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Today is the anniversary of the birth of soul singer Jackie Wilson. Wilson died at age 49 in 1982, eight years after suffering a massive heart attack onstage while performing with the Dick Clark Revue in New Jersey. Though his career was sadly shortened, he made an impact.

Writers who saw Wilson perform begin profiles of Wilson with a description of him performing live. Thus Joe McEwen begins his profile of Wilson for the 1980 edition of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll:

Boston’s Back Bay Theater was jammed to capacity, filled with a noisy, enthusiastic throng, out to see the latest of the traveling soul revues. This show promised to be something special, with a rare visit from Roy Hamilton, the urbane crooner of “Ebb Tide,” and an appearance by Jackie Wilson, the man responsible for “Lonely Teardrops” and “That’s Why.” But as the warmup acts went through their paces, all was not well backstage; the show’s promoter was on the phone, jabbering frantically to Roy Hamilton’s agent, who had no idea where his singer was. It soon became clear that Hamilton wouldn’t show.

Fearful of the wrath of the fevered crowd if one of the headliners failed to appear, the promoter urgently whispered in Jackie Wilson’s ear as he prepared to go on; Wilson, after a moment’s pause, agreed. Bounding onstage, he grabbed the mike, spun around and raced into a blistering version of “That’s Why.” For over an hour, Jackie Wilson played to the screaming audience, teasing the women clustered in front of the stage. Suddenly, in the middle of “Shake! Shake! Shake!,” he jumped into a sea of outstretched arms. With mike in hand, he attempted to sing, but women, clawing ravenously, shredded his shirt. Finally, Wilson’s body disappeared. The theater was in turmoil; the audience pressed forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on. After minutes of pushing and shoving, the police escorted Wilson to safety. The lights were turned on and everybody ordered out. No one missed Roy Hamilton.

In his prime, Jackie Wilson was that kind of performer: he could stop a show at the drop of a hat–sometimes without even trying…

Apart from the performing pyrotechnics, Wilson was a singing prodigy. He had formed a gospel quartet while still in high school in Detroit. After dropping out of high school at age 16, he became a Golden Gloves boxing champion following detention for truancy, then returned to singing around Detroit. By age 19 he had replaced Clyde McPhatter in Billy Ward & The Dominoes.

In 1957 Wilson left the Dominoes to launch a solo career. Berry Gordy wrote the songs that provided Wilson’s first hits — “Reet Petite,” “To Be Loved,” and “Lonely Teardrops.” Money matters caused Gordy to depart Wilson’s Brunswick recording label. The business side of Wilson’s career all by itself provides a short course in the dark side of show business.

Wilson’s singing was as thrilling as his live performances. His recordings, however, are mired in absurd production mismatches. The records frequently failed to do justice to his talent. McEwen rightly points to “Doggin’ Around” with its pleading, its tortured emotional expression, and its octave leaps as “one of the few Jackie Wilson records from the early Sixties that does not sound hopelessly dated today.” In the video above, Wilson lip syncs “Danny Boy.” The production is indeed dated, but I think it’s fair to say the pipes are still calling.

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Before Wilson left the Dominoes, Elvis Presley stopped by to see them perform during his late 1956 stint in Las Vegas. Wilson performed an Elvis medley as part of the Dominoes’ show, and Elvis was bowled over by Wilson’s version of “Don’t Be Cruel.” Elvis returned the following three nights to see Wilson.

On the legendary 1957 “Million Dollar Quartet” recording of Elvis with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Elvis can be heard imitating Jackie Wilson imitating Elvis. It’s a striking moment in the history of pop music. Fifteen years later, Van Morrison paid his own exuberant tribute to Wilson in the first track of “Saint Dominic’s Preview” — “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile).”

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