JACKIE WILSON (1934-1984): American tenor, recording artist, and showman
Early life. Jackie Wilson was born Jack Leroy Wilson in Detroit, Michigan, on June 9, 1934. He was named after his father, and his family and friends called him “Sonny.” Sonny Wilson had no siblings for roughly the first decade of his life and forever remained the center of the world for his mother, Eliza Mae. Ultimately, they would share the same burial plot.
Wilson’s parents separated when he was nine or ten years old. His father, who could not hold a job due to alcoholism, began living on the streets with other “winos.” Sonny’s mother married again, this time to a man who worked regularly at a Ford plant. Their union produced Sonny’s stepsister, Joyce. Although Sonny apparently got on well with his stepfather, he remained close to his father.
Wilson acquired little formal education, effectively leaving school after the eighth grade. He began drinking alcohol as a child and remained chronically under its influence until the final three years of his active life. He was a juvenile delinquent who was incarcerated twice, the first time for chronic truancy and the second for other transgressions of the law. During this second sentence, he learned the rudiments of boxing. He belonged to a street gang called the Shakers, although some say that his status was more honorary than active: as his singing increased his local renown, he relied on the gang to provide security so that he could move freely around the city at night.
Sonny Wilson’s reputation as a singer developed early. As a teenager, he formed a vocal group (The Ever Ready Gospel Singers) that sang in churches, and he performed on street corners with friends. He participated in talent contests held in Detroit theaters, often competing against others who would become professional singers. He also performed in bars years before he was of legal age to enter them.
Wilson used fake identification to perform in local clubs and to marry against his mother’s wishes. In February 1951, the sixteen-year-old Sonny Wilson married his childhood sweetheart, Freda Hood. She was pregnant with their first child, a daughter who would be born the following month.
At some point while still a teenager, Wilson boxed as a welterweight, probably in club matches. His Brunswick biography would later state he was a Golden Gloves champion in that classification. This was a fabrication. Whatever fights Wilson undertook, he lost most of them and quickly gave up any thoughts of boxing as a career. There were, however, two lasting benefits of his boxing experience: he was self-confident and quick with his fists in everyday encounters, and the leg strength and footwork he developed became the foundation for his agile movements on the stage.
Sonny Wilson did record two songs as a solo artist, “Danny Boy” (the first of three studio recordings Wilson made of this song) and “Rainy Day Blues.” Neither song had any commercial success.
Billy Ward and His Dominoes. In the autumn of 1952, Sonny Wilson joined one of the nation’s top vocal groups, Billy Ward and His Dominoes, as a valet and unofficial understudy to Clyde McPhatter, who was then the group’s immensely popular lead singer. At the end of the tour, Wilson went to New York City to stay for a few months at Ward’s Greenwich Village apartment until a new set of engagements commenced. Throughout this period and for at least two years altogether, Ward, a musical genius and Julliard educated vocal coach, trained Wilson’s voice. Wilson did not “read music” or play an instrument, and he apparently had no formal musical training other than what Ward provided. Ward also schooled the young singer in both stage presence and offstage conduct and convinced Sonny to begin using the name “Jackie.” Why Ward pressed him for this change is a mystery. Only Ward’s own name ever appeared in any billing. There was no “featuring Jackie Wilson” or any other singer, although recent reissues of the group’s recordings may lead some to believe there was.
Ward was said to have given Wilson a photograph inscribed, “To a rough stone I am polishing into a diamond.” The apprenticeship paid off: aside from Wilson himself, no one played a bigger role than Billy Ward in developing Jackie Wilson’s vocal skills and stagecraft.
After taking over McPhatter’s position in The Dominoes in the spring of 1953, Wilson stayed with the group for almost another four years, during which time Ward tried to broaden the group’s appeal to more lucrative (white) audiences. Ward achieved this by pulling The Dominoes off the Chitlin’ Circuit and establishing them as a Las Vegas lounge act. Unfortunately, this meant the group was less available to Black audiences and therefore reduced their success on the rhythm and blues charts.
But the group was a success in Las Vegas, and after significant maneuvering, Ward succeeded in removing the group from King/Federal to the more prestigious Decca label. The last recording released with Jackie Wilson singing lead for The Dominoes was on Decca and became the group’s first crossover hit, “St. Therese of the Roses,” which made it into the pop Top Twenty and stayed on the mainstream charts for fifteen weeks. Ironically, the LP containing this hit was adorned with a photo that did not include Wilson, but instead featured his replacement, Eugene Mumford.
Elvis Presley watches. It was while Billy Ward and His Dominoes were playing Las Vegas in autumn 1956 that a young Elvis Presley first saw Jackie Wilson perform. At this point Elvis did not know Wilson’s name. When audio tapes dubbed “The Million Dollar Quartet Sessions” were released on CD in the United States in 1990, they contained a lengthy track in which Presley explains to Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash that he went four nights in a row to see a “slender colored guy” from “Ward’s Dominoes” sing “Don’t Be Cruel.” Presley enthusiastically describes Wilson’s performance, including details on footwork and diction, and declares that Wilson “sang hell outta that song,” singing it “better than that record of mine.”
Less than two months later, Presley would alter his own performance of “Don’t Be Cruel” on The Ed Sullivan Show to reflect Wilson’s Las Vegas performance. Wilson and Presley did not meet for many years, but they had already formed a bond of mutual admiration. Once famous, Presley rarely went to clubs, but he made exceptions to this habit to watch Jackie Wilson perform.
What Wilson learned and practiced onstage and in the recording studio with The Dominoes, as well as the discipline of regular work in a vocal group, complemented Ward’s training and positioned Jackie for solo stardom in his mid-twenties.
Going solo. Wilson left Billy Ward’s organization very early in 1957, returning to Detroit to begin a solo career. For some months he sang in Detroit clubs before Al Green, who managed both the Flame Show Bar and several entertainers (including Johnny Ray and LaVern Baker), agreed to take Jackie as a client. When Al Green died suddenly, just as Jackie was about to sign a contract with Decca, a young man named Nat Tarnopol insinuated himself into the arrangements and took over as Wilson’s manager. It appears that Wilson initially liked Tarnopol and trusted him to handle his contracts and finances for a number of years, long after it should have been apparent that Tarnopol was acting only in his own, and not Wilson’s, interests.
The explanation for why Wilson ended up on the Brunswick label, which appears to have been set up specifically for him, has always been problematic. (Although Decca owned the Brunswick trademark at the time they signed Wilson, no one had been recorded on that label for decades.) The usual account provided is that because Wilson was a pop/rock act, Decca shunted him to a subsidiary for Black pop/rock artists, Brunswick, and that had Wilson been white, Decca would likely have placed him on their Coral subsidiary with Buddy Holly.
All of this is nonsense. Had Wilson remained with The Dominoes, the group responsible for one of the first rock-and-roll records (“Sixty Minute Man”), he would have been recording on the main Decca label as part of a Black pop/rock act. Furthermore, Brunswick did not have any artists at that time, much less a roster of Black artists, and Wilson would remain the only major recording artist Brunswick had until LaVern Baker joined the label for a few years late in her career. Whatever the reason, Tarnopol would end up running and owning Brunswick as well as running and owning Jackie Wilson.
Happily, Decca did put Wilson, as they had with Buddy Holly, in the care of Dick Jacobs, a veteran and top quality arranger and producer. Nat Tarnopol frequently gave himself credit for creative work in writing and producing Wilson’s material, but there is no evidence that he knew anything about music or made any positive contributions to recordings. In interviews years later, Jacobs revealed that Tarnopol’s presence in the recording studio had a negative impact on the product: Nat insisted on tympani rolls at inappropriate points of arrangements and once, while playing with the recording equipment, erased a segment of a final take. Jacobs refused to disclose which song had to be patched up with a snippet from another take, leaving Wilson’s fans to debate the issue.
Gordy-Davis hits. Jackie’s Detroit friends, Berry Gordy Jr and Billy Davis, penned the “A-sides” of the first recordings Wilson made for Brunswick. Davis, a musician and songwriter who also became a successful record producer, used the names Tyran Carlo and Roquel Davis for these compositions. Davis would be Wilson’s close friend for the remainder of the singer’s life, sometimes touring with him as a guitarist. Gordy soon combined his royalties from Wilson’s hits with a loan from his parents to establish Motown Records.
The first single produced, “Reet Petite,” made the higher numbers of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1957. The second single, the ballad “To Be Loved,” achieved Top Forty status early in 1958. Late that same year “Lonely Teardrops,” which Gordy had intended as a blues ballad, was released with an upbeat “chalypso” (cha cha cha and calypso) rhythm. This established Wilson as a star and became his signature tune. Gordy and Davis supplied two more hit songs, “That’s Why (I Love You So)” and “I’ll Be Satisfied,” as well as several more songs that appeared on Jackie Wilson LPs, before Tarnopol—without consulting Wilson—ended the working relationship. Throughout his career, Wilson relied heavily on the Gordy-Davis compositions for performance material.
Other songwriters appear. Soon Al Kasha, Sid Wyche, and Alonzo Tucker (another long-time friend from Detroit and a bit of a legend in his own right) began to provide new songs that Wilson recorded along with pop standards. Some of his hits included lyrics fitted to adaptations of classical music. “Alone at Last” was derived from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in Bb, and famous arias sung by operatic tenors were adapted with romantic lyrics in English: “Night” and “My Empty Arms” are taken from Saint Saen’s Samson and Delilah and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, respectively. When Jackie first performed at New York’s famous Copacabana night club, his show was built around a monologue describing how others warned Wilson that he needed to identify what would now be called a “niche market.” Throughout the show, which was recorded and released as an LP, Wilson protests that he loves to sing it all—ballads, blues, pop, rock, standards—and demonstrates that he can.
It soon became known that Jackie Wilson had an unprecedented mastery of multiple genres of popular music. When Jackie finally appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1960, he performed three numbers on one program, something Sullivan permitted for only a select set of entertainers. Jackie sang “To Be Loved,” “Lonely Teardrops,” and “Alone At Last” to demonstrate his wide-ranging abilities, and the rarely demonstrative Sullivan gushed his praise, saying that Wilson would be making future appearances on Sullivan’s stage even if it meant the host had “to drag him back.”
Physical appearance. Jackie Wilson had large dark eyes, prominent cheekbones, and a sensual mouth. He had a lean, athletic body, and a warm ready smile. These elements, combined with his flawless grooming, tasteful wardrobe, and flirtatious demeanor, projected a dazzling persona on the street or on the stage.
As his records continued to chart, Wilson appeared in concert at theaters across the country, earning the nickname “Mr. Excitement” for his dynamic performances. He did not utilize extras, unusual stage props, or outlandish costuming. A Jackie Wilson performance was Jackie Wilson, not a production number. At the beginning of performances, Wilson appeared onstage looking much as he appeared in any other public place, wearing close-fitting, beautifully tailored suits (he favored an upscale mohair-silk fabric blend sometimes called “natural sharkskin”), silk shirts, and tasteful neckties. His suit jackets became progressively shorter and were shaped below the waist to focus attention on his tight trousers. Legend has it that he eschewed underwear of any kind during performances. His face was always clean shaven, and his gleaming processed hair was sculpted into a perfect pompadour.
In the mid-Sixties, as the British Invasion bands popularized casual and scruffy looks and Black American performers began progressing toward the loud, glittery, and shiny stage wear they would employ in the Seventies, side men convinced the reluctant Wilson to gradually abandon his signature apparel and ultimately his processed pompadour. Surviving video of appearances on Shindig!, a weekly television showcase for rock that featured Wilson on several shows throughout 1964 and 1965, illustrate the the beginnings of the gradual wardrobe change.
Showmanship. Wilson kept in constant motion as he sang, employing stage mannerisms that included half splits and spins, and he sometimes leaped from one level of the stage to another. He often dropped to his knees while singing, propelling himself to his feet again in a motion that was a smooth reversal of the drop, a motion executed solely through the strength of his lower torso. He frequently hitched up the waistband of his trousers, à la James Cagney, an action that focused attention on his crotch. He handled a corded microphone with élan: he could toss it in the air and catch it on the move, and he could execute spins without becoming entangled in it. Wilson was even able to shed his jacket and keep the mike the optimal distance from his mouth while both dancing and singing. He gracefully glided across the stage despite cables, cords, and panties that females in the audience tossed to him.
At some concerts in the early days there were “kiss lines,” a fairly orderly queue of women from the audience waiting for Jackie to stretch out on the edge of the stage floor and touch their lips with his. Chrissie Hynde, later a rock star in her own right, was second in line at a Cleveland concert when she was a teenager, making certain she got “a big juicy one” when her turn came.
On numerous occasions, female fans rushed the stage to attempt to disrobe Wilson, usually succeeding to at least some degree. All accounts indicate that he enjoyed this mischief. While these playful assaults were spontaneous, Wilson also employed premeditated bits of drama, such as a “sleeping beauty” ploy in which a fan’s kiss brought him back to life and a deliberate “fall” off the edge of the stage that brought concerned women rushing to his side. As a thirteen-year-old out after curfew, Teddy Pendergrass witnessed this second stunt at a late show at Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater. Pendergrass says that Wilson’s performance that night made him decide to become a singer.
Whether in concert or clubs or on television, Wilson performed his songs as well as singing them to perfection. He smiled, he winked, he flirted, he danced, he fell to his knees, he rose again, and he covered the stage with his footwork. Only rarely did he “flat foot” a number. The energy he expended made it virtually impossible for rivals to copy him, although, of course, individual mannerisms were picked up by others. Michael Jackson openly acknowledged Wilson’s influence, and it is easy to identify spins, shuffles, and sways that the younger entertainer incorporated into his own performances.
Jackie Wilson’s voice. As a singer, Jackie Wilson astounded audiences and critics alike. Aside from hoarseness from overwork, he executed his vocals flawlessly. Wilson was known for always projecting the notes he intended, for sustained notes, for dazzling melismas, for generating an array of scat and “gimmick” sounds (such as exaggerated rolled r’s, sometimes delivered in long strings of changing notes), and for suddenly hitting a note an octave above where he had been singing, only to descend quickly to the original musical line, all without a hint of strain. This last characteristic, which he referred to as “hitting the bird,” was his best known vocal signature.
Wilson’s voice had the power of an operatic tenor. It always sounded distinctly masculine, despite his ability to hit some remarkably high notes or sing in keys usually employed by female singers. In short, Jackie Wilson possessed a beautiful tenor voice of impressive range and power, but his remarkable sound was created more than anything by his fully developed technique and outstanding discipline. In his autobiography, To Be Loved, Berry Gordy Jr states that he never heard Jackie Wilson sing a bad note. Gordy also states that Wilson was the standard by which he measured every act he considered signing for Motown.
Gunshot wounds. Although still married to Freda, who remained in Detroit with their children, Wilson lived in New York City from the time he became a solo recording star until the early Seventies. In the wee hours following Valentine’s Day in 1961, Jackie Wilson and model Harlean Harris were returning to his apartment after a night out. Waiting for them was Juanita Jones, a young woman long known to them both, who had been recently discharged from the army. Jones was carrying a loaded handgun. Her intent is still unknown, but in the altercation that ensued, Harris disappeared and Wilson was shot twice in the abdomen, apparently in the process of trying to disarm Jones. Incredible as it seems today, police gave the press almost immediate access to Jones, who insisted that she loved Wilson and had not meant to harm him.
While Wilson underwent life-saving surgery, which included removal of his damaged left kidney and one of the bullets, his management team devised a story to fit the statements Jones had provided to the press. Jones, the explanation went, was a “deranged fan” who planned to commit suicide in front of her idol. Jackie, the story continued, heroically prevented her from injuring herself and suffered for his selfless actions. Jones was never prosecuted, everyone stuck to the story, and Wilson carried the second bullet near his spine for the rest of his life.
Health. Although Wilson would worry for years that the bullet would move and endanger him, he made a remarkably quick recovery from his very serious injuries, appearing again on the The Ed Sullivan Show only a little more than three months after the shooting. A year later, a fit-looking Wilson took the same stage to deliver perhaps his most memorable television performance, an energetic rendition of “Lonely Teardrops” featuring boxing footwork and jabs, spins, and an iconic knee drop with bounce recovery.
Wilson was an alcoholic who began drinking in childhood and did not control the condition until his late thirties; he was also a chain smoker for most of his life. Owing to the gunshot wounds, he underwent frequent physical checkups.
Wilson used street drugs common to entertainers of his era. His closest associates maintained, however, that alcohol was Wilson’s true demon and that his use of other drugs was recreational except during his last year in New York. During this period, Wilson worked only infrequently. He became deeply depressed, owing to the disloyalty of his second wife (see below) and the death of his eldest son, Jack Jr, a homicide victim in Detroit. This period of depression and heavy drug use was the only point in his adult life when Wilson appeared to put on weight, so it seems likely that his physically demanding performance style provided substantial aerobic conditioning.
Constant touring. Like many recording artists of his era, Wilson saw little or no money from his record royalties. Contracts were designed to ensure that even artists who had many hits, as Wilson did, always ended up owing their record companies and management. Artists’ royalties were low (songwriting royalties were usually higher than those of the artists), and the cost of making recordings were usually charged against the artist’s account.
Touring promoted the recordings, which made money for the recording company, the management team, and the underworld figures who controlled the industry, but the costs of touring were also routinely charged to the artist as well. Typically, when artists needed money for housing, living expenses, child support, street and performance clothing, and food, they were either permitted to keep some of the earnings from touring or were given funds that were then charged against their accounts with those holding their contracts.
In Wilson’s case, companions from his touring days observed that Wilson sent most of the money earned on tour directly to Tarnopol. Wilson would have had little choice in the matter, as a watchdog employed by Tarnopol (August Sims) or an underworld figure (Johnny Roberts) went with Wilson wherever he performed. Despite this, Wilson’s management claimed that he owed them large sums at the time of his collapse.
Exploitation and intimidation. Wilson had an eighth-grade education. It also appears that during the early years of their business relationship, he fully trusted Nat Tarnopol to look after his finances and see that his taxes were paid. It is known, however, that Wilson did unsuccessfully attempt to extricate himself from bad contracts with Tarnopol and Brunswick and did not wish to re-sign with them as early as 1964.
At that time, Wilson could observe his close friend, Sam Cooke, setting out on a path totally unprecedented for Black recording artists: Cooke was writing the songs he recorded and publishing them himself, as well as setting up his own record label. As a result, Cooke was financially well off while his peers remained indentured to their managers and recording companies.
Late in 1964, Cooke was shot to death at close range. While the official story of his death has never changed, it has never seemed credible. Many believe that Cooke was murdered as a warning to other artists. This theory holds that the circumstances surrounding the shooting and the accusation that Cooke attempted rape were designed to discredit his memory and discourage further sales of his records, as well as to further intimidate artists who would fear not only death, but also leaving their families to live with a similar public legacy.
Jackie Wilson was subjected to physical intimidation “to keep him in line,” but it has never been clear who precisely ordered these actions. On one occasion, he was bound and gagged and left in a rat-infested cellar. In 1964, thugs held him upside down outside an upper-story window until he agreed to sign a contract. Jackie’s contemporaries knew these stories well; the stories had value in keeping other performers under control. The film script for The Five Heartbeats employed the window episode, and although the characters in the movie were modeled on a vocal group (The Dells), it was well known that the incident was not drawn from the group’s personal experiences, but rather from the life of Jackie Wilson.
In legal matters, Wilson was represented by Tarnopol’s attorney, even when this constituted a clear conflict of interests. Tarnopol’s attorney, for example, handled both sides of the Wilson/Harris divorce (see below).
In the 1970s, the IRS doggedly investigated the recording industry and its underworld connections, and Brunswick, of which Tarnopol was President, was one of the companies under surveillance. At the time of his collapse, Wilson owed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) very large sums in unpaid taxes, by some reports as much as a quarter million dollars, yet the IRS had not pressed criminal charges against him. Many believe that the IRS did not prosecute Wilson because he had agreed to testify against Tarnopol and Brunswick. By the time Tarnopol and his co-defendants faced criminal charges in court, Jackie Wilson was no longer able to speak.
Collapse and coma. Jackie Wilson collapsed onstage at the Cherry Hill (New Jersey) Latin Casino on September 29, 1975 while performing his signature song, “Lonely Teardrops,” as the top-billed act on Dick Clark’s Good Ole Rock and Roll Revue. Wilson fell over suddenly and, some say, struck his head on a piece of stage equipment. Cornell Gunter of The Coasters was onstage contributing to Jackie’s backup vocals. Gunter performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Wilson and reported that Wilson was conscious and communicating with eye blinks at the point paramedics took over.
Reports vary as to whether Wilson experienced a stroke or a heart attack and as to whether or not there was an additional head injury. He never spoke again, although some of his friends reported that he communicated with them by others means, both in the emergency room and later in custodial medical institutions. Wilson’s mother traveled from Detroit to visit him and died before returning home, all within weeks of her son’s hospitalization.
Soon after his collapse, Wilson became comatose, and many of his fans believed that he remained in that coma until his death in 1984. This, however, was not true. The coma apparently lasted only about four months. Photos of Jackie Wilson in medical facilities appeared occasionally, mainly in magazines catering to Black readers. Film footage exists that shows Wilson helpless, but not in a coma. Most of Wilson’s fans discovered these facts long after his death, when ABC’s 20/20 and other television programs broadcast the photos and videos.
Marriages and children. Wilson married three times. His teenaged marriage to Freda Hood produced two daughters and two sons (Jacqueline Denise, Sandra Kay, Jack Leroy Jr, and Anthony Duane). Freda secured an uncontested divorce in 1965 that provided her with everything she requested: the family home, a cash settlement for herself, and generous child support. Unfortunately, she was an alcoholic, and unlike Wilson, she was not a high-functioning alcoholic. At times she was unable to care for the children, who would then have to reside with Wilson’s mother.
Wilson’s second marriage was to Harlean Harris (Wilson called her “Harris”). The wedding took place in 1967 at the urging of Nat Tarnopol, who argued that Wilson’s sex life had generated a negative public image that needed repair. Prior to that marriage (in 1964), Harlean Harris gave birth to a son, John Dominick, called “Petey.” Wilson behaved as though Petey were his son. The the Wilson-Harris relationship ended in a legal separation little more than a year after the marriage when Wilson returned from a road trip to discover evidence that Tarnopol and Harris were having an affair.
After the discovery, Wilson and Harris had an acrimonious relationship. Harris used the terms of the legal separation to have Wilson arrested for non-payment of support each time he returned to New York from touring, so Wilson was eventually forced to record in Chicago. These conditions also meant that he could no longer see Petey.
Wilson’s final wife was Lynn Crochet, with whom he lived in the 1970s until he became incapacitated. With Crochet’s help, Wilson at last freed himself of drugs and alcohol.
Jackie and Lynn had a son, Thor Lathan Kenneth, born in 1972, and a daughter, Li-Nie Shawn, who was born in 1975, less than two months before Wilson’s collapse. Jackie, Lynn, and the children officially resided in Georgia at that point, although Lynn usually traveled with Wilson until Li-Nie’s birth, and son Thor was part of the singer’s touring party as early as two weeks of age.
Wilson also had two daughters (Brenda and Sabrina) born of unions with women he did not wed. They were among Wilson’s older offspring.
Care undermined. After Wilson collapsed and went into a coma, a New Jersey court declared his last marriage invalid on the grounds that his legal separation from Harris had never been made final as a divorce. This court action had tragic results: not only did it take Wilson’s care out of the hands of his chosen mate, but it also permitted Harris to present herself publicly as a suffering spouse and grieving widow while taking over legal and financial matters involved in Wilson’s care and (later) estate.
Wilson remained in a coma for at least four months. Although his wife, Lynn, was left virtually destitute with two small children, at least a few celebrities and other personal friends helped her financially in the early days after Wilson was incapacitated, and she sold the property she and Wilson had planned to use for retirement income. (Wilson loved dogs, and the two planned to establish kennels.) Ultimately she was able to get a court to legally recognize her son, called Thor, and daughter, Li-Nie Shawn, as Wilson’s children.
While Lynn remained in Georgia with her children, Joyce McRae, a longtime personal friend of Wilson’s, took the lead in advocating for the singer. She moved from Chicago to New Jersey to provide bedside assistance, fight to secure rehabilitative therapy, and establish herself and Wilson’s now eldest son, Tony, as the singer’s guardians. She ran out of money and lost the legal battles. Harris had a court ban McRae from even visiting Wilson.
From this point until his death, Jackie Wilson languished in custodial institutions, rarely visited by family or friends. There were numerous allegations of physical neglect and even physical abuse occurring during the more than eight years Wilson was institutionalized. Various therapies were begun and abandoned once he came out of his coma, and Wilson was never again able to walk, speak, or write.
McRae, an original board member of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation who became Joyce Moore after she married singer Sam Moore (Sam and Dave), remained an advocate for Wilson’s interests even after his death. At the time of Wilson’s posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she (again unsuccessfully) battled Harris to secure admission for two of Wilson’s daughters to attend the ceremony. (See Ruth Brown’s memoir.)
Death. On January 21, 1984, Wilson died penniless and deeply in debt.
Harris orchestrated funeral services at Russell Street Baptist Church in Detroit, a church in which Sonny Wilson sometimes sang in his youth. After televised services featuring an array of celebrities were over, undertakers placed Jackie Wilson’s body in an unmarked grave.
Years later, Wilson and his mother would be re-buried together after contributors supplied funds for a monument that reads in part, “No More Lonely Teardrops.”
Artifacts. Wilson made between three hundred and four hundred recordings for Brunswick. Most have been released, including a number of outtakes never intended for public airing. Little video footage of Wilson is available, although some of The Ed Sullivan Show appearances, all of his Shindig! appearances, and footage shot for at least two never-produced television shows are now available through YouTube. There are relatively few still photographs of Wilson in the public domain. Virtually all Wilson’s personal property disappeared soon after his collapse.
Professional reputation. His peers in the entertainment world often described Wilson as a “singer’s singer” or a “performer’s performer.” Many noted that he generously shared his knowledge about performing, and others recall Wilson helping them in times of need. His recorded voice stands as clear evidence of his rightful place among the greatest vocalists in popular music history.
Life story. Conspiracy theories about Wilson’s career and coma abound. Both the deaths of Al Green and Jackie’s eldest son, as well as Wilson’s own incapacitation, seem suspicious to many, particularly owing to the timing of each event; however, plausible explanations can account for Green and Wilson. Years of smoking alone could have initiated the heart attack or stroke that caused Wilson’s collapse. Jack Jr’s death can also be reasonably taken as the senseless urban crime it was reported to be. Yet the timing of these and other events is very troubling, and as years passed, it became apparent that deliberate attempts were being made to obscure the facts about Wilson’s life and to suppress attempts to investigate what happened to him.
Many note that Jackie Wilson’s life is an obvious choice for a feature film, but even documentaries have not materialized, in part because producers have had little success in securing the rights to use Wilson’s music, rights always held by Harlean Harris or the Tarnopols. According to Tony Douglas (see below) Harris at one point planned a film, but Berry Gordy Jr quietly bought the rights to the project and immediately shelved it.
America’s music writers have stayed away from Jackie Wilson’s story. Some have acknowledged being steered away from such a project. Wilson’s only biographer, the Australian Tony Douglas, a one-time journalist who ran a bar in Thailand, published two books on him in the 1990s. The first book, entitled Jackie Wilson: The Man, the Music, the Mob, encountered legal challenges and was withdrawn from the market. The second was entitled Lonely Teardrops: The Jackie Wilson Story.
Both books concentrated on salacious accounts of Wilson’s personal behavior provided by selected sources, and both depicted Wilson as selfish, self-absorbed, violent, and irresponsible. Two things must be noted in defense of Douglas: many individuals refused to speak with him, and his lack of familiarity with American culture during Wilson’s lifetime often led him to misinterpret or misconstrue information provided to him.
Little has been written about Wilson as a singing and performing artist, although in 1998 an American fan, Doug Saint Carter, published a book called The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson.