
Let me tell you, you walk around on me, oh yeah
Like I was your everyday shoes
But, woman, you’re the reason that I cry all night
You’re the reason these blues was born
You’re the mama of my misery
The girl that left me in misery
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re the mama of my song
Hey, baby, you’re the mama
Hey, baby, I’m the daddy . . .Ah, yeah . . .

“An Ocean I’ll Cry”
(Words and music by Ronnie Self)
If you were a poem, I’d want to be your rhyme
If you were a day, I’d want to be your sunshine
If you were a picture, I’d want to be your frame
If you were a rose, Honey, I’d want to be your rain

Tell me, tell me, what mountains to move
Do you want castles in the sky?
And if it’s hurting I must do
Then an ocean I’ll cry

If you were a queen, I’d want to be your throne
If you were a house, Honey, I’d want to make you my home
If you were the sky, I’d want to be your moon
If you were a song, Darling, I’d want to be your tune

Tell me, tell me, what mountains to move
Do you want castles in the sky?
And if it’s hurting I must do
Then an ocean I’ll cry

Chambers Brothers alert

Do you enjoy watching this wonderful video of Jackie Wilson on Shindig! singing “She’s All Right,” the one with the Chambers Brothers providing the backing vocals? Check out this article on CNN’s Web site about Lester Chambers, yet another of the many African American performers cheated by the “recording industry.”

Bad Jackie

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.

Way gallery 3“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 . . .

The “Black Elvis” book (Part One)

Doug [Saint] Carter. The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson. Jacksonville, Florida: Heyday Publishing, Inc., 1998.

As I stated in an earlier post, some Jackie Wilson fans cannot get beyond the title of the Doug Carter book, The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson.

The most angry insist that “Elvis is the White Jackie. Elvis stole every stage mannerism, every concept, all his music from Black artists.” This extreme position is, of course, ridiculous, and so are the less extreme positions if “stole” is taken seriously as theft or anything else negative.

Take race off the table and ask yourself how many people complain that Michael Jackson “stole” his spins from Jackie Wilson. (Of course, there was a limit to what MJ could take from Jackie. Mike never mastered Jackie’s back-bend half-split or Jackie’s up-from-the-ankles reverse knee drop, did he?) You can watch video of Michael Jackson and see what he borrowed and modified and incorporated from Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Fred Astaire. He didn’t “steal” anything except in the most playful sense of that word. He studied the greats and became great himself.

Copiers are just that. They watch someone else and try to do exactly what that performer did. Really good copiers are called impersonators, and an impersonator who can accurately imitate many other celebrities is often valued as an entertainer in his or her own right. Individuals who can only copy one entertainer are not generally held in high esteem. Such performers contribute nothing of their own, not even insight into the performer they mimic.

Neither Elvis nor Jackie were copiers or impersonators. They were great artists. Artists are creative people.

Creativity. All singers adapt material, both vocal stylistics and stage mannerisms, from other singers. The truly creative in any field study the best of their predecessors and contemporaries, cull some of the most impressive features, and distill those with their own innovations to create their own unique styles. It’s true with writers, architects, and film makers, as well as performing artists.

A friend of mine, artist and illustrator Chuck Richards, lectures his College of Design students at the beginning of their first year: Disabuse yourself of the notion that great ideas come out of the ether and shoot into your brain like a thunderbolt. Creativity doesn’t work that way. The most creative people are the ones with the most knowledge and sharpest memories in their heads, their sketchbooks, and their journals. Creativity is the result of re-sorting all available ideas and mental images. Re-combining the bits and pieces already in the mind gives birth something different, better, unique.

In one of the earlier posts for this blog I traced how Jackie, who had studied Elvis in order to create a “takeoff” (not an impersonation) of EP’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” was so successful that Elvis, after studying Jackie’s performance four nights in a row, revamped his own stage performance of that song. In the Million Dollar Quartet Tapes, you can hear in Presley’s own words how Wilson moved his feet, shook his head, pronounced certain words, altered the tempo—and so forth. And although we are not blessed with video of the performance Elvis saw, we have later video evidence of Jackie employing EP’s rebel sulk or and audiotape evidence of Jackie utilizing Elvis’s diction, just as we have the evidence of Elvis’s new Jackie-fied “Don’t Be Cruel.”

So I guess I have made my position clear on the matter of Jackie and Elvis’s mutual admiration society. Still, many are uncomfortable with the “Black Elvis” phrase.

How the term took hold. I only remind everyone that there are conflicting recollections of who first applied the term to Jackie Wilson. It has been stated that when the two singers finally met, one of them said, “So the Black Elvis and the white Elvis finally meet.” Some claim that Elvis made the statement, and several of Elvis’s ever-present entourage have said that the words came from Jackie’s mouth. Either way, the reference was probably to the “Don’t Be Cruel” performance Jackie gave when Elvis first saw him, when Elvis didn’t know Jackie’s name because Jackie was the un-billed lead singer for Billy Ward and His Dominoes.

Doug Carter says it was Elvis who used the term to describe Jackie, not the other way around.

Doug Carter sees both entertainers. Doug Carter was ten years old when his father took him to see Elvis Presley perform. Seven years later, on the date John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his father took him to see Jackie Wilson for the first time. Jackie’s performance astonished, thrilled, mesmerized the young man, and in the years that followed, he could not fathom why Jackie Wilson never achieved the fame that what so clearly his due. His book is an attempt to understand.

Doug Carter was not a writer or journalist by trade. He simply admired and enjoyed Jackie Wilson’s talent and wanted to know more about the man. (I can empathize with that position, believe me!) The book is amateurish in many ways, but personally, I can forgive that easily enough, although I don’t forgive some other things about the book, which I will cover in subsequent posts.

That said, there is much to learn from and enjoy in the book, ranging from Carter’s interview of Reverend Anthony Campbell of Russell Street Baptist Church at the book’s opening to several eye-popping revelations late in the volume, such as Bill Frazier attempting to organize a “hit” on Nat Tarnopol (fortunately, Jackie found out about his valet’s plans and intervened) and Juanita Jones visiting Jackie while he was in custodial care. Harlean Harris, Jackie’s court-appointed wife, banned both Jackie’s chosen wife, Lynn, and Jackie’s great friend, Joyce McRae, from visiting his bedside. Did she intentionally permit Juanita, who shot Jackie but most likely wanted to shoot Harlean, to visit?

Reverend Campbell describes his boyhood friend. The interview with Campbell describes Jackie Wilson’s mother, Eliza Mae Ranson Wilson Lee, in very positive terms. However, the facts he offers do not coincide comfortably with facts presented in other sources, particularly in Tony Douglas’s books on Jackie Wilson.

Campbell says that Eliza Mae Wilson came north from Mississippi to work in a Dodge automobile factory and did so until, like all Black women (and many other women), she was laid off after World War II. (The men returning from the armed forces were given the jobs.) At the end of the war, Jackie would have been at least eleven years old. It also means that Jackie’s parents would have separated already, and Eliza Mae would have married Jackie’s stepfather, who worked at a Ford plant. According to Campbell, Eliza Mae took in foster children after she lost her job at the auto factory.

It seems strange that Freda, Jackie’s first wife, would not have mentioned this to Douglas, particularly because by Douglas’s account, Eliza Mae’s marriage to Lee improved the household income substantially, allowing the family to move to a better neighborhood. Because Jackie was in juvenile detention twice and stopped living with his mother when he married Freda at age sixteen, Douglas’s picture of Jackie Wilson’s childhood suggests an only child who ultimately had a much younger stepsister he would have shared a home with only briefly, whereas Campbell’s account suggests Jackie grew up in a house with other children.

However, other information in the Campbell interview does ring true. Campbell discounts the image some promote of Jackie as a street-fighting gang member, pointing out that gangs of that era were nothing like what we know in America today. He says that everybody belonged to one gang or another, that it was “like saying that he was a member of the boys’ athletic club.” Campbell states emphatically that “[Jackie] was not a gang leader. He was not criminally involved.” Rather, he tells Carter, Jackie had always been a leader “because he was the class clown and he could sing and he was good looking.”

That does sound like Our Hero.

To be continued . . . 


On the author’s name. My personal copy of this book has “Doug Saint Carter” on the front of the dust jacket and “Doug Carter” on both the title page of the book and the copyright page of the book. The author’s name at birth was Gale Allen Ellsworth, and he used the name Doug Carter as a radio personality. I’m only guessing here, but I think the “Saint” may have been added to disambiguate the author from other writers named Doug Carter. (By the way, my copy is signed “Doug Saint Carter.”)

Jackie’s hair

When I look at the search terms that connect to the blog, I often see questions I wish people would ask on the blog. By the time I see the search term on my “stats” page, the person who used it has probably left the site—and may have left disappointed because the information wasn’t available. I just hope such visitors find other information useful or interesting.

Of course, I have no way of knowing who used any search term, so it is frustrating when I see something I could have answered. Yesterday one of the search terms was “why did Jackie Wilson relax his hair?” I am guessing that whoever posed the question was young because use of the term “relax” to describe a hair treatment is fairly recent. In JW’s heyday, straightening Black hair was called processing the hair, and it was just a matter of current style and good grooming.

Black men in that era commonly processed their hair with Red Devil Lye. Another brand would work, but Red Devil was the most commonly used. Jackie’s first wife, Freda, told his biographer that Jackie (or “Jack,” as she referred to him) did his own hair when he was a teenager. In all likelihood, a professional did the work once Jackie became a star. It was a tricky task, and scalp burns occurred frequently.

Freda also claimed that you could wrap your fist on Jackie’s pompadour once it was styled and sprayed, but Freda lied about lots of things, so I don’t know that we should believe her on this point. You can see significant movement of the hair in several video clips.

When the “Black is beautiful” sentiment took hold in the late 1960s, the “Afro” hairstyle became popular. It soon became politically incorrect for Black men to process their hair, and Jackie Wilson, like virtually all popular entertainers, let his hair go “natural” by the early 1970s.

Personally, I loved his pompadour, although he looked good in any hairstyle. I have often wondered how he felt about making the change. On the one hand, natural hair would have been easier to care for, but on the other hand, his pompadour was a signature look. No other artist in his time, white or Black, had one so high, sleek, and perfectly proportioned.