Jackie Wilson

The Very Best Of Jackie Wilson (Rhino í94) Rating: A-
Simply put, Jackie Wilson was one of the best singers and performers ever. His vocal range was astounding; from high-pitched whooping to operatic crooning, he could do it all, and his athletic stage moves influenced everybody from Elvis Presley to James Brown to Michael Jackson. Unfortunately, despite his immense overall talent and influence, Jackie wasnít a songwriter and his taste was often questionable. As such, his majestic voice was too often saddled with unsuitable material and unsympathetic producers who went overboard with syrupy strings, intrusive horns, and overly prominent backing singers. He did cut some classic sides, though, starting with "Reet Petite" in 1956, his first hit after leaving Billy Ward & the Dominoes, where he had replaced another legendary yet overlooked singer, Clyde McPhatter. Co-written by Berry Gordy, later founder of Motown Records, that song and other classic early sides such as "Lonely Teardrops" and "Thatís Why (I Love You So)," both also co-written by Berry and Roquel "Billy" Davis, have a catchy hummability and an infectious energy. Elsewhere, Wilson's dramatic vocals on "To Be Loved" canít be denied, more than salvaging what would otherwise be an unbearably sappy love song, and truth be told there are several songs here that stress his pop crooner side to far more a degree than I'd like. You see, Wilson identified himself with show tunes and the likes of Bing Crosby as much as any of the legendary soul singers who later idolized him, and his breaking away from the Gordy-Davis songwriting tandem after a money dispute, as well as alleged mob connections, also hurt his career from an artistic standpoint. However, for all his poor decisions and questionable connections, there were still intermittent chart successes and some more stellar singles, such as "Dogginí Around," a classy, evocative piano ballad, and more infectious up tempo fare such as "Am I The Man" and "Baby Workout." Inconsistency remained his calling card, however, at least on record, as did bad breaks, such as when he was shot by a female fan in 1961. Fortunately, after a fallow mid-'60s period, Wilson joined forces with Chicago soul producer Carl Davis, whose energetic horn-heavy arrangements, along with help from a moonlighting Funk Brothers (the legendary if largely anonymous Motown house band), produced the excellent "Whispers (Gettin' Louder)," whose strings and female backing vocals are pure class, unlike on so many of his other songs. Saving the best for last, this compilation closes with his last major hit and signature song, "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," which is simply one of the most joyously enjoyable and uplifting songs ever, starting with James Jamerson's flawlessly funky bass intro, more classy strings, horns, and female backing vocals, but most of all lifted by a totally liberated, expertly executed performance from one of the greatest vocalists ever. It's a shame that Jackie Wilson didn't hit more high points along the way, and that he was relegated to the oldies circuit soon thereafter before a heart attack rendered him a vegetable for the last eight years of his life. Really, in some ways you had to have seen him live to appreciate just how great Jackie Wilson was, but these 16 tracks, though somewhat inconsistent, present an enjoyably concise career overview, with some stunning high points along the way.

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