You handle Wilson Pickett gingerly, even by phone. The great soul singer is notoriously volatile. Known for his hairspring temper, affinity for guns, and affection for intoxicants (word is, cocaine sidelined him fairly seriously in the '80s), he's recovering from a recent bout with bronchitis. But the Wicked One is a pro, so his famous throat should be in shape on New Year's Eve, when he co-headlines a benefit bill at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum with former Young Rascals leader Felix Cavaliere.
"I've been away," Pickett, 58, says in a phone interview from his suburban Washington home. "Wasn't getting no records played." Except on oldies stations, where signature hits such as "Mustang Sally," "Land of 1,000 Dances," "634-5789," "In the Midnight Hour," and "Funky Broadway" keep up the soul tradition. Now that Pickett has released his first album in more than 12 years, he's hopeful its tunes will also find airplay.
"I actually never left the business," Pickett says. "What I'm doing is going back to playing. I still have a voice left, so why not?" That voice fuels It's Harder Now, an 11-song collection on the Bullseye subsidiary of Rounder Records. Produced by longtime soul fan Jon Tiven, it's a fairly effective clutch of tunes, largely centered on sex. While Pickett's voice is as raspy and persuasive as ever, and the arrangements are true to soul form, It's Harder Now is slightly strained, as if the vernacular of assertiveness, pride, and sensuality Pickett once articulated so organically has been virtualized.
No matter. When the 1991 rock hall inductee and the eight musicians and two background singers in his Midnight Movers play the Rock Hall, the focus undoubtedly will be on the hits Pickett recorded from 1965 to 1971 at Muscle Shoals in his native Alabama and such other legendary studios as Philadelphia's Sigma Sound, Miami's Criteria, Cincinnati's King, and, of course, Memphis's Stax.
"Those were pioneer days," Pickett says. "Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding. We came about with a new type of a beat in music, which is good, funky R&B. And everybody jumped on it with everything they had."
And recording went much more quickly then.
"We finished this new CD almost a year before they even released it, and now that they've released it, it looks like it'll take almost another year to get it played," he says of It's Harder Now.
"I remember when we would record an album, and in three months, the stuff was out on the street and being played."
Those were the middle to late '60s, when the brand of soul identified with Atlantic -- and the labels it distributed, such as Stax and Volt -- gave such cheeky Anglo upstarts as Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Stones, even the Beatles, a heavy run for their money. Those also were the days when Southern soul exemplified a new, color-blind music created by a color-blind community; Pickett's key producers and musical associates -- Atlantic's Jerry Wexler, Muscle Shoals's Rick Hall, and Booker T. and the MGs's guitarist Steve Cropper -- were white.
As the '70s took over, however, that color-blind community receded into idealism, the Stax empire imploded, and Atlantic, the label that effectively invented soul, went corporate, leaving Pickett adrift. Not only did disco undercut his linear, direct style, but also the decline of the producer and the triumph of machinery over the studio musician did much to depersonalize pop.
So in the '70s and '80s, Pickett recorded for four labels: Big Tree, a long-defunct Atlantic subsidiary that never released the LP he made for it; RCA; EMI America (also defunct now); and Motown. Pickett suggests he's a victim of timing. For example, he recorded for Motown in the '80s, when the Detroit company was sold to PolyGram (itself now subsumed into Universal Music Group).
"That thing came out when Motown was selling the company," Pickett says. "Later, Berry Gordy bought it back. All the artists left the Motown label, and my album was negotiated right at that time, about 12, 15 years ago. It got caught up in that, and they released it in Europe. Right now, I get statements from Europe, but no statements from the United States. And that was a very good album."
Last year, however, after Jon Tiven had solicited him for a comeback, Pickett decided to reenter the domestic fray. After he, Tiven, and Pickett keyboard man Sky Williams had worked out enough tunes to craft a demo, they met with "about five record companies" and finally decided to go with Boston-based Rounder, a well-respected, folk-based label with a strong blues branch.
"We didn't get everything we wanted, you know what I mean?" Pickett says. "But what I think is most important is getting the material out there, getting back in the door."
"Getting back in the door" apparently also means turning the sexual innuendos up a notch. Bring up such recent tunes as "Taxi Love," "All About Sex," and "What's Under That Dress?", and you'd swear Pickett is blushing, even over the phone.
"People want to hear about that now," Pickett says. "The whole world has gone sex-crazy. But it's not real dirty stuff." The only tune he was "afraid of" was the unusually blunt "What's Under That Dress?"
"In Colorado, two chicks lifted up their dress and showed everybody," he recalls. "If you ask what's underneath that dress, they're going to show it. Women are something, you know?"
Equally famous for showmanship and his rafter-rattling, demonic voice, Pickett admits he's slowed down, but only a touch. "I'm still moving around on stage," he says. "It's still energy out there, and we do it as best we can. We try to make people happy."
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