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Jackie Wilson

 (You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” Hunter S. Thompson

Jackie Wilson straddled the line of juvenile delinquency during his early years. School truancy, underage drinking, gang connections and numerous paternity allegations marked his early life. Eventually, he was another top talent that succumbed to the rock and roll/music business lifestyle. His story begins on June 9, 1934 in Detroit, Michigan.

The son and only child of Jack and Eliza Mae Wilson from Columbus, Mississippi, Jackie Wilson grew up in Highland Park, Michigan. His mother, who lost two earlier children, doted on Jackie and was the main parental influence in his life. Jackie’s father was an alcoholic and was generally unemployed. This script sets the tone for a tough life growing up. But Jackie Wilson had the ability to entertain and would find his way to the top, even in spite of himself and those around him.

Eliza Mae and Jackie were inseparable in his formative years. When Eliza Mae sang in the church, she brought Jackie with her. A cousin recalled that Jackie could sing at age 6. “He always said he was going to be a star.” His Aunt remembered, “Jackie had a God-given voice. He got it from his mother and grandmother.” (1)

Eliza Mae and Jack divorced in 1940, when Jackie was nine, and began a common-law relationship with John Lee, who worked at the Ford auto plant. Shortly thereafter, the new family unit moved a short distance away where Jackie met Freda Hood. They soon became sweethearts. “He was nine when he told me he was going to marry me,” said Freda. “He told my mother at ten. He’d stay with my brother so he could see me.’” (2)

Within a few years, young Jackie was singing on the streets of Detroit as passer-bys would drop money in a hat. The cash came in handy as Jackie developed a taste for cheap wine. He was around 10 years old at the time. Freda recalled how Jackie always seemed older than his years. “When I first knew him, he was ten, singing on the street corner. He’d get this wine; his mother would buy him this Cadillac Club Sweet Red or corn whisky. That’s why I thought he was so old. (Also), Jack started doing things early (sexually), before most kids even think about it. He was way ahead of himself mentally.” (3)

By the time he was 12, he joined the Ever Ready Gospel Singers, a group that would sing around the Detroit area. Jackie wasn’t religious but he loved to sing. They enjoyed some notoriety around town as Jackie shared the lead singer role within the group. At the morning services, the congregation passed the basket in the name of the Lord for these fine young men. By evening, Jackie won it all in a crap game.

Also known around town were the Shakers, a gang Jackie joined. They had a reputation for being the “baddest gang around” and a “tough bunch that was always in trouble.” Jackie wasn’t a running part of the gang but held more of an honorary status as he entertained them with his charm and his songs.

A teacher once remarked on his report card, “Jack’s story is a sad one. He has a voice out of this world but can’t get to school on time to do anything about it. He has talent without ambition and charm without responsibility.” (4) That charm did lead to a number of problems. It’s estimated that Jackie impregnated around 15 girls before he left school.

With his time on the street, Jackie determined that school was a waste of time because he knew his future was as a singer. Twice because of truancy, he was sent to Lansing Correctional Institute. His first trip was at age 12 in 1946. During his second stint, he started boxing and considered the sport a career possibility. In the early 1970s Jackie did a radio interview with New York DJ Norman N Nite (on WCBS—FM). “Boxing, actually I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “My mother just grabbed me by the hair one day and told me, ‘No more.’ I was getting real good and she walked into the arena one night, and I was boxing. I always looked for her in a certain seat and she wasn’t there. All of a sudden she walked in. My nickname is Sonny and she hollers out real loud, ‘Hey, Sonny.’ And I turn around, and wop, wop, wop. She finally saw me beat to bits. So she told me, ‘No more!” (5)

In February of 1951, Wilson, at age 16, married Freda Hood after she became pregnant. With a family on the way, Wilson took a job on an automotive assembly line. Later in the year, Wilson was discovered at a talent show by bandleader Johnny Otis. Otis hooked Wilson up for an audition with a group known as the Thrillers. Jackie was passed over for Hank Ballard as the group eventually would be known as Hank Ballard and The Midnighters.

Jackie signed a deal with Dizzy Gillespie’s Dee Gee label and released two singles – one was Danny Boy, which would become a signature hit. In 1953, Jackie learned that Clyde McPhatter, lead singer of Billy Ward and the Dominoes, was leaving the group for a solo career. Wilson tracked down the details and showed up, at age 19, with a girl on each arm and introduced himself as “Shit” Wilson. Even with that arrogance, Wilson was hired in an apprentice-type role to join the Dominoes on tour. Though Wilson’s ego may have been bruised, he learned from McPhatter’s vocal techniques as the Dominoes transitioned from gospel to R&B with songs such as Sixty Minute Man, considered to be one of the prototypes for rock and roll.

Wilson had other voices of the day influence him. Sam Cooke, then with Soul Stirrers, the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers as well as the operatic Mario Lanza were the artists that caught his attention. The most critical influence for Wilson was Al Jolson. With his excessive theatrics, Wilson believed Jolson’s act was what a thrilling performance should include and modeled his act accordingly.

Wilson also benefited from Ward’s vocal coaching. “I learned just about everything I know from him. Breath control and how to dance during one number and then come back to sing a ballad. That’s hard.” (6) When McPhatter eventually left, Jackie was named lead singer. In 1953, Rags To Riches hit #3 on the R&B chart. St. Therese of the Roses hit the pop chart at #13 in August of 1956. (7)

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After four years with the Dominoes, Jackie was ready for the solo spotlight. He hired local talent agent and music publisher Al Green, who put out a call around Detroit for new material. A young songwriter by the name of Berry Gordy responded. Green liked what he heard from Gordy and secured a record deal with Chicago-based Brunswick Records for Gordy and Jackie. Green died in 1959 leaving Wilson in the hands of Greene’s 23-year old assistant, Nat Tarnopol. Wilson liked Tarnopol and trusted him to handle his contracts and finances for a number of years. Later, it was discovered that Tarnopol was acting only in his own interests.

Brunswick had a history in records dating back to the 1920s. By the 1950s, the label changed course from releasing back catalog to the newly emerging R&B scene. Jackie Wilson was their newest signing and would change the course and identity of the label. (8)

Gordy, a former featherweight boxer himself, knew Wilson from the late 40s fight circuit. The two immediately bonded as Gordy set his course providing hits for Wilson. Along with his sister, Gwendolyn and Billy Davis, another struggling songwriter, the threesome wrote Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want To Meet). This initial effort placed #67 on the Pop chart in late 1957 (7) but more important was the fact the song set Wilson’s solo career in motion. “Berry wrote it the way I sang it,” said Wilson. “If I hadn’t come along, God knows who could have recorded it.” (6)

“One night, I went to see Jackie perform,” recalled Gordy. “I had never seen anything like that in my life. Crowds were pushing and shoving to get into the sold-out house. He was known as Mr. Excitement. When he hit the stage, I could see why. It was like a lightning bolt. Strutting and dancing with his coat slung over his shoulder singing Reet Petite, spinning and turning, he jumped off one level of the stage to another, landing in a perfect split. Without stopping, he squeezed his legs together and propelled himself up into a standing position just in time to do another twirl, drop to his knees and finish the song.” (8)

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Gordy would continue to write for Wilson until 1959. Berry, sister Gwen and Davis wrote his first six hits including Lonely Teardrops and That’s Why (I Love You So). With Wilson accounting for most of the label’s albums and all of the success, Gordy wondered where all the money was going. As a writer with no royalty arrangement and someone else listed as publisher, Gordy had a number of hits with little to show for it. He realized the more lucrative end of the business was in producing records and owning the publishing. Frustrated with the lack of return, Gordy set up his own recording venture. With $800 borrowed from family members, Gordy’s fortune changed. First called Tammie, then Tamla, Motown Records was born.

By this time, Wilson’s stage show was drawing criticism. Parents weren’t accustomed to the gyrations, which they considered too suggestive. Jackie also removed articles of clothing, first the jacket, then the tie, followed by his shirt. His act was immoral, some claimed. He used the microphone in suggestive ways and pantomimed unzipping his fly. To parents, he was unacceptable. To teens, he was the black version of Elvis Presley. Wilson claimed he was just doing what came naturally. That, and applying to black audiences what Elvis was doing with his following. (9)

Songwriters Al Kasha, Sid Wyche and Alonzo Tucker adapted classically themed songs for Jackie designed for an R&B audience. Night, Alone At Last and My Empty Arms all landed in the top ten of Billboard’s Pop chart. (7) Wilson made an important transition. While maintaining his solid R&B base, he was now accepted by white audiences.

Appearances on American Bandstand (1958-1959) and The Ed Sullivan Show (1960) placed Wilson in America’s living rooms. His concerts around the country were sold-out events. In 1959, he appeared in a teen movie, Go, Johnny, Go! His records sold as he hit the top ten four times by the middle of February of 1961. (7) With success coming from every direction, Jackie Wilson, the performer, was considered in the same rarefied air of contemporaries Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. The only person that could stop him was himself.

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When someone—anyone—becomes a star, his or her life goes through multiple changes brought on by fame, fortune and power. (8) In Jackie’s case, the vices he developed in childhood expanded. In 1960 in New Orleans, he was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer when fans tried to climb on stage. He assaulted a policeman who had shoved one of the fans. Wilson had a reputation for being short-tempered. (10)

By early 1961, Freda was living with their four children in Detroit while Jackie rented an apartment in New York. Jackie, living the unbridled life as a star, was dating model Harlean Harris while having multiple other affairs on the side. On February 15, 1961, Juanita Jones, one of the other women, shot Wilson twice as he returned with Harris to his Manhattan apartment. At nearby Roosevelt Hospital, life saving surgery was performed followed by weeks of medical care. Wilson lost his left kidney and carried the bullet that was near his spine for the rest of his life.

Jackie recovered and in 1963, returned to the top ten when Baby Workout checked in at #5. For the next four years, Wilson’s single output sputtered. Returning to Chicago and enlisting the help of producer Carl Davis, Wilson’s career got back on track in 1966 when Whispers (Getting’ Louder) topped at #11. (7) Davis hired Funk Brothers’ James Jamerson (bass), Richard Allen (drums), Robert White (guitar) and Johnny Griffith (keyboards), Motown’s house band, who would moonlight on weekends from their Motown sessions.

According to Davis, the Funk Brothers "used to come over on the weekends from Detroit. They'd load up in the van and come over to Chicago, and I would pay 'em double scale, and I'd pay 'em in cash." Similarly two of Motown's house session singers The Andantes, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow, along with Pat Lewis (who was filling in for Andante Louvain Demps), performed on the session for Higher and Higher. (11)

"I remember I brought the track into New York. And we went into the studio, and Jackie started singing it, and it was completely different from what I thought it should sound like. And I told him, ‘No, no, no, no. I don’t like that,’" said Davis. "He told me, ‘Well, come out here and sing it how you want it sung!’ So I came out and I told him, ‘This is the way it needs to go.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s what you want?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He went back in there and in one take he did it." (12)

Although Wilson was back in stride in the studio, trouble was brewing financially. Around this time, Wilson claimed earning of $263,000 when the average salary a man earned was $5,000.  Despite these earnings at his peak, Wilson discovered he was broke. The IRS seized Wilson’s Detroit home. Tarnopol and accountants were responsible for Wilson’s finances. So what happened?

Managers shuffled his income, expenses and tax obligations. According to songwriter Al Kasha, “Jackie never knew how deep in the hole he was to them (managers) and the books were never honest anyway.” According to 20/20 news reporter Bob Brown, “Even though he’d been a star for more than 20 years, Jackie Wilson was in debt. He owed an estimated $300,000 in back taxes and over $100,000 to a man he had trusted to keep his financial affairs straight. The debts that Wilson owed to Brunswick were among the most common means of exploiting an artist’s earnings. Advancing him money to live for the present and setting up a future in which Jackie Wilson would be constantly on the hook to Brunswick Records and Nat Tarnopol who exercised control over his income. (13)

In 1975, Tarnopol and 15 other Brunswick executives were indicted on mail fraud and tax evasion stemming from bribery and payola scandals. The indictment included the charge that Tarnopol owed at least $1 million in royalties to Wilson. In 1976, Tarnopol and others were found guilty of the charges only to have the conviction overturned 18 months later. The judges outlined details of how artists were defrauded by Brunswick of their royalties setting the stage for Wilson to sue for monies due him. That trial would never take place.

Jackie Wilson collapsed onstage at the Cherry Hill (New Jersey) Latin Casino on September 29, 1975 while performing his signature song, Lonely Teardrops, as the top-billed act on Dick Clark’s Good Ole Rock and Roll Revue. Wilson fell over suddenly and, some say, struck his head on a piece of stage equipment. Cornell Gunter of The Coasters was onstage contributing to Jackie’s backup vocals. Gunter performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Wilson and reported that Wilson was conscious and communicating with eye blinks at the point paramedics took over. (14)

Reports vary as to whether Wilson experienced a stroke or a heart attack and as to whether or not there was an additional head injury. He never spoke again, although some of his friends reported that he communicated with them by others means, both in the emergency room and later in custodial medical institutions. (14) Wilson briefly recovered in 1976 but returned to semi-comatose state. It was believed he was aware of his surroundings. He remained this way until his death on January 21, 1984.

Even after Wilson’s death, his music is still earning someone some money. In 1989, ABC’s 20/20 estimated royalties from sales of records and tapes (CD’s weren’t included) were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That value today with CD royalties added can be estimated in the millions.

But Wilson’s children and grandchildren aren’t receiving anything because the estate has never been settled. Harlean Harris married Jackie in 1967. Harris, who had three children with Wilson and was separated from the singer, filed for guardianship, as did Lynn Guidry, who lived with Wilson in Georgia while he was separated from Harris. Wilson and Guidry had two children. In 1978, guardianship was awarded to Harris, who in the eyes of the court was still his legal wife. Guidry fought the award and filed estate papers in Georgia. There is no information available regarding the settlement of Jackie Wilson’s estate.

Due to the legal wrangling and debt, Jackie Wilson died virtually alone. After a funeral attended by nearly 1500 family, relatives and fans, Wilson was buried in an unmarked grave in Detroit. In life, he dazzled audiences, and in death, he became a pariah and a pauper. In 1987, a fundraising campaign collected enough cash to install a proper gravestone on his burial site. (15)

Jackie performs (You're Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher live in the 60s.

Jackie performs Baby Workout live on Shindig! on October 21, 1964. The band included members of the Wrecking Crew, the female background singers were the Blossoms and Bobby Sherman and Jay and the Americans joined in the finale.

This is the complete 20/20 segment from 1989 with Bob Brown. Quite enlightening.

1) Douglas, Tony, Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops, May 23, 2005, Page 15.

2) ibid. Pages 16-17.

3) ibid, Page 18.

4) ibid, Page 19.

5) ibid. Page 25.

6) Millar, Bill, Liner Notes, Reet Petite, Ace Records, 1986, Page 2-3.

7) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 752.

8) Gordy, Berry, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories Of Motown, 1994, Page 89.

9) Gulla, Bob, Icons of R&B and Soul [2 volumes]: An Encyclopedia of the Artists Who Revolutionized Rhythm, 2007, Page 134.

10) Shaw, Arnold, Honkers And Shouters: The Golden Years Of Rhythm And Blues, 1978.

11) Wikipedia, (You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher, Link.

12) Brunswick Records, Jackie Wilson, Link.

13) 20/20, ABC News, 1989. Link.

14) Wordpress, Jackie Wilson Lovers, Jackie Wilson Biography, Link.

15) Gulla, Bob, Icons of R&B and Soul [2 volumes]: An Encyclopedia of the Artists Who Revolutionized Rhythm, 2007, Page 144.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

© 2018 Jerry Reuss

Copyright  2009