Graded on a Curve: Wilson Pickett,
Hey Jude

Celebrating Wilson Pickett on the day of his birth.Ed.

Hear ye hear ye: I am going to begin this review of Alabama native son Wilson Pickett’s 1969 LP Hey Jude by stating right off that the title cut is one of the most phenomenal songs ever recorded, and is in fact so great I would probably give this album an A even if every other song on it was a jingle for a cereal commercial.

Pickett, whom I consider the best screamer in the history of soul and R&B, if not rock too, lays into “Hey Jude” like somebody just chopped his foot off with a hatchet, while the horn section kicks ass and Duane Allman, who was just beginning his career as a session musician, tears off one of the most brilliant and in-your-face guitar solos you’ll ever hear. It’s a bravura performance, “Hey Jude,” and supernatural in its greatness, and if I die tomorrow I will die having heard a sound so pleasing to God that he decided (I’ve talked to him about this) to push the date of the Last Judgment back a hundred years or so.

Fortunately Pickett fills out the album with a bunch of other songs that, while they can’t (what could?) compare with “Hey Jude,” are excellent in their own right. His voice is a miracle, his screams make Joe Cocker sound like a pee wee leaguer, and in short he turns in a whole slew of superb performances, demonstrating his mastery of phrasing and the wild scream even on those songs (his unfortunate take on Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” the gospel-flavored but not very exciting “People Make the World,” and the funky but unhappily titled “Toe Hold”) that don’t quite measure up to the rest of the songs on the album.

Putting Pickett, Allman, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (the so-called Swampers), and some great horn players together in the studio was a stroke of genius on Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler’s part, and it paid off in a royal flush as the bunch of ‘em simply could not fail to turn an okay song into a great one.

Just listen to “Night Owl.” The song is a rollicking yowl of a tune from beginning to end, thanks to Pickett’s screams and grunts, some great drumming by Roger Hawkins, and one tremendous horn arrangement, and the same goes for those two back-to-back slabs of macho braggadocio, “My Own Style of Loving,” which includes the swaggering lines, “She knows she won’t be satisfied/Unless it’s by the touch of my hand” and “A Man and a Half,” on which Pickett lets out a wonderful scream after announcing, “Only once in a lifetime/A man like me comes along.” It’s the half a man that knocks the women out, you see, that sumpin’ extra, and it’s the same extra sumpin’ that led Shakespeare to write poems about Pickett before he was even born, or so declares our cocky Mr. Pickett. Lord have mercy!

But Pickett has his romantic troubles too, as he announces in “Night Owl,” “Sit Down and Talk This Over,” the slow burner that is “Search Your Heart,” and the super-funky “Back in Your Arms,” to say nothing of the desperate “Save Me,” in which Pickett declares, “I’m drownin’ in the river of love/Oh yes I am/Going down/For the very last time.” Need I add that the horn section (Gene Miller and Jack Peck on trumpets, Joe Arnold and Aaron Varnell on tenor saxophones, and James Mitchell on baritone saxophone) all help to elevate these songs to a fever pitch? As do Barry Beckett on keyboards and piano and Marvell Thomas (listen to him on “Hey Jude” and “A Man and a Half,” good god almighty!) on organ.

As for Allman, it was these recordings that led Eric Clapton to look him up for a place in Derek and the Dominos, and while the fact that three guitarists played on the LP makes it difficult to know when he’s playing, I’m relatively certain that’s him tossing off short but brilliant bursts of pure cool on the revved up “Born to Be Wild,” as well as on the raucous “My Own Style of Loving” and the funky “Toe Hold,” on both of which he shadows every Pickett utterance with a short, sharp, machine gun burst of notes. And I suspect that’s him in the background but delivering brief ringing bursts of guitar on “Search Your Heart” as well. Indeed, he may well have played on all the tracks; despite much research, I’m still in a hopeless muddle on this front. In any case, Muscle Shoals guitarist Jimmy Johnson later stated that these sessions marked the creation of southern rock, which leads me to believe he was around to record the whole album.

But it’s Pickett who owns this LP, thanks to his miraculous voice; it’s the purest expression of soul and R&B this side of Otis Redding, with lots of great screams thrown in. As I said before, his perfect delivery and flights into screaming ecstasy make him as convincing and expressive a singer as any one who has ever opened his mouth. He can go from lady-killer to repentant lover in a heartbeat, while naturally returning to his gospel roots on songs like “People Make the World.” Listen to the way he drags out the word “live” on the latter tune, or the stutter-scat of the hard-hitting “Toe Hold,” and you’ll realize you’re in the proximity of a true master.

Pickett is no longer with us, but his music will endure thanks to his always passionate approach to his material, some of which was great and some not so great. He gave every performance his all, and in so doing bequeathed us a great gift. Bravo, Mr. Pickett. And how about one more great scream for old times’ sake?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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