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Wilson Pickett Goes to Alabama to Make Some Funky Records
A celebration of Pickett's dynamic encounter with FAME Studios
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
This time around, I have put together an essay on a series of recordings that Wilson Pickett made at Alabama’s FAME Studios in 1966 and 1967. They are some of the most dynamic and exciting soul records ever recorded (if forced to choose, I would pick Pickett's ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ as the finest soul record period) and are an integral part of soul record making in the sixties, in which singers like Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Clarence Carter were backed by musicians who were predominately, if not exclusively, white. And while I don’t delve too much into the social implications of these recordings (in all honesty, I don’t feel even remotely qualified to do so), they do tell us something about the fluidity of American culture.
As part of trying to tell this tale, I use two examples of vernacular taken directly from quotes by Pickett as well as Rick Hall, who was the owner of FAME. I include them to emphasize the unlikeliness, on the surface, of a singer like Pickett, one of the most forceful singers of sixties soul, recording in the heart of Alabama.
I hope you enjoy the essay and, as always, please share your own thoughts as well.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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There’s a story that Paul Simon likes to tell about the first time he went down to Alabama to record at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield in 1972. Fired up by the sound of ‘I’ll Take You There,’ the smash hit by the Staple Singers, Simon wanted to capture some of that magic for There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, his second solo album after the dissolution of Simon & Garfunkel. Upon arriving at the studio, he was taken aback to discover that the musicians assembled weren’t, as he had assumed, Black. They were white.
Years earlier, Wilson Pickett had a somewhat similar experience when he went down to Alabama to record. At the time—late in 1965—the musicians of Muscle Shoals were headquartered at FAME Studios, owned by Rick Hall who greeted Pickett on his arrival by plane. The singer once recalled their first meeting this way: “I get off the plane, Southern Airlines, and there’s this long, tall white man, we called them peckerwoods. He walked up like he’d known me for a hundred years, “Hey, Wilson, c’mon, c’mon, we’re gonna make some funky records, we’re really gonna cut some records, c’mon Wilson, c’mon.” I said wait, I’m nervous, you know what I mean. Now what this white man know about producing a Wilson Pickett?”
Pickett, himself a native of Alabama who had moved to Detroit in 1955 when he was 14, had trod the path travelled by countless other soul singers: moving from the sacred—as a teenager, he was a member of the Violinaires—to the secular—in 1959, he left them to join the Falcons. Four years later, Pickett co-wrote with Robert Bateman and Sonny Sanders ‘If You Need Me’ and recorded a demo of it. The song would be put on the charts by Solomon Burke—whether the song caught Burke’s eye through Pickett himself or through Pickett’s demo that was sent to Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler is unclear (Pickett recorded a version himself on Double L, a small indie label distributed by Liberty). Pickett soon had a hit of his own with ‘It’s Too Late,’ which brought Wexler calling to bring the singer onto Atlantic, one of the leading record labels for soul at the time and one that eschewed the gloss and refinement that was becoming the signature sound of Motown. Another label, Stax, was doing the same, and it was at the label’s studio that Pickett recorded his first signature hit, ‘In the Midnight Hour,’ in the middle of 1965. By the end of the year, Stax owner Jim Stewart decided to end the practice of using the label’s studio for outside productions. Enter Rick Hall and FAME Studios.
Recalling that first meeting with Pickett, Hall remarked that his initial impression of the singer was that “he looked to me like a dangerous man.” Hall summed up Pickett’s unease of the prospect of a southern white man producing him as a question: “what am I [Pickett] doing with this cracker down here in Alabama?”
Down there in Alabama, FAME Studios had been in operation since the late fifties. Co-founded by Hall with Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford, FAME had been Hall’s sole domain since the beginning of the sixties. Early hits included ‘You Better Move On’ by Arthur Alexander, ‘Steal Away’ by Jimmy Hughes, ‘Everybody’ by Tommy Roe and ‘What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am)’ by the Tams, FAME was not yet setting the world on fire but it had secured a reputation as a place where the dividing line of race was not only insignificant, it was irrelevant—an approach even more radical than either Motown or Stax, where a certain level of colourblindness was baked into both label’s DNA.
And yet, as Hall drove Pickett from the airport in Alabama and passed by cottonfields where balls were still being picked, Pickett’s incredulous at the situation he was in seemed existential. “What does this white man know about producing a Wilson Pickett?”
After ‘In the Midnight Hour’ hit big, he had two almost as big follow-ups: ‘634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)’ and ‘Ninety-Nine and Half (Won’t Do)' from his sessions at Stax where he was backed by guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. (three-fourths of Booker T. & the MGs), pianist Joe Hall or Isaac Hayes as well as the Memphis Horns. All remain classics—touchstones, really—of Memphis soul and showcases for Pickett’s voice: a jagged, forceful instrument.
In June 1966, the first single from Pickett’s time at FAME was released. The source of the A side, on the surface, may have seemed as unlikely as Pickett being in the depths of Alabama. ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ had been a hit twice already—modestly first in 1962 when singer Chris Kenner, who wrote it, charted it in the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 and more substantially three years later when Cannibal & the Headhunters had a Top 40 hit with it.
Kenner opened his version with a quote from the gospel standard ‘Children, Go Where I Send Thee’ before rhyming off a whole bunch of dances (1962 was smack dab in the middle of the dance craze) over a steady, staccato beat. Cannibal & the Headhunters deepened the beat on their version and also added a wordless section repeating the syllable “na.” And Pickett?
“1-2-3 (the band responds with an amen)…1-2-3 (the band repeats the amen).” Bassist Albert Lowe, in the decay of the second blast by the full band, plays a frothy bass line before drummer Roger Hawkins kicks into a tight groove with guitarists Chips Moman, Jimmy Johnson and Tommy Cogbill. “Owww….mmmm….all right…mmm.” Pickett begins to sing an approximation of Kenner’s lyrics insistently on the beat, his tone degrees beyond assured, full of deep swagger. Pickett then screams and everyone except Hawkins drops out. “Na-na-na-na-na / na-na-na-na / na-na-na / na-na-na / Na-na-na-na. Need somebody to help me say it one time. (Pickett with chorus) Na-na-na-na-na / na-na-na-na / na-na-na / na-na-na/ Na-na-na-na.” Pickett lets out another guttural scream. Tenor saxophonist Andrew Love of the Memphis Horns takes over for a solo. Hawkins, at one point, hits four eighth notes of the snare before releasing the tension with a slam on the crash cymbal. Pickett screams again, a signal for him and Hawkins to do another funky Pas de deux. “Mmmm…you know I feel all right…ha…feel pretty good, y’all….mmm….ha. Na-na-na-na-na / na-na-na-na / na-na-na / na-na-na / Na-na-na-na. C’mon y’all, let's sing it one more time. (Pickett with chorus) Na-na-na-na-na / na-na-na-na / na-na-na / na-na-na / Na-na-na-na.” Pickett brings the band back for a coda, riffing on “long tall Sally” and “twisting with Lucy” and “doing the Watusi.” Hawkins lets off a series of furious drum rolls to egg Pickett on. The recording fades as Pickett sings over and over again, “oh, help me.”
If ‘In the Midnight Hour’ established Pickett as one of the best soul singers working at the time, ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ served notice he was more than that. It announced—brashly and forcefully—that he could very well be the best soul singer period, whipping up a tensely wound frenzy. It is a deeply funky record. It may well be (at least in the opinion of this writer and critic) the greatest soul record period. You may not agree but ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ illustrated an instant bond between Pickett, the musicians of FAME Studios and Rick Hall. The question of “what does this white man know about producing a Wilson Pickett?” was definitely and affirmatively answered.
Two months after the triumph of ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ came The Exciting Wilson Pickett which was evenly divided between recordings at FAME and earlier at Stax, including the three big hits he waxed there (‘In the Midnight Hour’ was included even though it had already been the title track of Pickett’s first Atlantic LP).
The contrast between the sounds of the two studios is stark. The recordings from Stax have an unhurried quality—’634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)’ lands on the beat at the very last moment and ‘Ninety-Nine And a Half (Won’t Do)’ misses it completely. Pickett’s innate rawness brings tension to the backing, finding a sweet spot that emphasizes soul at its grittiest. The recordings from FAME are amped up. The unity between the musicians and Pickett spark a heated intensity that never boils over—check out the cover of ‘Barefootin’,’ a big hit for Robert Parker in 1966. Here is soul that rocks and rolls with the fervor of a revival meeting. The fellows of Muscle Shoals could dial themselves down—earlier in 1966, they backed Percy Sledge on the slow dance of ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ and took it all the way to number one. Pickett, though, seemed to demand a music that was always hot and fiery.
The Exciting Wilson Pickett’s closer, Bobby Womack’s ‘She’s So Good to Me’ is that and more. Hawkins establishes a groove that is thick and unstoppable. Pickett preaches the virtues of his woman. Female backing singers further a gospel feel. The bridge has the Memphis Horns responding mightily to Pickett who details the party his woman throws every Saturday night where “they’ll be plenty other girls and I’m the only boy.” There’s a lasciviousness to it all—perhaps a hint to the frequently problematic personal life of Pickett—in which one can almost see Pickett arch his eyebrows, filling in the details that he couldn’t possibly add on a record made for mass consumption in 1966.
Pickett's delivery of a line could have the force of biblical verse. When he sings “I bought you a brand-new Mustang / a 1965,” as he did on ‘Mustang Sally,’ his follow-up single to ‘Land of 1000 Dances,’ there is a weight to those words that no other singer could have imparted. Coming right behind Pickett are affirming stabs on the organ by Spooner Oldham. Moman, Cogbill (on bass here) and Hawkins cook up a groove that matches Pickett’s firmness. A quartet of female singers: Cissy Houston, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell and Myrna Smith, soon to touch fame as the Sweet Inspirations, bring a no-nonsense flair to their affirmations of Pickett’s lamentations of our flirtatious Sally. Pickett scored another hit. It remains to this day a definitive slice of southern soul—a perfection of Mack Rice’s original recording.
Beyond its particulars, ‘Mustang Sally’ illustrates how the FAME approach would become an important part of record making in the South in the late sixties. While Moman was playing lead on Pickett’s sides on FAME, he was also running American Sound Studios in Memphis (Cogbill was doing double duty at both studios) and producing records of a slightly more polished aesthetic that what was Hall’s signature at FAME. Two-and-a-half months after ‘Mustang Sally’ was released, Aretha Franklin, newly signed to Atlantic and looking to break free of years of recording at Columbia with little success, came to FAME and, with an indelible amen riff by Oldham on electric piano, cut the breakthrough ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You).’ The B-side, ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,’ which precipitated a row between the studio and Franklin’s then-husband and manager, Ted White, was written by Moman and Dan Penn.
Penn co-wrote three of the songs on The Wicked Pickett, recorded entirely at FAME and led off by ‘Mustang Sally.’ One of them, ‘Up Tight Good Woman’ is interesting in that the tempo is atypically slow and smoldering. Like its predecessor, The Wicked Pickett closes with a Bobby Womack song—in this case, ‘Nothing You Can Do’—which, in the repeat by Pickett of “you don’t lie” brings to mind the repeat of “I can’t hide” from the Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ explores the synergy between Pickett and the Sweet Inspirations even as it is most fully expressed through the second part of this lyric couplet: “baby, don’t you know they call me the most? / and I won’t stop tryin’ ‘till I create a disturbance in your mind.” “A disturbance in your mind”? Yikes.
‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo,’ first recorded by Jessie Hill in 1960, was another of what was becoming Pickett’s specialty: the dynamo cover. He uses the formula of ‘Land of 1000 Dances’: a break featuring himself and Hawkins, a wordless refrain and a tenor saxophone solo break to transform ‘New Orleans,’ a laid-back, big hit for Gary U.S. Bonds, into a barreling son of a gun. An amped-up ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’ has Pickett namedropping Solomon Burke, who first had a hit with it. The jazz inflections of Bobby Hebb’s ‘Sunny’ are transformed into a straight blues. Pickett hugs the beat of Eddie Floyd’s ‘Knock on Wood’ super tight. He lays back on Irma Thomas’ (the Rolling Stones’ as well) ‘Time on My Side.’
Far from filler, Pickett’s interpretations demonstrate a deep internalization of the source material that is reflected back newly fresh. That’s what our best singers do. Pickett was surely one of them.
‘Funky Broadway,’ a hit almost as big as ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ for Pickett, was first laid down by Dyke & the Blasters—group member Arlester Christian wrote it and also sang lead on it. Notable for its pioneering of the term “funky” and its anchoring of the groove on the first beat of the measure (that would soon become the major rhythmic principle of the off shoot of soul to be known as funk), ‘Funky Broadway’ becomes, in Pickett’s hands, more of an exercise in the danceability of southern soul. It raced up the charts at the end of the summer of 1967, unofficially ushering in FAME’s most fruitful period, with recordings with Etta James, Franklin (the musicians went to New York to record with her as opposed to Alabama) and Clarence Carter in addition to Pickett. He also recorded at Moman’s American Sound Studios, the home of the blue-eyed soul Box Tops with a pre-Big Star Alex Chilton and also where established artists like Dusty Springfield, B.J. Thomas, Neil Diamond and Elvis Presley made some of their most memorable records.
Thinking of Pickett specifically, the records he made in the South backed primarily by white musicians tell us something that Albert Murray would soon articulate in The Omni-Americans: that American culture is a glorious mix of just about everything. Pickett’s work in Alabama ultimately shows us that while labels like Black music and white music may be descriptive, they are ultimately reductive and restrictive. If a piece of music reaches you, that’s all that matters. Enjoy it and if so moved, make more of it without an ounce of self-consciousness, and with as much honesty and sincerity as can be mustered. As Wilson Pickett once put it: “do it.”