Category Archives: Books

Jackie at the Apollo (Two)

jw stage profileThanks again to Doug Henderson Jr for giving me permission to share a second passage from his book, Endeavor to Persevere, with the readers of this blog. As I noted in Jackie at the Apollo, one of the first entries in this blog, Doug has been a lifelong admirer of Jackie Wilson. In this anecdote, as with the earlier one, Doug’s sister Effie has taken him to the Apollo to see Jackie. At the time, Doug was a few months shy of his tenth birthday.

In November of 1967, I went to see Jackie at the Apollo with Effie. I was in the cadets (a young person’s version of the military) and proudly wore my Marine uniform that day. In the middle of his show, Jackie sat on a stool at the edge of the stage, talking to the audience between songs and signing autographs, while introducing “Danny Boy.” As he dedicated the song to the troops fighting in Vietnam, I asked my sister for a piece of paper so that I could get his autograph. After rummaging through her pocketbook, all she could find was the back of one of her blank checks. She promptly tore it off from her checkbook. I anxiously took it and made a beeline to the stage. As I approached, I caught Jackie’s eye. Staring straight at me, he proclaimed to the Apollo audience, “Here comes the soldier boy.” I handed him the piece of paper and, as he was about to sign it, he hesitated. Turning it over and seeing that it was a check, he laughed, and with his sweat dripping down on the back of the check, autographed it. It is now framed, and proudly hanging on my living room wall—sweat drops and all.

Doug’s thoughtful and thought-provoking book, which explores the question of how excellence is achieved, is available as an e-book from Amazon. The full title is Endeavor to Persevere: A Memoir on Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Tennis and Life.

Riot: New Orleans, 1960

Dream Boogie coverThe following excerpt from Peter Grualnick’s biography of Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, 2008) describes a concert that Jackie Wilson headlined in New Orleans on July 17, 1960. Jackie’s close friend Jesse Belvin had been killed just six months earlier after a concert that Jackie headlined in Little Rock (February 5). Guralnick is trying both to string together a narrative of the racial tension of the times and to connect Sam Cooke to the Civil Rights Movement. He has already written about Jackie’s good friend, Jesse Belvin, and the deaths of Belvin, his wife, and their driver. Because virtually everyone in the entertainment business was certain the crash was not an “accident,” Black entertainers performing in the South were on edge, concerned about the segregation of their audiences, their treatment at the hands of local civic leaders and law enforcement, and the developing national movement.

Sam Cooke was in no way involved in the the Little Rock concert, and the only thing associating him with this New Orleans concert of Jackie’s was that he would play the same venue a few weeks later (August 3). At that point, Guralnick reports, Cooke would find “a security force of fifty policemen on hand.” I am taking up Guralnick’s account of the New Orleans show mid-paragraph:

The Jackie Wilson Show, which continued to inflame audiences all across the South (it had already led to a direct ban on all rock ‘n’ roll revues in Birmingham), had hit New Orleans on July 17, with Larry Williams and Arthur Prysock (the co-headliner in Little Rock in February) on the bill. “The commotion started,” the Louisiana Weekly reported, “when Larry Williams attempted to sing from a sitting position on the edge of the stage.” A black policeman informed that it was against auditorium policy to sing from the floor, “and then a white officer allegedly pushed [him].” Williams, the man who wrote and recorded “Bad Boy” for Specialty Records in 1958 (he was a follower of the Johnny “Guitar” Watson/Johnnie Morisette school of thinking, in which music frequently fought a losing battle with pimping), was never one to avoid a confrontation, but it was Jackie Wilson, a former boxer, who at this point jumped from the stage and pushed the policeman, followed by five members of the band. There was no question in mind of anyone in the crowd as to who provoked the confrontation, and bottles and bricks began to fly, as “patrons [scrambled] for the exits . . . auditorium officials got the fire hoses ready [and] ten patrol wagons came blasting their sirens toward the scene.” Jackie, who never even got to perform, was bailed out at three in the morning and promptly left town, thereby avoiding charges (if the defendant couldn’t be found, the judge pragmatically ruled, there was no choice other than to dismiss), but the bitterness lingered on all sides, as some of the performers grumbled that none of this would be happening if the white man would leave them alone, others that Jackie and Larry were so damned hotheaded they just helped bring it on themselves.

I thought it would be interesting to contrast the account of the same event as presented by Tony Douglas in Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops. Guralnick’s account was drawn largely from a newspaper account and focused on placing the riot in the context of other events. Guralnick, an American with knowledge of the cities, cultural upheaval, and events in play, is keenly aware of the pressures on the performers of this era. Douglas lacked Guralnick’s knowledge and insight, of course, but judging by the book as a whole, Douglas would not have been interested in these topics anyway.

Nonetheless, the Douglas account is more entertaining than Guralnick’s, in large part owing to the sources, singer Chuck Jackson and Midnighters’ guitarist Billy Davis. Yes, this is the wonderful Chuck Jackson of many hits, a true friend of Jackie Wilson’s and a great singer still performing today. As to the Billy Davis quoted in this account: this Billy Davis is the one the groupies called “The Face” (see photo below, where his dimple is pretty much the focal point of the picture). “The Face” should not be confused with other Billy Davises of the era.

Hank Ballard (lower right) and the Midnighters

Hank Ballard (lower right) and the Midnighters

Here’s what Douglas writes about the riot:

One steamy July night in 1960, at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, a riot broke out at one of Jackie’s performances. Up to 5000 people were said to be present. Singer Chuck Jackson, a long-time close friend of Jackie’s was with The Dell Vikings at the time. He remembers: ‘I was there when Larry Williams was performing. The police told us before we got there, “Don’t come off this stage, black boy.”

‘They had police lined up all around the stage. Larry Williams had his foot up on the piano like Little Richard; he was doing “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and he ran to the edge of the stage, but didn’t jump off. He got down on the of the stage and women came forward – white women! Jackie was standing backstage and the cops took Larry and pulled him into the audience and started beating him with their sticks. Jackie came from backstage like he was Johnny Weissmuller. He ran like he was Tarzan and he leapt, like he was leaping into a lake, into the crowd of policemen. When he hit the floor, he was like a little rabbit. He went down on his knees and when he came up, like he does on stage, he hit this cop, a big red cop. He messed him up bad. They beat him and nearly killed him.

‘We finally pulled him out and had to take him to the hospital. They took him to jail and we got him out. It took us a matter of minutes to get out of town. They had his picture in the paper, where he hit the cop.’ The riot received coverage in the newspapers, which stated that police laid charges which ‘ranged from attempted murder to assaulting police and inciting a riot. Wilson was booked with disturbing the peace, inciting a riot and assaulting an officer’.

Also present was Midnighters’ guitarist and friend, Billy Davis. “Larry would jump off the stage into the audience. The police said, “Don’t you do that no more.” The second the show started, Larry jumped out again. Jackie jumped up and the big cop pushed him back, then Jackie punched him out cold and Jackie could punch like George Foreman for a little guy. The cop was six foot one, 225 pounds; Jackie was 150 pounds and five foot nine. We were all locked up, but only for a few hours.

For the record: Jackie was actually only five foot seven. His beautifully proportioned physique made him appear taller. And except for roughly a year in the early 1970s, during which time he gave up on his career and life as a whole, Jackie stayed pretty much at the top of the welterweight limit, the weight at which he boxed as a teenager. (And, no, Jackie was not a Golden Gloves champion. Despite what you read or heard, he boxed in only a few actual matches and apparently lost most of them.)

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.”)

Quotes and common sense

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.

Books about Jackie Wilson

Only three books have been written about Jackie Wilson, one by American Doug Saint Carter and two by Australian Tony Douglas. Douglas wrote two because he was obliged to withdraw the first from the market. Although I anticipate writing a number of posts about these books in the upcoming months, today I am merely introducing them.

Doug Saint Carter’s book. Some Jackie Wilson fans despise Doug Saint Carter’s book for its title alone — The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson. I have much in common with Carter, another devoted fan who is not a professional writer, who wrote his book from the same motivations that drive me to produce this blog: introducing Jackie Wilson to a younger generation of potential new fans, honoring this great artist’s achievements, and telling Jackie’s story within its context, American society and the entertainment industry in the Fifties and Sixties. I will argue that although this book has flaws, its writer respects both his subject and his readers and delivers on his promises.

Tony Douglas’s books. The Tony Douglas books are a very different matter. He promises the comprehensive biography of Jackie Wilson, and while the books are chock full of information, they are untrustworthy, badly organized, and highly problematic overall. At the time he wrote them, Douglas was a former journalist and manager of a bar in Thailand. Whatever his motives for writing them, he obscures at least as much truth as he reveals. Worse yet, he approaches both his readers and Jackie Wilson with utter contempt, manipulating his audience and Jackie’s life to create a monster and a set of victims, all the while concentrating on the most salacious details of any available fact or rumor.

Douglas did not know much about American culture, which no doubt accounts for some of his misinterpretations. He was also disadvantaged because a number of major figures in Wilson’s life would not cooperate with him and because a few of his sources actually manipulated him, rather than the other way around.

On the positive side, Douglas was able to secure interviews with Billy Ward, Billy Davis, and Carl Davis, all of whom have now passed away. Although Douglas did not make the best use of all those opportunities, these men were friends as well as Wilson’s professional associates, so their information and insight are valuable to Jackie Wilson fans.

Douglas also had conversations with Lynn Crochet and Joyce McRae (Moore), although his treatment of both these women is abominable.

The first Douglas book was entitled Jackie Wilson: The Man, the Music, the Mob (2001). It meandered, lacked an index, and was, overall, tacky. By the time he composed the second book, Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops (2005), Douglas had moved away from any compassion for Jackie Wilson whatever and settled on what must have looked like a marketable formula: sex and drugs (forget the rock and roll).

The women who “loved” Jackie. Douglas audaciously declared Freda Hood Wilson, Lynn Ciccone, and Lynn Crochet to be “the women who loved Jackie Wilson” in the book’s dedication. He then let the first two of those three women establish the narrative for much of the second book. Judging by Douglas’s treatment of Crochet, I am convinced he would have just omitted her from his list if he could have gotten away with it, but it’s rather hard to hide the inconvenient fact that Crochet and Wilson loved each other and had been committed to each other for years at the time Wilson was stricken. (See Jackie Wilson Biography.)

Freda Hood Wilson was Jackie Wilson’s first wife, a woman Jackie married when he was sixteen and while, according to Freda as Douglas quotes her, Jackie was drunk. She and her father had to go looking for him when he failed to show up at their house for the ceremony, which had been arranged with borrowed identification for Jackie because his mother would not give permission for her minor son to marry Freda. Of course, this is just the delightful Freda’s recollection, so who knows? By the time Douglas conducted his extensive interviews with her, Freda had been a frequently non-functioning alcoholic for more than twenty years and, to say the least, was of questionable mental capacity.

For part of Freda’s interviews with Douglas, Freda and Jackie’s oldest child (she had many names but just I think of her as “Denise, the Daughter from Hell”) joined her mother, contributing her own litany of Jackie Wilson’s failures. No assertion either woman made elicited editorial comment from Douglas, no matter how absurd it was or how easily simple arithmetic would undermine it.

Lynn Ciccone, who must definitely not be confused with Lynn Crochet, was not married to Jackie Wilson. Lynn Ciccone was a woman married to another man when she introduced herself to Wilson by enclosing her photo in a lengthy letter that resulted in a tryst with him. She continued an off-and-on affair with Wilson for several years, giving birth to a daughter he fathered while she compiled notes for a tell-all book that no one wanted to publish. She ultimately turned the manuscript over to Douglas for a chance at a starring role in his book. Ciccone, by the way, did not tell her daughter that Wilson was the girl’s father, or even tell the child that she was half African American, until Wilson was incapacitated.

Douglas also interviewed this daughter, who, in the midst of her assertion that Jackie Wilson treated her mother badly, accidentally provides a glimpse of Wilson as a father (who was, of course, not allowed to be known as her father). Despite all her complaining, the incidents Ciccone’s offspring recalls from childhood visits with Wilson on the road serve only to make Jackie Wilson look like, well, a normal and loving old-fashioned daddy.

One day Jackie babysits her alone and plays a children’s card game with her. On another occasion, the girl assumes Wilson is asleep and kicks her mother, only to have Jackie leap off the bed, spank her, and admonish her (“Never again, got it?”). On another visit she refuses to eat, so he pulls her onto his lap and feeds her from his own plate, employing the old “into the mouth and over the gum, down to the tummy, yum yum yum” line again and again, giving her a kiss each time she swallows a mouthful. At age seven she is hanging out on the stage with him during rehearsal and breaks a leg while trying to imitate one of his famous moves. Here she acknowledges that he is the first person to her aid, holding her and comforting her while barking orders to get her needed medical attention.

What love is and is not. Front and center, page after page, Douglas foists the egos and animosities of these women on the reader to establish an image of Jackie Wilson as self-centered, selfish, vain, violent, irresponsible, and not much else. Douglas never seems to realize that readers know what love is and what love is not. Love is NOT grabbing your ten minutes of fame by trashing the man you just claimed to love.

But more on the Douglas books later. My next posts on these books will be on Doug Saint Carter’s The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson.

Willie John’s biography

Jackie and Detroit crowd

(standing) Billy Johnson, Al Abrams, Johnny (“JJ”) Jones, Berry Gordy Jr, Jackie Wilson, Robert Bateman, (kneeling) Willie John

Whitall, Susan and Kevin John. Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul. Titan Books, 2011.

Today’s post looks into a book that introduces you to a forefather of soul music, a singer possessed of a tenor voice with easy top notes unmatched in the history of popular music, a showman of such riveting stage presence that no one dared to take the floor once he had performed, a man so devastatingly attractive that women could not control themselves around him. When he took the stage, panties rained down on him.

Let’s pause and take a look at the photo above, a snapshot of some guys hanging out together one day in Detroit. The man is right there in the picture.

Did you pick the one in the white jacket? Silly you.

Who are the authors kidding? On my first read through, I had the eerie suspicion that Susan Whitall’s original manuscript had been about Jackie Wilson. I envision Whitall listening quietly as Kevin John (one of Willie’s sons) and the rest of the John family ask her to write a book about their patriarch. Later, alone behind the computer in her study, she executes several find-and-replace operations on a lengthy document, expunging the Jackies and Wilsons and inserting Willies and Johns in their places. In the final stage of my vision, Whitall has a moment of inspiration, smiles, and scrolls through the manuscript to locate a minor character of limited talent, one who shrinks in awe at the entrance of the protagonist. Deftly, she obliterates that character’s first name, then surname, replacing them with Jackie and Wilson.

The authors of this book have essentially reversed the positions Jackie Wilson and Willie John hold in terms of talent, achievements, and significance to popular music history. Apparently they think no one will notice because Jackie Wilson’s aging fan base is rapidly dying off and music writers still find Jackie’s story too scary to handle.

Fever coverThe book. Fever is a book about the life and career of William Edward John, known publicly as Little Willie John, who died of a heart attack or pneumonia or both at the age of thirty in Washington State Penitentiary (Walla Walla, Washington), where he was serving a sentence for knifing a man to death. Watch the authors of this book on this local television station interview, and you will see that I do not exaggerate the extent of the outlandish claims they make for John. They say John is the link between Black music of the Forties and Motown. Yes, they actually say that, and they say it flying in the face of these facts:

Jackie Wilson recorded and performed in all the major popular music forms except jazz;
→ Jackie Wilson charted blues, rock, pop, and ballads on the main Billboard Top Twenty, not merely the R and B charts, where he was even more successful;
→ Jackie Wilson placed a total of twenty-four hits in the Top Forty in the same years Willie John recorded;
→ Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy Jr, wrote or co-wrote five of the first hits of Jackie Wilson’s solo career;
→  Berry Gordy Jr started Motown with the royalties he earned from Jackie Wilson’s first hits.

And listen carefully as Susan Whitall relates how the man who prosecuted the case against Willie John told her that John should have gotten off because his lawyer did such a terrible job of defending him. If you ARE listening carefully, you will realize that the man did not say that Willie was innocent. He merely said a sharp lawyer would have gotten him off.

Hit recordings. John recorded for the King label in the Fifties and early Sixties. He had repeated successes on the rhythm and blues charts and more modest successes on the pop charts, including two records that penetrated the Top Twenty, “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” in 1958 and “Sleep” in 1960. Another song associated with Willie John and considered an excellent illustration of his vocal style is my personal favorite among his recordings, “Let Them Talk.”

His signature song, however, is “Fever,” the slow and sultry ballad virtually everyone associates with Peggy Lee. John’s original rendition is better, and if you listen to the recordings one after the other, you must acknowledge how much Lee’s record is a copy, another manifestation of the marketing strategy that gave us Georgia Gibbs singing LaVern Baker’s “Tweedle Dee” and Pat Boone singing Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”

But let’s face it, how mesmerizing is the power of your voice if you are an African American male and, upon hearing the title of your signature song, ninety-nine percent of the music-listening public conjures up the image of a buxom Caucasian woman with platinum blonde hair?

Frankly, I would have called the book Let Them Talk.

Willie John was talented, and unlike most of his contemporaries, he had the benefit of early vocal training. The man could sing. Really sing. However, the book seriously overstates both his achievements and his rightful place in popular music history.

Re-making Willie’s image. Prior to publication of this book, Willie John, an alcoholic known for his quick temper and big mouth, had one of the uglier images in pop music history. Yet, if your only knowledge of John were this book, you might well find yourself amazed that anyone could think such an innocent and playful spirit, a devoted family man, could be accused of a crime just because he was at a party sitting next to a guy who was mysteriously stabbed to death.

One of the more comic aspects of the book is the extent to which the authors conceal or airbrush truth in their quest to aggrandize Willie and repaint his facade. For example, Faye Pridgeon, as her surname is usually spelled (it’s spelled “Pridgon” throughout my ebook copy), was the most famous groupie to haunt the Apollo Theater. For years she boasted that Willie John fathered the first of her illegitimate children, but that is not covered in this book.

Instead, Pridgeon is called upon to place Willie in the select company of the two most famous of her other many lovers, Sam Cooke and Jimi Hendrix, and to assure us that Sam Moore is a liar for saying that Willie introduced him to heroin. And, oh, yes, she speaks to us of how sensitive and reticent Willie was.

Trashing Jackie Wilson. The particular way Jackie Wilson is targeted in the book does more to underscore the weakness of the authors’ claims for Willie John than it does to diminish Jackie Wilson. Personally, I found myself saying, “Not so fast. It’s still too early to assume that no one remembers these times.”

For instance, the authors think they will convince readers that John had a superior voice or was a better singer by saying that Willie “didn’t have to jump up” like Jackie did. When I come to ridiculous lines like that, my concentration breaks, and all empathy I have built up for Willie John evaporates while I focus on the lameness of  this tactic. The writers would have done better to leave Jackie Wilson’s name out of the book than to try to convince anyone who had heard both singers that Wilson was the lesser talent.

The Johns. The John family had and retains many contacts in the music industry. One of the Johns was a backup singer for Stevie Wonder for years. (Wonder provided a foreword for the book.) Willie John’s older sister was an early Raelette (one of a group of female backup singers working with Ray Charles). The Johns have known the right people and the music press for generations. They should be commended for having the smarts to hold off on this project until a goodly number of people passed away and little evidence survived to contradict some of the book’s more outlandish claims.

But I will not forgive them for unnecessarily trashing Jackie Wilson. They are confident their fiction will go unchallenged because music writers will not touch Jackie’s story and Jackie does not have a family capable and willing to defend him.

The strategy may work in the long run. It is a shame that the John family took the low road with this book. Willie John was a very talented man who left some terrific recordings to us. His memory would be better served by a realistic assessment of his place in popular music history and a book that did not insult its readers.

However, within another decade the Johns will probably have the last laugh. No one will be alive who remembers Jackie Wilson, and Wilson’s story will remain untold, yet their book will be available to establish Willie John as the major figure in Black music history “between the Forties and Motown.”

Teddy sees Jackie perform

Pendergrass, Teddy, and Patricia Romanowsky. Truly Blessed. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998.

The story of a thirteen-year-old Teddy Pendergrass sneaking into a concert at Philadelphia’s famed Uptown Theater became a staple in interviews about his autobiography, Truly Blessed.

Teddy decided to become a singer in the time it took him to watch one act, the extraordinary stage performance of one of the most popular recording stars of the day. The performer? You guessed it: Jackie Wilson.

Suddenly, the music came up, the spotlight hit the stage, and out strode the magnificent Jackie Wilson. I’ll never forget it: He was so clean in his tailored suit and tie, revealingly tight pants, and a fresh, perfectly sculpted ‘do. The Uptown erupted in cheers and screams as he grabbed the microphone and launched into his show. Whatever Jackie sang—it could have been his latest hit, “Baby Workout,” or “Night,” or “Lonely Teardrops,” or “Reet Petite”—he gripped the audience in the palm of his hand. He could croon as beautifully as Sam Cooke, shout as loud as James Brown, and move like nobody else. A former Golden Gloves champion, Jackie demonstrated an athletic grace as he executed a series of seemingly effortless splits, spins, drops, and steps so smooth that he glided across that stage as if it were polished glass. There was only one word for Jackie in his prime, and that was “electric.”

Girls and women rushed the stage, screaming and reaching out for him. Security guards manned a barricade that created ten feet of no-man’s-land between the front row of seats and the stage, so that no one got close enough to touch Jackie, no matter how close to the edge he danced. Still, his every glance, every note, every move teased the fans into a wilder frenzy. The female reaction was nothing less than pure hysteria, and Jackie reveled in it.

Suddenly Jackie dropped to the floor and slowly rolled off the stage. Of course, this part of his act was staged, but we didn’t know that, so when he toppled off the stage and landed hard on the theater floor, everyone gasped and stood up, craning to see. Then we all rushed down the aisle, certain that Jackie had been injured.

Lying on his back, he seemed hurt, but I saw him gesture to a guard to let a girl through the barrier. She fell upon him, wrapped her legs around his hips, and started rubbing her body against him. He was clearly enjoying it. From where I stood, I could have sworn they were actually making love as a throng of screaming, reaching women surrounded them. To say I couldn’t believe my eyes barely begins to describe my reaction, an unfamiliar mix of awe, amazement, and envy. On the one hand, I couldn’t believe Jackie was getting away with this: He’s really having sex on the floor of the Uptown! I thought. Man, I’ve gotta find a way to do this! If I had to name a single event that convinced me to become a singer, this was it.

Here is an excerpt from a transcript of a National Public Radio interview promoting the book, Truly Blessed. The interview was conducted by Terry Gross on the program Fresh Air, originally broadcast on October 14, 1998 on WHYY (public radio).*

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: And I saw, got a chance to see Jackie Wilson…

TERRY GROSS: Yeah, you said…

PENDERGRASS: That changed my life…

GROSS: It really changed you.

PENDERGRASS: It changed my life around, so it was…

GROSS: What was it about the Jackie Wilson performance that…?

PENDERGRASS: Just a consummate performance. I mean, just my image of him was just so huge, and he just controlled that stage. His audience was in the palm of his hands, and as I say in the book, you know, the ladies ran down to the front of the stage when they thought he had fell off to hurt himself. He had just rolled off intentionally and rolled off onto the floor, and to see the ladies run through the guardrails and just lay on top of him and appear to make mad, passionate love to him in the middle of the floor at whatever time it was that morning, to me it was just, my jaws dropped. My God…

GROSS: How can I do that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PENDERGRASS: Right. That’s what I want to do.

Jackie Wilson had a way with “getting away with” outrageous stage behavior. Read more in Doug Henderson’s account of a show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and in my post about Jackie’s skill at pushing the limits on The Ed Sullivan Show.

*Interview available at http://www.wbur.org/npr/122575226/in-memoriam-soul-icon-teddy-pendergrass