Category Archives: Opinion

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 (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.

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.

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.”

Northern Soul (Part Five)

Early in this blog, our friend Mark from Burton on Trent (known as Edge78a on this blog and YouTube) provided a list of twenty tracks as a study guide to help me understand the beat of Northern Soul. That playlist appears in Northern Soul (Part Three).

Recently he provided some additional information in a comment on this blog, noting that Americans often find the tracks Northern Soul devotees play from Motown and its subsidiary labels disconcerting, especially since some of the tracks are virtually unknown in the the United States. He offered a list of twenty from this category, which I have hyperlinked to YouTube postings below.

While most of the artists are well known to me, many of the recordings are new, with the big exceptions being Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get A Witness” and “Love Is Like An Itching in My Heart” by The Supremes. I have never been a big fan of Gaye or The Supremes, but ironically, these very cuts are among the few I really like from him and them. (Maybe I have some latent affinity for Northern Soul after all?)

Some of the other artists, such as Marv Johnson (the singer Berry Gordy hoped could steal Jackie Wilson’s audience), the Tops, the Temps, Junior Walker and the All Stars, and Martha and the Vandellas, are ones I’ve liked for years, but only “Shake and Fingerpop” was among my faves on this list. (Do not miss the Shindig! live version.)

I’ve always been one of those unfashionable people who thinks Stevie Wonder is pretentious and admits to loathing most of his repertoire. Anything recorded after “Little” Stevie Wonder got big gives me a headache, so my cutoff point has always been “Fingertips.” Thanks, Edge, for the introduction to “Contract on Love,” which I had never heard until I looked it up for this list. It’s clearly “Little” Stevie Wonder stuff, and it’s wonderful stuff.

I’ve alphabetized Mark’s list by artist.

  1. Campbell, Choker, “Come See About Me
  2. Gaye, Marvin, “Can I Get A Witness
  3. Gladys Knight and the Pips, “If You Ever Get Your Hands on Love
  4. Johnson, Marv, “So Glad You Chose Me
  5. Junior Walker and the All-Stars, “Shake and Fingerpop” (Live on Shindig!)
  6. Martha and the Vandellas, “No One There
  7. Nero, Frances, “Keep On Loving Me
  8. Randolph, Barbara, “I Got A Feeling
  9. Ruffin, Jimmy, “Baby You’ve Got It
  10. Starr, Edwin, “I Want My Baby Back
  11. Taylor, Bobby, “Oh, I’ve Been Bless’d
  12. The Contours, “Just A Little Misunderstanding
  13. The Four Tops, “Ask the Lonely
  14. The Hit Pack, “Never Say No to Your Baby” (begins at 2:45 mark)
  15. The Originals, “Suspicion
  16. The Spinners, “I’ll Always Love You
  17. The Supremes, “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart
  18. The Temptations, “Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)
  19. The Velvelettes, “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You
  20. Wonder, Little Stevie, “Contract on Love

Jackie was “The Man”

Apparently fans already have Jackie’s tie and cufflinks

Dick Jacobs said that one of Jackie Wilson’s singles contained a splice from a different take because Nat Tarnopol accidentally erased part of the master. From the first time I heard “Am I the Man,” I have always thought there was some very minor glitch just as Jackie launches into the bridge the second time. You can hear it on this YouTube posting between the 1:30-1:33 points.

Anyone agree or have a different opinion about which recording Tarnopol screwed up in this particular fashion? Yeah, I know, Tarnopol   screwed up Jackie’s whole career, but here I am just concentrating on the recording he marred while playing with the studio equipment.

Next question: Who is the guitarist in the photo? Any chance it is Billy (Roquel) Davis, aka Tyran Carlo, songwriter and record producer? I’ve only seen a few photos of Billy Davis, and they dated from at least twenty years after he would have worked with Jackie.