Jackie Wilson: Ten Cool Tunes

In late July, at one of our regular meetings, the “rock and roll trio” (John Len, Ron Witucki, and Dr. J.) decided to take on the task of compiling a list of the ten coolest tunes of one of Michigan’s greatest early rock and roll stars, Jackie Wilson. Known as “Mr. Excitement”, Wilson was one of the most dynamic singers and stage performers in the history of rock and roll. It’s my opinion, however, that Jackie was saddled with questionable management and song material for most of his career resulting in a recorded legacy that is far below what his talent deserved.


What about my partners? Both John and Ron are big fans of early rock and roll (1955 – 1963), and the artists and recordings of that era dominate their collections. While we share a love of that early music, their views and opinions of rock and roll from 1964 onward are very different from mine. Although Jackie Wilson charted 34 of his hits in the years 1957 through 1963, he managed to chart 20 more in the years 1964 through 1972. Could we reach consensus on a list of ten cool tunes from one of the first inductees into Michigan Rock and Roll Legends; one who bridged the first two decades of rock and roll?


I wanted John and Ron to write down their reasons or comments on each of their song choices, but they weren’t comfortable writing their opinions down at our first attempt at putting together a “Ten Cool Tunes” list, so most of the following is going to come from me. Each of us wrote out a list of our 15 favorite Jackie Wilson songs, and the following list was put together by assigning point values to each of the songs on our lists (15 pts for # 1, 14 pts for # 2 etc.). Like Letterman's Top Ten lists, we’ll start with # 10 and work down to # 1.


10. “I’m Comin’ On Back To You”. Jackie had a # 19 Pop hit with this rocking tune in 1961. It reached # 9 on the R&B chart. I like the use of guitar and sax on this song. This was a period when Jackie’s recordings were often dull, string-drenched affairs. I also like the backing vocals on this welcome return to rock and roll by Wilson.


09. “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend”. This is a big production that really works. Jackie was at his best on this type of blues ballad that really showed off his soulful vocal style. Unlike way too many of his recorded ballads, this is truly a great song. It was a # 15 Pop hit in 1960, but spent 4 weeks at # 1 on the R&B chart. Al Green was kicked out of his family home in Grand Rapids by his father for listening to this forbidden song.


08. “To Be Loved”. This one didn’t make my list of favorite songs, although I did consider it for # 15. This Berry Gordy-penned song was a # 22 Pop hit in 1958 and reached # 7 on the R&B chart. To me, this song seemed more suited to Doris Day than Jackie Wilson. It sounds too much like a typical Pop ballad from the 50’s, but it’s saved to a great extent by an incredible Jackie Wilson vocal.


07. “Night”. I don't like this song at all. Ron and John, on the other hand, both had it among the top five on their lists. It was originally the a-side of the single “Night/Doggin’ Around”. John said that both songs "knocked his socks off", and that he never could decide which side he liked best. I didn’t have that problem. “Night” pretty much summed up for me what was bad about much of Jackie’s output during the early 60’s. Based on an aria from the opera Samson & Delilah, it was middle-of-the-road enough to be Wilson's biggest Pop hit at # 4. I felt that kind of stuff was best suited to Mario Lanza, and I was surprised to discover that it was also a # 3 R&B hit. Go figure.


06. “Reet Petite”. This rocking tune was co-written by Berry Gordy, and although it sounds a little bit like a jump blues from the late 40’s, Jackie Wilson’s tremendous vocal puts it squarely in the rock and roll field. Incredibly, this rollicking number only reached # 62 on the Pop charts, and didn’t make the R&B chart at all. What??? Cue up “Reet Petite”, and then play “Night”. I rest my case.


05. “Lonely Teardrops”. I rated this classic # 2 on my list, and it is clearly one of Jackie’s greatest singles. I love the plucked strings and Jackie’s powerful vocal. This great dance song was co-written by Berry Gordy and it established Wilson as a major recording star. It was a # 7 Pop hit in early 1959, but it spent 7 weeks at # 1 on the R&B chart. Guess which chart got it right?


04. “I’ll Be Satisfied”. I rated this song # 4 on my list as well. This uptempo classic was the last of six charting singles written for Jackie by Berry Gordy and Tyran Carlo (a.k.a. Billy Davis). I love the use of the electric organ throughout the song. It was a # 20 Pop hit in 1959 and reached # 6 on the R&B chart. The song was a perfect fit for Jackie’s energetic performing style.


03. “That’s Why”. I rate this song as a tie with “Lonely Teardrops” as the best of Berry Gordy’s compositions for Jackie Wilson. It was the first Jackie Wilson 45 rpm that I ever purchased, and I still love it as much as I did when I bought it at Lucky’s Record Shop in Bay City. “That’s Why” has an irresistible beat, and the use of guitar and flute clearly foreshadows the sound that would launch Motown. It was a # 13 Pop hit in 1959 and a # 2 R&B hit.


02. “Doggin’ Around”. This is Jackie’s greatest recorded blues vocal. Unfortunately, not enough of his ballads were in this vein, and he was saddled with operatic mush for most of his career. Preposterous as it may seem, “Doggin’ Around” was the b-side and “Night” the a-side on the single released in 1960. So much for his record company knowing anything about the music it was putting out. Even relegated to a b-side, “Doggin’ Around” was a # 15 Pop hit, and charted # 1 for three weeks on the R&B chart.


01. "Higher And Higher”. I’m not sure that this would have made # 1 on our list if the Hubcaps had not performed it. (John and Ron are big fans) This was the perfect song for Jackie Wilson. With instrumental backing from the Funk Brothers, it teases you with what could have been had Jackie signed with Motown and been given the kind of songs his talent merited. Wilson’s vocal is sensational, as is everything else about this extraordinary record. John and I agreed that it revived Jackie’s career when it reached # 6 on the Hot 100 in 1967; and it was a well-deserved # 1 on the R&B chart.


All things considered, this is a pretty good list. But just in case you’d like to replace # 7, my recommendation would be “Baby Workout”, a # 5 Pop hit for Jackie from 1963, and a # 1 R&B hit that same year. Although it’s not his finest song, Wilson was one of the all-time greats at singing and performing that kind of danceable number.