Saturday, November 29, 2008

634-5789, Wilson Pickett (1966)

The simplicity of a particular song can provide a canvas for many artists to interpret it their way while not diminishing the original one little bit.

I found this to be true yesterday when I stumbled upon the Wilson Pickett hit 634-5789. For a while there I was virtually mainlining it and several other versions (those of Tina Turner with the divine Robert Cray and Sam and Dave, specifically). Such a life-affirming, finger-popping, backbone-slipping song and greatly needed right now.

A product of the hands-down-great Stax writing partnership of Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd, concocted specifically for Pickett to follow up his smash hit In the Midnight Hour, 634-5789 and its braying horns boils over with soul - the happy kind. The "Wicked" Pickett, as he called his bad self, didn't care for it at first, to put it mildly. Gerry Hirshey relates the story in Nowhere to Run: Pickett threw the lyric sheet in the trash and he and Floyd "went down like scrapping bearcats, flailing at each other until Cropper managed to get them apart." Obviously he got over it.

Always rough and ready, Pickett left the Alabama cotton fields to live with his father in Detroit. For several years he sang in a gospel group called the Violinaires. In time he was lured by his neighbor Willie Schofield to put his raspy gospel stylings to work in a secular group that Eddie Floyd had formed in 1956, the Falcons. The depth of Pickett's remarkable talent just before it was unleashed on the larger world can be experienced in his singing lead as a Falcon on I Found A Love at the Apollo Theater; truly spine-chilling stuff.

After a record label that Floyd was later associated with in Washington, D.C. struck a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, which also distributed for Stax, it was just a matter of time before Floyd and Pickett were reunited in Memphis. Atlantic bought out Pickett's contract with the small label he had been recording for in Detroit after he left the Falcons, and fame and fortune became his.

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