Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Wilson Pickett

  • The Best of Wilson Pickett [Atlantic, 1967]  
  • Hey Jude [Atlantic, 1969]  
  • Right On [Atlantic, 1970] B
  • In Philadelphia [Atlantic, 1970] B+
  • The Best of Wilson Pickett Vol. II [Atlantic, 1971] A
  • Don't Knock My Love [Atlantic, 1971] C+
  • Wilson Pickett's Greatest Hits [Atlantic, 1973] A
  • Join Me and Let's Be Free [RCA Victor, 1975] C+
  • A Funky Situation [Big Tree, 1978] B
  • I Want You [EMI America, 1979] B-
  • A Man and a Half: The Best of Wilson Pickett [Rhino/Atlantic, 1993] A+
  • It's Harder Now [Bullseye Blues, 1999] **
  • The Definitive Wilson Pickett [Atlantic/Rhino, 2006]  

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Best of Wilson Pickett [Atlantic, 1967]
Not just for the half-rhyme's sake was this repurposed gospel up-and-comer called the wicked Pickett. If there were a genre dubbed hard soul, he'd exemplify it, and the reason there isn't is that none of his rivals commanded a voice so tough or an attack so unyielding. By his standards a love song is something suitable for a phone booth wall at the midnight hour--"634-5789," perfect. That's one reason dance records that don't quit such as "Funky Broadway" and "Mustang Sally" were his wheelhouse. "Man and a Half" would come later. So on this nonstop collection, make the theme statement a mere "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)."  

Hey Jude [Atlantic, 1969]
[1969 Jazz & Pop ballot]  

Right On [Atlantic, 1970]
It's good that Pickett is tempering his pricky masculinity with gospel compassion, but not so good that he's softening his edge. "Sugar Sugar" (which is fun) plus "Hey Joe" (which is I'm not sure) do not equal "Hey Jude." B

In Philadelphia [Atlantic, 1970]
What the Gamble-Huff band does for Pickett, Pickett does for the Gamble-Huff songwriters. The way the horns mix Southern drawl and Northern speed-rap makes me nervous, and I wish side two slowed down with the oblique "Help the Needy" instead of the all-over-the-place "Days Go By," but overall the musicians make the singer go and the singer makes the songs go. B+

The Best of Wilson Pickett Vol. II [Atlantic, 1971]
"A Man and a Half" is the quintessential Pickett title from this period--he's always striving to become more than he has any reason to expect to be. Yet for all the overstatement of "Born to Be Wild" or "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (the Box Tops did a better job on that one) he got there pretty often--in screaming tandem with Duane Allman on "Hey Jude," in voluble tandem with Gamble-Huff on "Engine Number 9," in can-you-top-this tandem with his own greatest hit on "I'm a Midnight Mover." And on "She's Lookin' Good" he matched the ease of "Don't Fight It," which was probably hardest of all. A

Don't Knock My Love [Atlantic, 1971]
Pickett's variation on the New Pretentiousness in Black Music is to progress beyond simple horn riffs into the busy little world of producers Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford. As an idea, it's better than most--Duke Ellington did a lot with something similar--but in practice it's just about unlistenable. The nadir is "Don't Knock My Love--Pt. 2," a fantasia for brass on which Pickett doesn't sing at all. But Wade Marcus's strings can make anything worse, and Pickett sounds as desperate when his interpretations are spiritless as when they're frantic. Best cut: a cover of Free's "Fire and Water." Hmm. C+

Wilson Pickett's Greatest Hits [Atlantic, 1973]
Packaging the magnificent Best of (still using fake stereo on ten cuts) with a modification of the excellent Best of Vol. II (trading "Hey Joe," "Cole, Cooke and Redding," and "Born to Be Wild" for "Don't Knock My Love--Pt. 1" and "Mama Told Me Not to Come" even up). A must-own for the benighted. A

Join Me and Let's Be Free [RCA Victor, 1975]
As a respecter of history, I want to note that this is the Wicked's best since he stopped being bad, kicking off with a likable groove that I began to find tedious well before Carola stopped dancing. C+

A Funky Situation [Big Tree, 1978]
Pickett's halfhearted disco move won't go over at the Loft, but it sure beats anything he did for RCA. "Changed my clothes, but I didn't change my soul," he assures us, and that's it exactly. The production (by Rick Hall and Don Daily) and especially the horn arrangements (by Harrison Calloway, Jr.) are dense and eventful rather than overblown and crowded, and unlike so much disco they're designed only to kick ass, never to engulf and wash over. What's more, Pickett is singing again--rarely does he resort to the random scream. His own "Lay Me Like You Hate Me" is a startling distillation of what he's always really been about, and though most of the other songs are just ordinary-plus, they've been chosen with obvious care--no song-factory seconds here. B

I Want You [EMI America, 1979]
I'd like him back too, but wishing won't make it so. Half straight disco, half soft--for Pickett--soul, this is a mildly enjoyable album that hasn't broken pop or disco or added a "Lay Me Like You Hate Me" to his legend. N.b.: the four (out of seven) best songs are the ones he helped write. Also n.b.: the best of them all is on the disco side. B-

A Man and a Half: The Best of Wilson Pickett [Rhino/Atlantic, 1993]
Pickett's good albums didn't match Otis's great ones, and with only In the Midnight Hour (seven cuts) and The Exciting Wilson Pickett (four) in the racks, these 44 tracks are as much black macho as a nongangsta needs. His command was riveting, his strength sustaining, his scream epochal, his charm a boon. He got a lot of great party songs and a lot of great soul cries, and covered the Beatles, the Archies, and Free with equal aplomb. The previously unreleased live "Midnight Hour" is a true find. All that's missing is the postdisco shout where he finally said what he meant: "Lay Me Like You Hate Me." A+

It's Harder Now [Bullseye Blues, 1999]
So wicked it's hard to believe he consented to, ugh, "Soul Survivor"--which opens his show ("What's Under That Dress," "Taxi Love"). **

The Definitive Wilson Pickett [Atlantic/Rhino, 2006]
For once, the 30 songs on these two CDs actually are definitive. True, they cover only the Wicked Pickett's Atlantic decade. But his late peaks aren't as consistently intense, powerful, assured, macho, or, truth to tell, tender--once taken for a shameless novelty, his "Hey Jude" now stands high among inspired Beatles covers. And though the 14 extras on 1992's A Man and a Half are almost as terrific, stylistically they can be distracting. Possessor of one of history's great shouting baritones, which he regularly revved to a scream when he found his sound, Pickett was also the master of Southern soul's rolling funk, most of which he recorded in Muscle Shoals like the Alabaman he was, not the sentimentally canonized Memphis. Slick, sharp, and felt, he defined the genre as well as this compilation defines him. [Blender: 5]  

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