Happy Birthday to “Mr. Excitement”, Jackie Wilson

Jackie Wilson’s voice is otherworldly. He had a four-octave range, and what he could do with his voice is staggering. It’s a physical feat akin to an Olympic-level event. You just stop dead in your tracks and think, “…. A HUMAN is making that sound? It can’t be possible!” But it was. Jackie Wilson started out in talent contests in Detroit, where he had a tendency to blow away the competition. This was all local stuff. Big fish small pond, although even in the 40s it was hard to stand out in Detroit, the place was so packed with talent. Eventually, though, Jackie Wilson auditioned for and was accepted into the successful R&B group Billy Ward and His Dominoes, a staple in Las Vegas entertainment. (Elvis, famously, saw them perform in Las Vegas in 1956 and was so blown away by Jackie Wilson, whose name he didn’t know, that he went on and on … and ON about it, during the rap-riff session in 1956 now known as the “Million Dollar Quartet”. Jackie Wilson performed Elvis’ recent hit “Don’t Be Cruel” and you can hear Elvis’ awe: he didn’t know the song had THAT in it. And remember, 1956 was the year Elvis went national/global/supernatural. “Don’t Be Cruel” was huge for him. But he had performed it without exploring the real depths of it. Jackie Wilson showed him what he had missed. Seriously: listen to him regale Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins with the story. There’s no jealousy in his tone. Just sheer personal and professional respect.)

Billy Ward and his Dominoes

Jackie Wilson and Elvis eventually became friends. Jackie always had really nice things to say about Elvis – and obviously the reverse was true.

You can get a great sense of Jackie Wilson’s style in “Rags to Riches”, where his lead voice launches out of the group in an undeniable way. He will not be denied. He doesn’t obliterate the group, but there is a sense that he justifies its existence. He was basically plucked from obscurity into this position.

This was 1953.

Wilson was always getting into trouble. Like, big trouble. He was stabbed by a prostitute, for example. His life was out of control. The women, the kids, the assaults, the chaos of it all is overwhelming to read about. Dude, chill. The Dominoes were good for Wilson at first. It gave a structure to his life and a vehicle for his insane talent. He stayed with the Dominoes for 4 or 5 years, but finally left, tired of the endless “residency” in Vegas. Jackie Wilson was – so clearly – meant to be a solo artist. A headliner.

From his earliest days in local Detroit talent shows, he was already doing the songs which soon be well-known, regular staples of his performances for years to come. Like his version of “Danny Boy”. I don’t even know what to SAY about his “Danny Boy”.


You have to go to YouTube to watch this clip of him performing “Danny Boy” live. They won’t let me embed it. Don’t let that stop you. You have got to see this.

Here’s the recorded version but you have to see it live, because it just drives home the point that Wilson didn’t need the studio to shine. He was, if anything, better live.

So Jackie Wilson returns to Detroit right around the time a guy named Berry Gordy was starting to be active in the local scene. And we all know where THAT went. The two connected.

One of Wilson’s first songs recorded as a solo artist was written by Berry Gordy: “Reet Petite”. Wilson knew what his voice was capable of. He’d choose a key to sing whatever son and people – musicians, producers – thought it was too high. If you start there, there’s no way you can hit the high notes later in the song. Wilson knew he could hit them. It’s WHY he started things high up the scale. If you have four octaves in your pocket, you want to show it off.

An early hit for him was “Lonely Teardrops”, which would become a staple of his act and went to #1 on the R&B charts. Here he is performing it on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1962:

Jackie Wilson’s heyday was brief. (Then again, his life was brief. So.) The British Invasion was a game-changer for singers like Wilson. The whole landscape changed overnight, leaving a lot of singers – who didn’t write their own stuff – behind, no matter how talented they were. Motown also exploded, but Gordy cultivated other singers for superstardom. I’m not sure why. Wilson had fallings-out with pretty much everybody. Everybody except his audience, who went batshit NUTS every time they saw him live. People fainted. People tore their hair out. People stormed the stage. He was one of the most exciting performers ever.

He continued performing everywhere, and had a couple of hits – he’s probably most known for “Higher and Higher”, a title that also works as an analogy for his voice.

Then, in 1975, he collapsed onstage while singing “Lonely Teardrops”, and went into a coma. His life stretched on for another eight years, but he never really “woke up”. He was in an institution. It’s tragic. There’s a rumor Elvis donated money anonymously to pay for Wilson’s medical bills, which sounds like something Elvis would do. There were others. Benefit concerts were held. A lot of Motown artists donated money. Was Jackie Wilson conscious in there? It’s horrible to think about.

When he died in 1984, there wasn’t even enough money for a headstone. Eventually, friends raised the money to have him buried with his mother in a mausoleum in a Detroit ceremony, and the plaque reads “No More Lonely Teardrops”. It’s really a terrible story. What a massive talent.

Outside his hits, there’s a lot to discover and his voice is umistakable, one of those eerie miracles of humanity, where someone is given a gift – a voice like that is a gift, although Wilson cultivated it, stretched it, played with it. He knew he had a gift. He WORKED it. And he wasn’t just a voice. He was a full body performer (part of Elvis’ monologue in the Million Dollar Quartet details how Wilson moved while singing “Don’t Be Cruel”).

I found this wild clip where Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Linda Gail Lewis and Jackie Wilson come together to sing “This Land Is Your Land”. God bless the person who recorded this – who saved it – and God bless the person who uploaded it onto YouTube. I love all of them but when Jackie Wilson comes on – and then grabs the microphone to do his verse – and you hear that voice – it makes me want to cry.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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