Category Archives: Jackie’s voice

“To Be Loved”

“To Be Loved” was Jackie Wilson’s first hit, and it was also the song Jackie performed more than any other in his career. Backed with “Come Back to Me,” was released in February 1957 and eventually reached #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #7 on Billboard’s R&B chart. When Jackie introduced the song in one of his last performances in September 1975, he got the year wrong, saying “the year around nineteen hundred and fifty-eight—now don’t knock it, some of us know that was a pretty damned good year.”

Jackie then went on on to say that the song was written by “the great, incomparable Mr. Berry Gordy Jr, a young man who just so happens to own a small recording company . . . Motown.”

Berry Gordy the songwriter. When  Jackie Wilson left Billy Ward and His Dominoes to begin a solo career, he went back to Detroit to organize his next moves. At the time, Gordy was embarking on a career as a songwriter. In his autobiography, Gordy dubs 1957-1959 “The Songwriting Years” and begins the chapter with a section entitled “Jackie Wilson.” A hint at how much Gordy cared about this particular song lies in the title of the book, “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.” Of course, Motown was years away at the time “To Be Loved” was written.

Gordy TBL coverGordy made it part of Motown lore that he founded the company with an eight-hundred-dollar loan from his family. That was no doubt in part true. What is more accurate is that he started Motown with a loan and the royalties from writing five hit songs for Jackie Wilson, and those royalties were far more than eight hundred dollars. A lot of us would like to know what Gordy has made in royalties from Jackie’s recordings. He most likely made far more from them than Jackie Wilson ever did. Whatever that case may be, the section on Jackie Wilson in Gordy’s autobiography contains a detailed story (and “story” it may be) of the future head of Motown attempting to “sell” his song to Jackie.

Jackie was already a success, having been the lead tenor for Billy Ward and His Dominoes and also having charted a minor solo hit with “Reet Petite,” a song credited to Berry and his newly acquired songwriting partner, Billy Davis (see below), who was also at that time the lover of one of Berry’s sisters, Gwen. “Reet Petite” was most likely written by Davis, but Berry talks about “To Be Loved” as though no one else had any input in the song. This may be factual. On the other hand, the description that Gordy provides of introducing Jackie to the song sounds fictional, but who knows? Only Berry Gordy, and he has not talked about Jackie Wilson in many years.

Gordy says he had trouble getting in touch with Jackie (unlikely), but ultimately Jackie rang Berry’s doorbell, and Berry describes what followed that day :

I was still in the clouds about “Reet Petite” when I opened my front door a couple days later and there he was with his pretty-boy face and pretty-boy hair, a doo with an upswept pompadour in front, and a tight-fitting tailored suit. He walked in giving me a hug, but I could see he wanted to get right down to business.

“‘Reet Petite'” is a smash everywhere,” I shouted.

“I know, ” he said, “people love it. What cha got?”

Since he was already a star the song’s success wasn’t as big a deal to him as it was to me. Jackie really liked me but he just wanted to hear the new song and get out. He always made up his mind fast. Too fast for me. He had hastily rejected some of our other songs almost before we got started, so I had to nail him quickly.

I jumped into it, playing my usual simple chords on the piano, but singing with great soul and conviction. Even in my squeaky voice, it was easy to hear the deep passion I had for this song, singing for all I was worth, hoping he wouldn’t stop me before the first hook. He didn’t. I made it through the whole first verse. Great. But just as I was getting ready to start the second he said, “Okay. Okay, hold it! That’s enough.”

I hated it when he did that. One of my greatest performances—thwarted. Never opening my eyes, I stopped, frustrated.

“Gimme that paper,” he said, grabbing the lyric sheet off the piano. “I got it, I got it!” Circling his pointed finger at me, “Play, play” he said.

My emotions jumped from the square root of one to a hundred to the tenth power. Jackie had fallen in love with the song. And I fell in love with his dynamic golden voice all over again the minute he sang the first few words: “Someone to care, someone to share, lonely hours and moments of despair, to be loved, to be loved, oh what a feeling to be loved.”

I had never heard him do a ballad before. His voice was strong and deep and sincere. It was as if he had written it for himself. He brought up the entire range of emotions I had felt the night I wrote it. My tears came again and everything.

Jackie Wilson was the epitome of natural greatness. Unfortunately for some he set the standard I would be looking for in artists forever. I heard him sing many, many times and never a bad note. A bad song maybe, but never a bad note. Watching this man perform “To Be Loved” was always a thrill.

Never heard Jackie sing a ballad before? Ridiculous. “St. Therese of the Roses” had been a Top Twenty hit less than a year earlier. Well, it is a fun story, anyway.

Billy “Roquel” Davis (Tyran Carlo). Around 1956 or 1957, Berry Gordy formed a songwriting partnership with Billy Davis, who was sometimes called “Roquel” Davis, and who used the pen name “Tyran Carlo” for a number of compositions. Why all the names? “Billy Davis” was so common a name that there was even another Billy Davis among his set of companions in his hometown of Detroit.

The songwriting Billy Davis remained one of Jackie Wilson’s truest and most caring friends throughout the rest of Jackie’s life. As many readers know, there was a time when Jackie appeared to give up on life: he had experienced physical torture at the hands of Mob thugs, Harlean had betrayed him (with Nat Tarnopol, Jackie believed), and Jackie’s oldest son, Jack Jr (called “Sonny,” as Jackie himself had once been called) had been shot dead at age sixteen. Jackie believed this killing, attributed publicly to an accident occurring on a neighbor’s porch, was the work of Mafia hirelings.

These events occurred as federal agents were deep into their investigations of Mafia influence in the recording industry. Jackie was in the grasp of the Internal Revenue Service on one hand and the clutches of the Mob on the other. The IRS had the power to imprison Jackie for tax evasion. It could also overlook his tax problems if Jackie would testify against recording industry figures as they were brought to trial for various crimes. The recording industry figures under investigation were those with direct ties to the Mafia, which was the government’s real target.

Billy "Roquel" Davis (aka Tyran Carlo)

Billy “Roquel” Davis (aka Tyran Carlo)

According to what Davis told Jackie’s biographer, Tony Douglas, Davis helped Jackie move after Jackie had it out with Harlean and Nat. Billy says Jackie took only a few possessions when he left his swank apartment for the last time, abandoning everything else and settling into a room in a residential hotel to drink and drug himself to death. In time, Billy coaxed Jackie outside for walks and chats with fans. Eventually, Billy was able to convince Jackie to perform again, and even went out on the road as Jackie’s guitarist for a while. (After getting back to work again, Jackie would fall in love with Lynn Crochet and again know the joys of family life. With With Lynn’s help, he got off drugs and alcohol.)

Billy Davis is a true friend. Billy Davis did not go on the road with Jackie as someone who needed a job. He went as a friend who cared about Jackie and respected his talent. In the 1970s, Billy was writing and producing some of his most famous work as senior vice president and music director for a top New York advertising agency, McCann Erickson. If you are old enough, you will remember jingles Davis wrote and/or produced for his top clients, Miller Beer (“If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the beer”) and Coca-Cola (“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” and others).

You can read an interesting compilation of information on Billy Davis and his many achievements here, but do not be fooled by the remark about “not knowing we [Berry and Billy] were supposed to be paid” for writing hits for Jackie Wilson. Davis was established as a songwriter even before Gordy got in the business, and both understood the business, and both received their royalties. Davis himself acknowledged this to Tony Douglas.

So who actually wrote “To Be Loved”? Well, one can read many claims and explanations. Michael Bublé has recorded a cover version of “To Be Loved” for his current album of the same title, and you can see the song listed as a Jackie Wilson composition on the track listings posted at Wikipedia, the international headquarters of conventional wisdom, shoddy amateur research, outright lies, and other popular forms of misinformation that the average college freshman (as in “C student”) thinks is a “solid source.”  Jackie did not write the song and never claimed he did. He credited Berry Gordy.

As a matter of fact, there is no evidence that Nat Tarnopol ever even tried to misrepresent the songwriting credits on “To Be Loved” or any Gordy/Davis compositions. Berry and Billy were young, but they were already experienced professionals at the time, and Nat either knew he could not scam them or was afraid to try. This is most likely why Nat was so eager to end the working relationship with them, which he did in an argument with Berry alone: neither Billy nor Jackie got a voice in the matter.

Altogether, the Gordy/Davis team supplied eleven songs Jackie Wilson recorded. Five of these were among Jackie’s first hits (“Reet Petite,” “To Be Loved,” “That’s Why,” “Lonely Teardrops,” and “I’ll Be Satisfied”), and the others appeared on early Jackie Wilson EPs and LPs. At various points in time, both Berry and Billy acknowledged that they had received the royalties due to them from these songs.

All the copies of the 45 of “To Be Loved” that I have seen list “Berry Gordy Jr – Tyran Carlo” as the songwriters. Because they had formed a partnership at the time, any song written by either one of them would have been credited to both. However, Billy Davis’s story on how “To Be Loved” was  written differed from Berry Gordy’s. Davis said that Berry had begun the song and brought it over to the apartment where Billy and Berry’s sister, Gwen, were living, so all three worked on it. And in his autobiography, Berry complained that the songwriting royalties from record sales were being split three ways for the songs they wrote for Jackie. And here’s a screen capture of a “performance rights” card for the song which lists all three as the songwriters:

TBL performance card

Yes, the date on this card is interesting, isn’t it? My understanding of this could be wrong, so I welcome correction or clarification on the following: performance rights for the song would be paid to Tarnopol’s company, Pearl Music, and to the songwriters in accordance with the terms of their contract with Tarnopol at Pearl Music. However, performance rights are not the same as royalty payments on records sold.

Performance rights covered a range of things for which the artist was not remunerated, such as sheet music sales (or Eddie Murphy singing the song in a film decades later). Here the “recorded by” line simply identifies Jackie’s recording in case the music publisher licensed that particular version for something like use in a jukebox or inclusion in some crummy “teen flick.” In this era at least, the artist received royalties on record sales (theoretically) but did not receive any of the money collected for performance rights.

I am guessing that Berry Gordy has made plenty of money from this song over the last half century or so, and I assume he will make more on the Michael Bublé recording. I wonder how much “To Be Loved” will finally net him . . . and whether, in the end, it will be his most lucrative songwriting endeavor of all time?

Performance rights and the Jackie Wilson story. It’s important to note that “performance rights” are what prevent anyone making a feature film or even a documentary about Jackie Wilson. No one would attempt to produce a film of any kind about a singer unless they were able to secure the rights to use that artist’s music. Obviously, such rights are generally easy to acquire because the owner of the rights increases his or her profits without having to make a new investment or take on any risk.

So why is it that no one can secure performance rights for a film on Jackie Wilson? There is only one possible explanation: those who hold the performance rights for Jackie Wilson’s recorded music have a serious reason to suppress the facts of Jackie Wilson’s life and career.

Many people who knew Jackie Wilson assert that there was one project, a made-for-televison movie, that was granted rights to use Jackie’s music. This rumor, reported by Tony Douglas and spread among Jackie’s friends and fans, was that the highly fictional script Harlean Harris appear heroic and trashed not only Jackie Wilson but also Sam Cooke. Give that concept just a little thought, and it becomes obvious why certain power players would appreciate having both Wilson and Cooke discredited.

But what happened to that project? The project was scrapped, and the rumor has always been that the person who stopped it was Berry Gordy. Gordy has been repeatedly characterized as a man who loves money above all else, but few people really do love money ABOVE ALL ELSE, and if you take as a whole what Gordy says in his autobiography about Jackie Wilson, you have to conclude that Berry not only recognized the enormity of his friend’s talent, but also deeply empathized with Jackie, the man.

Jackie and Detroit crowd

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

The early hits would be crucial to any film about Jackie, and it is easy enough to imagine that any irregularities in the business transactions regarding those early hits (and there could have been many) would give Gordy the leverage to stop the “Harlean project.” It would also make sense that if Gordy did this, he would do this quietly, given the parties involved.

Here are the simple and perfect lyrics to this stunning and timeless ballad. Click on the title to reach Jackie’s original recording.

To Be Loved
B. Gordy/T. Carlo/G. Gordy

Someone to care
Someone to share
Lonely days, hours of despair
To be loved, to be loved
Oh, what a feeling
To be loved

Someone to kiss
Someone to miss
When you’re away
To hear from each day
To be loved, to be loved
Oh, what a feeling
To be loved

Some wish to be a king or a queen
Some wish for fortune and fame
But to be truly, truly loved
Is more than all of these things

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.

Billy Ward and His Dominoes

At nineteen years of age, Sonny Wilson becomes Jackie Wilson, lead tenor for the nationally known Billy Ward and His Dominoes

Some people erroneously believe that Jackie Wilson had training as an opera singer. The  famous (or infamous) audiotape of Norm N. Nite interviewing Jackie Wilson may be the source of this misconception.

Norm N. Nite: “People have described your singing voice and style almost to be operatic.
Did you ever have any formal training in this area?”

Jackie Wilson: “Well, I can give credit to Mr. Billy Ward for that. He was a vocal coach at Carnegie Hall. I studied under him for about—well, for two years straight.”

Those unacquainted with Jackie Wilson or Billy Ward might assume the singer visited Ward once a week for voice lessons aimed at preparing him for a Met audition. In reality, Ward was Jackie Wilson’s employer.

The Nite interview contains some deliberately deceptive statements and several outright lies (see Quotes and Common Sense), so I have no idea whether or not this particular exchange was intentionally misleading. Whatever the case may be, Jackie Wilson did not even read music and certainly was not trained for opera. However, it is likely true that Ward actively coached Wilson in vocal technique for at least two years.

Jackie the valet. At age eighteen, Jackie Wilson went on tour with Billy Ward and His Dominoes, a well established and nationally popular act, as a valet for the performers. The Dominoes were a vocal quartet, and Ward composed some of their music, arranged it all, played keyboards, and occasionally sang with the group.

At the time, Jackie was under consideration for a spot in the quartet and quickly became the unofficial understudy for Clyde McPhatter, who was preparing to leave to form The Drifters. During this tour, Ward began coaching Wilson in vocal technique, almost certainly working on his breathing, phrasing, and diction. It is probably at this point that Jackie began to regularly sing scales, which he would later do routinely in preparation for performances.

After this first tour with the group, Jackie stayed in Billy Ward’s Greenwich Village apartment for several months until a new tour commenced, and the vocal coaching most likely continued throughout that time and the next tour. Legend has it that at some point during this period of training, Ward gave Wilson a photograph inscribed “To a rough stone I am polishing into a diamond.” Ward was not overstating his role. Aside from the singer himself, no one else did as much as Billy Ward to develop Jackie Wilson as a performer.

A few weeks after his nineteenth birthday, Jackie Wilson, who had by then officially replaced McPhatter on tour, was recording as the tenor lead of Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Between late 1952 and spring 1956, Billy Ward’s instruction and rehearsals would combine with the performance and recording experience as the leading voice in the quartet to ready Jackie Wilson for his solo career.

Marv Goldberg. Billy Ward and His Dominoes hold a prominent place in the history of rhythm and blues. Music historian Marv Goldberg has done the best research on the group, and I strongly recommend visiting his Web pages at for details about The Dominoes and other groups of their era. Goldberg interviewed a number of former Dominoes and some of their associates, learning the following from Joe Lamont’s son about recording in the primitive King/Federal studios:

Yusuf Lamont told me that his father said it was difficult to be in a studio with Jackie Wilson because he was basically a solo singer with a powerful voice that needed to be baffled. “Your ears would hurt after being around him in a studio.” Whereas microphones were usually placed fairly close to the singers, in Jackie’s case, it was located several feet away.

I refer everyone to Marv Goldberg for substantial and fascinating details about both Ward himself and the group, but I want to introduce a few facts here to help illuminate how life as a Domino shaped Jackie Wilson’s solo career.

Background on Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Billy Ward was a gifted musician, arranger, songwriter, and vocal coach. As a teenager, he won a national competition for a work he composed for the piano. When he returned to civilian life after service in the army, he studied both graphic art and music, eventually leaving Julliard to find employment in New York City as a vocal coach. While applying himself to paid positions in this capacity, he also took on helping young Black vocal groups around town. It was among these young people that he found Clyde McPhatter and the other early members of the group he formed and would later call The Dominoes.

Clyde McPhatter

Although most of the leads for The Dominoes were arranged for high tenor Clyde McPhatter, one of the group’s most famous recordings, “Sixty Minute Man,” featured bass singer Bill Brown boasting of his sexual prowess. Composed by Billy Ward and Rose Marks, an agent who ran the business end of the act, “Sixty Minute Man” is considered one of the first rock and roll records. It made the pop charts, although many radio stations refused to play it, and it became a number one hit on the Rhythm and Blues chart in 1951. For the next two years, The Dominoes would appear regularly on that chart, reaching number one again with “Have Mercy Baby,” one of McPhatter’s leads, but the group did not chart another record on the Hot 100. Throughout this period, Ward had the quartet touring on the Chitlin Circuit.

The first two singles released with Jackie Wilson singing lead were also hits on the Rhythm and Blues charts. “You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down” rose to number six and “Rags to Riches” went to number two. At this point Ward decided to gamble on establishing a less taxing and more prosperous future. He secured a contract for his group to play extended dates in Las Vegas, taking the act off the Chitlin Circuit in hopes of “crossover” success on the pop charts. “Crossover” success and the main Billboard chart meant catering to audiences that were primarily white, the demographic group that could afford upscale nightclubs and big collections of vinyl recordings.

With Jackie Wilson at center stage, the group became a hit in Las Vegas, but the dramatic reduction in the number of appearances before Black audiences meant that Billy Ward and His Dominoes disappeared from the Rhythm and Blues charts. However, just as Wilson prepared to leave the group for a solo career, his magnificent voice led them to a genuine Billboard Hot 100 hit, “St. Therese of the Roses.” In fact, the record rose all the way to the Top Twenty, peaking at number thirteen.

Lasting effects on Our Hero. Jackie Wilson has been quoted as saying that Billy Ward “was not an easy man to work for.” That opinion was shared by many of the singers Ward employed.

Above all, Billy Ward was The Boss. He paid his singers salaries. They did not share in the gate or record royalties. In fact, discussion of such topics among the singers was forbidden. Ward had exacting standards for personal appearance and conduct onstage and offstage, and he deducted not only expenses but also “fines” from his employees’ paychecks. Among other things, the vocalists could be fined for failing to shine their shoes, for consuming alcohol, or even for leaving the hotel without permission.

Once he figured out the financial arrangements, Clyde McPhatter complained bitterly about them. He was quoted as saying that he could hear his own voice coming out of a jukebox, but he could not afford to buy a coke so that he could sit down and enjoy the experience. Of course, McPhatter, who eventually drank himself to death, probably would not have wanted to restrict himself to Coca-Cola anyway.

But McPhatter wasn’t the only alcoholic tenor Ward groomed and paid. The restriction on drinking must have been difficult for Jackie Wilson as well, for even if Ward could not keep his singers from drinking altogether, the rules and the fines probably did curb their behavior significantly.

Although it was not easy to work for Billy Ward, Jackie Wilson did so for more than four years, and his later reference to Ward in the Nite interview shows that he clearly understood the value of this show business apprenticeship. Anyone doubting what Ward did for Wilson’s singing should listen to the horrid diction on the DeeGee label Sonny Wilson recording “Rainy Day Blues,” then check out the precision of songs Jackie recorded as a Domino, such as “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” or “Three Coins in the Fountain.”

Clockwise: Billy Ward, James Van Loan, Milton Merle, Cliff Givens, Jackie Wilson

More than voice lessons. However, Billy Ward’s influence on Jackie Wilson extended beyond teaching him vocal technique and requiring that Jackie live a disciplined existence. Ward’s determination to establish the Dominoes on the mainstream pop music charts and the steps he took to achieve this goal had to leave a deep impression on the young singer.

Black entertainers at this time faced an unpleasant truth: they could stay with their Black audience alone and remain poor, or they could seek fame and fortune with a broader audience, one that would be predominantly white.

Billy Ward made the choice to pursue that broader audience even though it meant forfeiting the comfort of living and working within the familiar and supportive network the Black community provided.

In the early 1950s, no single location manifested the isolation of Black artists striving for crossover success more starkly than Las Vegas, where audiences were overwhelmingly white and Black performers were not permitted to walk through the front doors of casinos in which they appeared. Today in America it is hard to imagine such a blunt daily affront to human dignity.

The vocal coaching, the discipline of preparing for performances, the years of laboring to please demanding Las Vegas audiences, the opportunity to learn how a successful show business act functioned day in and day out, and adherence to the goal of striving for success in unfamiliar territory were all highly valuable lessons for the very young man with the very extraordinary voice.

Jackie Wilson’s diction

Sixty Minute Man” featured a bass lead and was a major hit for Billy Ward and His Dominoes. After some time, Ward wrote a sequel to the song called “Can’t Do Sixty No More.” This song was recorded after Jackie Wilson joined the quartet, but again, it featured a bass lead. Eventually, Ward wrote a tune that more or less formed a trilogy with these songs but featured Our Hero on the lead vocal, “That’s How You Know You’re Growing Old.”

One of my longstanding, nagging questions related to a Jackie Wilson vocal arose from this recording. Jackie developed beautiful diction under Ward’s tutelage, but this particular song, recorded well into Jackie’s tenure with the quartet, contained words I could not decipher. Thanks to my friend Dennis West, I now have the lyrics straight. And thanks to my friend Extinct 327, it is now available again on YouTube.

“That’s How You Know You’re Growing Old”
(Words and music by Billy Ward)

Look out, then, that’s how you know you’re growing old!

She wants to tease you
She wants to squeeze you
She whispers, “Love me, Baby”
You’re getting sleepy
You’re feeling creaky
You only whisper, “Uh, uh, maybe”
That’s how you know
That’s how you know you’re growing old

Lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover
You’re at the end of your road
Like old Jack Horner in the corner
Lay down your heavy load, load
That’s how you know
That’s how you know you’re growing old.

She loves the moon rise
Up in the June skies
It makes her feel so grooo-vy
You get no kicks, man
You’re in a fix, man
You want to see a movie
That’s how you know
That’s how you know you’re growing old

Scat singing

Although it’s associated almost exclusively with jazz, singers outside that genre have employed scat singing. [Check the conclusion of this post for a more complete explanation of the term.] Jackie Wilson used the technique effectively many times, although always in relatively short passages. You hear it on a live performance audiotape late in his career, as well as on the videotape of one of his last performances (below), on “That’s Why (I Love You So).” The “scat bits” appear at the 1:50 and 2:00 marks.

There are certain features of some Jackie Wilson recordings that I particularly like. For example, I love male backup singers with Jackie’s voice, and although there are relatively few songs that use them, many of those that do are among my favorites. These include all the versions I’ve heard of “She’s Alright.”

But I am also particularly fond of Jackie’s scat singing, and one of my favorite examples of it comes at the opening and closing of “When Will Our Day Come,” which I always think of as “Jackie’s civil rights song.” You can listen to this marvelous recording here.

You can also listen to Jackie interjecting a scat line into his masterful “It’s So Fine” (here). Frankly, I have no idea where to draw the proper limits of scat singing, but I include the much-loved opening of “So Much” (here), which my sister thought was some sort of “weird instrument” playing.

One more for now: “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (here) is to many people’s surprise the flip side of “Reet Petite” and dates from Jackie’s first recording session with Dick Jacobs, who was delighted with Jackie’s scatting during the bridge. Jackie vocalizes so high that his biographer noted, “it sounds like a woman yodeling.”

Sammy and Ella’s tutorial. Scat singing (or scatting, a term which may be out of vogue now) is singing nonsense syllables or sounds or words that do not make literal sense. It allows the singer to play at being an instrumentalist and improvise “away from the lyrics.” Scat singing belongs properly to the world of jazz singing, where Ella Fitzgerald was the unchallenged queen of practitioners. Look at this old Ed Sullivan Show clip for a tutorial on the art form given by Miss Fitzgerald and the enormously talented Mr. Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy starts the scat singing at roughly the 1:23 mark

Keith Channer in St. Petersburg. The video below is an additional and very fine illustration of scat singing from our fellow Jackie Wilson aficionado, singer/pianist Keith Channer. Subscribe to Keith’s YouTube channel for a variety of musical treats in not only jazz, but also rock and other popular music genres. Don’t miss his wonderful tributes to Jackie Wilson (I gave him a hard time in my comment there, but he does a great job on “Baby Workout”) and Little Richard (“Good Golly Miss Molly”). Keith, who has recently returned from a tour in China, is featured below on an earlier tour, accompanied by Russian musicians as he performs “Take the A-Train.”

“Danny Boy” (updated post)

As many Jackie Wilson fans know, the song “Danny Boy” played a major role in Jackie’s repertoire. He began singing it in talent competitions as a teenager, and he continued to sing the song throughout much of his career.

Jackie Wilson made three studio recordings of “Danny Boy.” The first studio version was cut in Detroit for the Dee Gee label when a teenaged Jackie was still called “Sonny Wilson.”  It is bluesy and amateurish, but a fun listen for a true fan.

The second studio cut appears on the Brunswick LP He’s So Fine. [Thanks to YouTube poster extinct327 for posting this for us.]

GoodGuitarSolos, our notewatching friend from Finland who offered insight about Jackie’s vocal range, refers to it as “the original,” so I assume he has not heard the Dee Gee version. [He is probably better off for not having heard it. Wink.] The timings used in his commentary are for the now-removed video, so they may vary slightly from timings you observe on your own recording. Here’s what GoodGuitarSolos has to say:

This is the original version of the song, his approach here is a bit different. His lower singing is lighter softer here, as opposed to the Elvis-like lower singing of the classic version. He gets a light B4 around 1:24, and quickly trills up to D5 too! Once again, he gets an easy falsetto A5 around 1:42 (quite similar to the later performance’s falsetto).

2:27 had a very good B4, once again very relaxed and easy!

2:36 was a falsetto B5 again, this time a bit more ‘piercing’. As impressive as always!

The acapella improvisation here (near the end) had no C5, but only great B4s and some wonderful melismas. The song ends with a well-controlled falsetto G5.

The third studio version, which appears on the Brunswick LP Soul Time, is the one most people think of when they refer to JW’s studio recording. Here are GoodGuitarSolos annotations for the best known studio version of the song, the one on the Soul Time LP. As he wrote his notes, he was watching the lip sync (playback) performance from the old Chivaree television show. (The YouTube video below has a bit of a bonus.)

The classic version of “Danny Boy” (this live performance here, which was also used as the classic studio track) has a very soft and impressive falsetto A5 soon after 2 minutes or so. Paul Stanley from KISS showcased a pretty similar soft falsetto on “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”.

He also gets a very clean and good falsetto B5 (below soprano high C) after 3:12 or so.

3:50 has a very comfortable, operatic B4, which trills up to a brief C5 (tenor high C) and back. Fabulous technique shown here!

There are also at least two live recordings of Jackie singing “Danny Boy,” one from the Jackie Wilson at the Copa LP and one from a Shindig! broadcast. The last version of “Danny Boy” that GoodGuitarSolos analyzed was the live Shindig! performance.

And finally, the live Shindig!-performance… Is that Wilson singing at the beginning? [It’s Darlene Love–ed.’s note] Sounds like him, a very wonderful sound, but he isn’t shown singing it to the microphone… Gets an easy B5 there nonetheless, Wilson or not.

1:14 was a nice dark D3, sounds much lower than it actually is. Wilson’s lower register was very dark and strong, he was able to make amazing baritone impressions. His voice in general was pretty dark for a low tenor, which gave him that ability to sing with the dark baritone-ish timbre very convincingly.

Falsetto B5 is there, just like in the other versions.

Once again, thanks go to GoodGuitarSolos for the notewatching commentary. Let’s hope we can convince him to contribute more information about Jackie Wilson’s singing as the blog progresses. I know he admires Jackie Wilson.

Jackie’s vocal range

Frequently questions about Jackie Wilson involve his vocal range, either in an absolute or comparative sense: What was Jackie’s vocal range? Who had the greater range, Jackie or Michael? Who had the highest voice, Jackie or fill-in-the-blank? What is the highest note Jackie could hit?

Maybe some of you reading this can shed light on these questions. I don’t know enough about the topic to answer them, but I did exchange some interesting messages with a YouTube poster called GoodGuitarSolos, who is a singer and a practitioner of “notewatching.” I want to share some of this exchange because I believe that thinking of Jackie’s voice in terms of vocal range takes listeners down the wrong path to understanding what makes Jackie such a great singer.

About a month ago, GoodGuitarSolos posted an unusual YouTube video entitled High Notes in ‘Rock Music’: G4-B4 (Version 2.0), which featured high notes from several dozen singers. At the 3:54 mark is #33, described as “An extremely impressive operatic B♭4 by Jackie Wilson, the song is called “My Empty Arms” (A low tenor).”

For those of us who are clueless about musical notation (I head that list), the range for the solo tenor voice is C3 through C5, which is one octave below middle C up to one octave above middle C. (Middle C is C4. The tenor “high C” is C5.)

There are a million jokes about tenor high C among opera aficionados, of course, and for operatic tenors, the tenor high C is sometimes called the “money note” because it is what opera patrons pay to hear from the tenor. Many famous tenor arias were not written with the high Cs that we hear today: those high Cs were either “optional” (in “Che gelida manina,” for example) or have become customary over time because–well, because tenor high C is the “money note.”

Over time, “high C” has become a term that means “surprisingly high note” for many of us. Why? Because so few people can genuinely identify the notes they hear.

But GoodGuitarSolos CAN identify notes he hears. He says it is difficult at first, but practice and working with others interested in notewatching has made it fairly easy for him now. When I asked him to identify Jackie Wilson’s range, he responded:

I’ve heard like G2-Eb5 so far… The G2 was kind of spoken, so his lowest sung note I’ve heard was a very strong Bb2. Jackie had an incredible technique, so he was definitely able to go higher (and maybe lower).

Now, perhaps this information helps some interested in Jackie’s vocal range, but I could not stop myself from pushing my own point with my new friend. Here’s what I wrote to him:

Personally, I believe that what makes Jackie Wilson such a phenomenon is not so much the range of his voice, but his full command of every note he can sing, coupled with an astonishing bag of technical abilities. Underlying it all is his understanding of the ideas and emotions of what he sings and his ability to determine what technique best conveys the emotions. Pulling everything together are Jackie’s control and power.

GoodGuitarSolos basically agreed, responding, “I believe Wilson had an almost perfect pop/rock technique, which gave his performances so much soul and technical prowess.”

Never a shy person, I pressed my new friend to identify the high notes we hear when Jackie sings one of our favorites, and he graciously did. I’ve put his response into a separate post on “Danny Boy.”

Thanks, GoodGuitarSolos. I hope I have not distorted any of your very interesting comments.