ACRN Celebrates: Jackie Wilson

By Lauren McCain, Contributor 
[Photo via Spotify]

“To a rough stone that I am polishing into a diamond,” reads a signed photograph that Billy Ward gave Jackie Wilson in the summer of 1952.

Known for his impressive four-octave range, Wilson was a dynamic powerhouse performer, earning himself the title of “Mr. Excitement” in the 1950s and ’60s.

During his career, he broke free from the constraints of being labeled a black R&B artist and paved the path for black artist representation in the predominantly white pop/rock genre.

Read more: ACRN Celebrates: Tina Turner

Originally from Detroit, Michigan, a young and rough-around-the-edges Wilson was brought in as a replacement member for Billy Ward and the Dominoes in the early 1950s.

During Wilson’s time in the group, Ward acted as a mentor and vocal coach to Wilson, training his voice and perfecting both his on- and offstage persona. It’s doubtful that Wilson’s solo career would have ever taken off without Ward’s contributions. 

In 1957, Wilson released his first solo single, “Reet Petite”. But he had even more success a year later with his passionate string ballad, “To Be Loved”, which reached the Top 40 on the pop charts.

One of his most notable hits featuring a poppy, doo-wop melody and a calypso plucking of strings to contrast with lyrics about heartbreak was “Lonely Teardrops”, which earned him a top-10 spot on the pop charts and No. 1 in R&B. 

Though many in the industry wanted to see Wilson choose a niche market and settle into a genre, he refused.

In his show at the famous New York Copacabana club in the late ’50s, Wilson proclaimed that he loved to sing it all—the ballads, the blues, pop, rock and the standards—and it became increasingly apparent in his career that he had an impressive mastery of multiple musical styles. 

Wilson had his last successful hit in 1967 with “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher”, an upbeat, tambourine-laden pop/rock single that landed No. 1 on the R&B charts and peaked on the Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 6.

Eight years later, Wilson suffered a heart attack on stage and spent the rest of his days in a coma until his death in 1984. 

Jackie Wilson left behind an unforgettable voice that defied genres in a way that would go on to inspire artists for years to come.

Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Prince, to name a few, all credited Wilson as being an early inspiration to them. During a time when being a black singer automatically limited an artist to a single genre, Wilson refused to settle in or be defined by his race.

So as we remember his legacy today, go give some of the tracks by the one and only Mr. Excitement an extra spin. 

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