It is common knowledge that Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul. Otis Redding is usually crowned as her king. And James Brown gets the laudatory title as the Godfather of the genre. But where does Mr. Excitement fit in? Jackie Wilson was as instrumental in the soul transformation as James Brown. He brought stage gyrations to the R&B scene and helped expand the genre of soul. While Ray Charles is often cited as its creator, Jackie Wilson certainly does not get enough credit for a performer who inspired Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley! If James Brown is soul’s Godfather than Jackie Wilson is definitely soul’s cool uncle.
Wilson hit major chart success with his 1958 R&B song “Lonely Teardrops,” a song that implemented doo-wop techniques and, because of Wilson’s powerful voice, neared on soul. His on-stage movements were crowd pleasers. “Lonely Teardrops” was written by a team of songwriters led by pre-Motown Berry Gordy who used the money from the song’s success to help create Motown, a record label that would become part of the definition of the soul genre. And there you go, a surprising fact about a popular song!
But wait. That just sparked my interest in perhaps Wilson’s best known song, “Higher and Higher,” which was released nine years after “Lonely Teardrops.” Wilson, then a true master in the field of soul, recorded this song with Motown Records’ house band The Funk Brothers. Well, he didn’t actually record it with the band. That is where the surprising fact reveals itself. Producer Carl Davis brought the Funk Brothers’ backing track to New York City for Wilson to record his vocal. After hearing the track, Wilson originally sang this upbeat classic as a soul ballad. Davis’ response?
“I said that’s totally wrong. You have to jump and go with the percussion. If he didn’t want to sing it that way, I would put my voice on the record and sell millions.”
It only took Wilson one more take to record the song the way Davis intended it to be heard. And it sold a lot of copies.