Category Archives: Sam Cooke

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.)

Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke: 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown-eyed handsome men (Part One)

Jackie Wilson was a “brown-eyed handsome man.” So were two of his good friends, Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin. Owing to the nature of American racism in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the southern states, brown-eyed handsome men in show business were at risk for harassment and bodily harm.

JW in concert with fan

Jackie Wilson in concert singing to an attentive fan

American racism has mutated decade by decade since World War II, manifesting itself differently over time. Most historians date the African American Civil Rights Movement from the mutilation/murder of Emmett Till in 1955 to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. During these most turbulent and dangerous times, Jackie Wilson and his friends Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin reached the peaks of their careers, and Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin met their untimely deaths.

Each of these men was making every possible effort to have his music “cross over” to white audiences, the people in America who had the money to buy the 45 rpm records rated on the Billboard Hot 100. By 1960, teenagers were a major segment of the record-buying public, and teenaged girls were the target market. The conventional wisdom was that boys spent their money maintaining their cars and paying for movies and burgers on dates while girls spent their money on clothes and records.

Simultaneously, racists in the southern states were engaged in often violent efforts to discourage and retaliate against “race mixing” in public accommodations and schools. This resistance to integration in schools, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues was maintained to prevent the ultimate mixing of races, sexual intercourse between a white person and a Black person. Most abhorrent to these racists was the prospect of a Black male in intimate relations with a white female. This was The Great Taboo.

The Great Taboo and the potential for violence. Many of these racists considered rock and roll itself a danger. Asa Carter, head of the North Alabama Citizens Council, led a campaign to induce establishments with jukeboxes to purge recordings by Black artists. The April 18, 1956 issue of Time quotes Carter: “Rock and roll music is the basic, heavy-beat music of Negroes. It appeals to the base in man, brings out animalism and vulgarity.”

Some of Carter’s associates in the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy (one of many different organizations to use the KKK label) were averse even to the mild-mannered Nat “King” Cole singing  love songs before an audience that included white women. They charged the stage and assaulted Cole at a 1956 performance in Birmingham, Alabama. Cole suffered a back injury during the beating and never again performed in southern states.

Can you imagine how enraged such men would be at the thought that a white girl might take the place of the Black girl pictured above at a Jackie Wilson concert?

The rage racist white males felt at the thought of “their” women finding Black men attractive was a risk Jackie Wilson faced on every tour (see Bruised . . . and beaten?). That same rage may have been the root cause of Jesse Belvin’s death, which occurred after a concert Jackie and Jesse performed in Little Rock, Arkansas (see What happened in Arkansas?). The Little Rock concert was the first in that city to be performed to an integrated audience.

Chuck Berry’s song. The phrase brown-eyed handsome man, code for “irresistibly sexy Black man,” is the title of a brilliant song written by Chuck Berry. He recorded it in April 1956, and his record company released it as the flip side of “Too Much Monkey Business” in September of the same year. The lyrics touched on a range of stereotypes about Black men, including their athletic prowess and their likelihood of being arrested for things that were not and should not be crimes; however, the central focus of the song was how much a woman would do or endure to win or protect a brown-eyed handsome man.

Brown-Eyed Handsome Man
(Words and music by Chuck Berry)

Arrested on charges of unemployment
He was sittin’ in the witness stand
The judge’s wife told the district attorney
She said, “Free that brown-eyed man
If you want your job, you’d better free that brown-eyed man”

Flyn’ across the desert in a TWA,
I saw a woman walking ‘cross the sand
She been walkin’ thirty miles en route to Bombay
To meet a brown-eyed handsome man
Her destination was a brown-eyed handsome man

Way back in history three thousand years
In fact, ever since the world began
There’s been a whole lotta good women sheddin’ tears
For a brown eyed-handsome man
A lot of trouble with a brown-eyed handsome man

Dutiful daughter couldn’t make up her mind
Between a doctor and a lawyer man
Her mother told her “Darling, go out and find
Yourself a brown-eyed handsome man
Just like your daddy, he’s a brown-eyed handsome man”

Marlo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
She lost both her arms in a rasselin’ match
To meet a brown-eyed handsome man
She fought an’ won herself a brown-eyed handsome man

Two, three, the count with nobody on
He hit a high fly into the stand
Rounded third, he was headed for home
It was a brown-eyed handsome man
That won the game, it was a brown-eyed handsome man

Coded lyrics. This song, by the way, was later recorded by many artists in addition to Chuck Berry, among them Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash. Chuck Berry’s version is a subject of discussion on The Million Dollar Quartet tapes, where Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis can be heard trying to sing it and failing to get the lyrics straight. These tapes were recorded in November 1956, roughly two months after the record’s release, and the group’s interest in the song is worth noting—especially since it was a B-side that had become a hit only on the rhythm and blues (or “race”) charts.

All these artists understood the coded message of the song. Although it was not the only use of race in a pop song of that era, Berry’s song was an exceptionally daring combination of sexual and racial references. Note the comic reference to the Venus de Milo. All women, even ancient Greek women, fell under the spell of the brown-eyed handsome man. This was a song that encompassed what racists feared most, and it dealt lightly with the topic that was not supposed to be publicly discussed. Furthermore, the record had been released barely one year after the gruesome mutilation/murder of Emmett Till, the event in the national consciousness most associated with The Great Taboo.

Emmett Till. For those of you who do not know this sickening event in American history, here are the basic facts. Emmett Till was a Chicago teenager visiting relatives in the small southern town of Money, Mississippi when, apparently because his companions dared him to do so, he flirtatiously whistled at a twenty-one-year-old white woman who was the proprietor of the store Emmett and his friends were leaving.

The fact that he and the other boys were leaving the store, plus the difference in age between Emmett, who had turned fourteen only the month before, and the woman, who must have seemed an old crone to the youths, would be enough to convince any intelligent person that Emmett was not attempting a serious advance on the woman.

Days later, the woman’s husband and his brother seized Emmett from his uncle’s home and took him to another location. They knocked out his teeth, smashed his nose, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head, weighted down his body, and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till

I was eight when Emmett Till was murdered. My parents were among the first working-class people we knew to invest in a television, which they valued for information as much as entertainment. They tuned in the early evening news every night, and although the news was not a “show” I liked, I sensed it was something important and watched it faithfully with my big sister and parents. I didn’t comprehend the significance of the news stories, but I learned to recognize the faces of famous people.

Emmett Till became one of the most famous people in America. The picture of him shown on broadcasts had been taken the Christmas before his death. He was thirteen in the photo, but he looked younger—baby-faced, innocent, as lovely a child as had ever lived. The story mystified and frightened me.

By the time I went to college in 1965, The Great Taboo was a joke for most people in the northern states, but in the southern states change came about more slowly. Anti-miscegenation laws remained in some states until 1967, and when the laws went away, the attitudes did not always go away with them.

Free that brown-eyed man! When Jackie Wilson and his drummer were arrested in a southern state on what was termed “morals charges” in 1968, the “crime” was that two Black males were in a hotel room with two white females. The youngest person in the room was twenty-four and all parties were present of their own consent. All together, now, let’s sing:

Arrested on charges of unemployment
He was sittin’ in the witness stand . . . 

The nuisance arrest amounted to little in legal terms, but the resultant bad publicity helped propel Jackie into his marriage to Harlean Harris, an event which in turn set up the tragedy of his final years. (See Jackie Wilson Biography.)

To be continued . . .

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.

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.”

Sam Cooke gets a dance lesson

One marvelous bit of fun available on YouTube is this clip of Jackie Wilson and and his good friend Sam Cooke, who is supposed to be performing a lip synchronization of his recording “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha.”

 

There are dozens and dozens of comments on YouTube about the video segment. Most of them are remarks about how wonderful it is that someone preserved this light-hearted moment between two of the greatest singers in history, how handsome they both are, how enormously talented they were, and how tragic that both their careers ended so much too soon.

What’s going on in the video. Some comments, however, indicate serious misunderstanding of what is happening. Some younger viewers think this video has another, “original” track, that it’s a video of a live performance, or that the video was made to deliberately mislead people.

In truth, when the camera light came on, Sam Cooke assumed he was just doing another day’s work, performing a routine task for a Sixties recording artist on tour: stop by the local television station, maybe record a brief interview, and make a lip synchronization video of your recent hit in the setting of the local teen dance party show. Only this time, Sam’s good friend caught him by surprise and provided a lesson in the cha cha cha.

The history of this video is covered in a book. The venue was Memphis, and the local television program was Talent Party. George Klein, who became host of the show in 1964, has written a book entitled Elvis, My Best Man: Radio Days, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nights, and My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley, and one of the chapters is about Klein hosting Talent Party, a gig he landed with a little help from Elvis.

The program had at one point been a typical sort of local version of American Bandstand, but according to Klein, the station decided to stop having teenagers dance on the show due to fear that whites and Blacks would start dancing together on live television.

I am skeptical about some of the facts given in this excerpt, but I will reserve my comments and questions until you have the chance to read it.

One of my favorite Talent Party moments occurred in my first year as host, when, with the help of Wink Martindale, I got Sam Cooke booked to do the show. He was coming through Memphis as part of a co-headlining tour with Jackie Wilson, in which they’d take turns city-by-city as to who opened and who closed that night’s show. I’d met Sam before at a show at Ellis [Auditorium], and we got along well enough that I decided to ask him for a favor: I wondered if he’d invite Jackie Wilson to come along with us. Sam did, and Jackie said yes, though Sam gave me a firm warning: “Jackie loves the ladies, and if you don’t lead him by the hand out of here after the show, you can forget about seeing him again tonight.”

I worked hard to get them both to the studio quickly after the show, and couldn’t wait to shoot a couple songs each with such great talents. But as Sam was doing a practice take of his song “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,” I noticed that Jackie was mouthing along with every word and I got an idea.

“Jackie, you really know Sam’s stuff,” I said.

“Man, we’re like brothers. I know everything he’s ever done.”

“Well, tell me what you think of this. When we start really shooting this one, why don’t you sneak around back, and when Sam’s done with the first verse, you pop through the curtains and take over the song.”

Jackie loved the idea, and while he certainly surprised the heck out of Sam, Sam loved it too, and they were both having a ball as they tried to match each other line for line and dance move for dance move. Footage of the magical moment is still out there on the Internet, and you can’t help but smile when you see the smiles on their faces.

The date of the video. So here is my problem: I have trouble believing that this clip is from 1964. The date “1960” appears at the conclusion of the clip, and that makes sense, as Jackie and Sam were definitely touring the South together that year.

The date “1964” does not make sense. “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” was a hit in 1959, when it reached position #31 on the Billboard Hot Hundred. Between the success of “Cha Cha Cha” and 1964, Sam Cooke placed fifteen hits on that same chart, and ten of those were in the coveted Top Twenty. Why would he be making a lip synch clip for an old song that was a lesser hit? The record business then was about selling what was current. Artists promoted the vinyl available in the record stores.

Klein’s claim. Well, what if the correct date is 1960, and 1964 is just a typographical error in the book, or perhaps a mental slip of the author’s memory? Sorry, but neither of those explanations work. Klein took over the show in 1964, and his book makes the claim that he integrated the program that year, putting on the program’s first Black artist, Fats Domino. I’m not certain of many things in life, but I think both Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke were African Americans. If Klein’s claim to integrating Talent Party was to hold up, he had to explain away a video that was available on the Internet at the time his book was being published.

So the issue becomes this: did Klein make up his part in producing this historic video clip, or is his account accurate? His position would be bolstered if Sam and Jackie toured the South together again in 1964. I do not happen to know that they did that, but maybe someone reading this will know.

There would still be, however, the awkward matter of the date at the end of the video segment.

Is the history of American music “real” history? Why am I making a fuss about this? After all, isn’t it just a bit of “infotainment”?

For me, no. I take the history of music seriously, particularly the history of American popular music of the Fifties and Sixties, when badly exploited Black artists did so much to raise the consciousness of young white teenagers about racism.

Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke were not only two massively talented, hard-working men who created great music: they were also flesh-and-blood human beings living in a land where success was segregated and a second-class experience for them, two singers every bit as great and arguably better than Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. We owe it to what they achieved and to their memories to get their stories straight.

Does anyone reading this know if Sam and Jackie toured together again in 1964? Does anyone reading this have any further information on the making of this wonderful video clip?