Born June 9, 1934, in Detroit, Mich.; died of complications following a heart attack, January 19, 1984, in Mount Holly, N.J.; children: Tony, Thor. Education: Graduate of Highland Park High School, Highland Park, Mich.

The late Jackie Wilson combined top quality vocals and a riveting stage presence to become one of the best known rhythm and blues performers of the 1950s and 1960s. A contributor to the Rolling Stone Record Guide notes that although many of Wilson's recordings suffer from "over-orchestrated arrangements, heavy-handed choral accompaniment and dubious song selection," still "the sheer power and virtuosity of Wilson's voice overcame many of the obstacles." With hits such as "Reet Petite," "Lonely Teardrops," "Whispers," and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," Wilson assured his own success while he helped launch the pioneering Motown music corporation. Sadly, few of his live performances remain on tape, to the disappointment of r&b aficionados.

Jackie Wilson was born and raised in the same Detroit ghetto that produced Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. Like Gordy, Wilson donned boxing gloves at an early age and sought glory in the Golden Gloves championships. At sixteen he lied about his age and competed as an eighteen-year-old, winning his division. His mother, who feared for his health, forced him to quit boxing despite his success in the sport. He decided to seek a singing career instead, and after graduating from Highland Park High School, he went to work in local night clubs.

Soon Wilson was entertaining as a solo act and as part of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. In 1953 he won a coveted position as lead singer with the Dominoes, an r&b group that had already recorded a string of hits. Wilson sang lead tenor for the Dominoes until 1957. That year he signed with the Brunswick label and began a solo career that would last almost two decades. Wilson's years with the Dominoes prepared him well for live performances, but he suffered from a lack of recordable material. He turned to his old friend Berry Gordy for advice and was provided with some songs Gordy had written himself.

Wilson's first solo hit was "Reet Petite," a Gordy tune. In 1958 he had his first number one r&b hit with another Gordy number, "Lonely Teardrops." By 1960 Wilson was a major star with a number of r&b and crossover chart-toppers, including "Doggin' Around" and "A Woman, A Lover, A Friend." Gordy used the royalties for his Wilson songs to found Motown, and Wilson used the songs to propel himself to fame. A handsome and frankly sexual performer onstage--music fans called him "Mr. Excitement"--Wilson quickly became a favorite among female fans. His appearance could whip crowds into hysteria, and he even received a serious gunshot wound from an unbalanced admirer.

Wilson was a regular on the charts through the mid-1960s, with songs such as "All My Love," "My Empty Arms," "Baby Workout," and "You Better Know It." In 1966 he was matched with veteran producer Carl Davis, who engineered two of his biggest hits, "Whispers" and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." Thereafter Wilson's career began to decline, and by 1972 he was playing the oldies circuit in casino lounges and dance clubs. Some critics have maintained that the Brunswick label did little to enhance Wilson's talents over the years, suggesting that he might have fared better if he had recorded elsewhere.

On the night of September 25, 1975, Wilson was headlining a Dick Clark Revue at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia. Midway through his act he suffered a severe heart attack and collapsed. Although he lived another eight years he was a bedridden invalid, often semi-comatose and completely unable to care for himself. He died January 19, 1984, at a hospital in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Since his death, a number of his hits have been re-released by Epic, Columbia, and Rhino Records. The Rolling Stone Record Guide lists Wilson as a "performing genius" who "may have been the best pure vocalist of his generation."

by Anne Janette Johnson

Jackie Wilson's Career

Began career as singer with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, c. 1951; became lead tenor with the Dominoes, 1953. Solo artist, 1957-75; signed with Brunswick Records, 1957, had first charted hit, "Reet Petite," 1957, and first number one hit, "Lonely Teardrops," 1958. Made numerous live appearances in dance clubs and concert halls.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 16 years ago

I can remember at the brevoit theater in Brooklyn NewYork the master of seramonies was sad sam and cal jenkins and jackie wilson was on the bill with billy stewart, and other artist and Mr.jackie wilson was the most electrifing entertainer i have ever seen in my life more moves than james brown, greatest voice i ever heard. I Think that his memory should be more recognized than what being given. I thought his version of danny boy is unmatched, he gave life to the song Im 50yrs of age and i saw him only one time in my life and i was a little boy but ill never forget those purple pants and that black shirt, and those moves that had the women cringing in their seats. God Bless his soul he was a great not good but great tallent that should have been more recognized in life. Its ashame that the great one that he was didnt get the recognition he deserved until he was deceased. Mr Jackie Will always be my favorite entertainer. I remember even getting my hair done like jackie. love you Brother. Mr. Bruce Battle Spartanburg S.c.