Sunday, June 27, 2010

June 27: Wilson Pickett, "In The Midnight Hour"

Artist: Wilson Pickett
Song: "In The Midnight Hour"
Album: In The Midnight Hour (single)
Year: 1965

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While much of the classic Motown songs are founded in slick, smooth vocals and fast paced orchestrations, there were then, and remain today, many music fans who prefer a gritter, more raw approach to soul music.  When it came to this almost secondary sound of Motown, there was one man who rose far above his peers to be "the" embodiment of raw, dance-friendly soul: Wilson Pickett.  After spending a few years as a member of The Falcons, and being a part of their 1962 hit, "I Found A Love," Pickett struck out on his own with Motown Records, and over the next decade, he would be responsible for a handful of the most memorable songs in the label's storied history.  The key to his success as a solo artist was the fact that his voice and approach were so unique from the rest of the "cleaner" sounds found on the label, and this difference resonated with fans across the globe, making many of his hits go all the way to the top of the charts.  With classics like "Mustang Sally," "Land Of 1,000 Dances," and "Funky Broadway," Pickett proved to have the "magic" that it took to make it as a solo artist, and he in many ways created the blueprint for the more raw and unrestrained vocal approach that would bring fame to a number of other artists in later years.  As fantastic as these songs remain, there is one Wilson Pickett tune that stands far above the rest of his catalog, and similarly remains one of the greatest hits of the entire "Motown era."  Co-writing the song with Funk Brother, Steve Cropper, there are few songs that are as unforgettable as Wilson Pickett's 1965 classic, "In The Midnight Hour."

Along with it being an amazing song, there is a bit of "strange" history behind the creation of "In The Midnight Hour" that remains largely unknown to most music fans.  The song was actually composed while Pickett was on the road, and he and Cropper wrote nearly every note and word whilst sitting in the tragically iconic Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.  Though a few years later, this site would become known for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the song that came from the hotel offers a far brighter memory.  When the song begins, it is almost instantly unlike any other Motown tune, as instead of the "usual" drum drop-in, the song opens with a stinging, bright horn progression before dropping into a funky, swinging groove.  The deep notes from these horns that appear in fantastic cadence throughout the verses further "In The Midnight Hour" from sounding like anything else on Motown, and the way in which the Funk Brothers are able to make the song swing whilst keeping the tone very raw is likely why the song became a number one hit that year.  Furthering this idea, the drums take a very place very much in the forefront, which makes the song "hit" far harder than other Motown tunes, and this purposeful re-arrangement gives the "In The Midnight Hour" much of its overall mood.  Yet the fact that Cropper was a co-writer on the song cannot be mistaken, as he jumps in and out of the spotlight, grabbing moments between the other musicians to deploy his legendary guitar tone and style.  The overall creation from The Funk Brothers on "In The Midnight Hour" stands as one of their finest and most unique, and it shows the uncanny skill and diversity that lived within this legendary group.

While history has not given him as high profile a spot as the likes of Otis Redding or the long line of "smooth" soul singers, one cannot deny the sensational power and tone behind the singing of Wilson Pickett.  Taking the unrestrained approach of singers like Sam Cooke and giving it a swing similar to that of Ray Charles, Wilson carved out a sound so distinct, that it is truly difficult to fully compare his sound to that of any other singer that followed.  On "In The Midnight Hour," Pickett delivers with such conviction, such power that it remains one of the most stunning performances in music history, and the level of emotion he brings makes the words of the song far more meaningful, while at the same time, far more clear in their intent.  While at its surface, "In The Midnight Hour" may appear as another example of the stereotypical love and yearning song of the era, there is a far less subtle and risqué process occurring when one listens closely to the lyrics.  Pickett makes his intentions quite clear, and speaks the thoughts of countless men in love when he sings, "...when there's no one else around, I'm gonna take you girl and hold you...and do all the things I told you, in the midnight hour..."  To say the least, this was quite a bold statement to imply during the first half of the 1960's, and the fact that it became such a hit song is almost a bit surprising, as many radio stations refused to play such "suggestive" songs at that time.  Pickett drives his implications home when he later sings, "'re the only girl I know, that can really love me so..." which can be read as both a sweet sentiment, as well as a thought with far more racy hints.

While there was really no singer quite like Wilson Pickett before or after his time, one can see his singing, as well as the songs he wrote as some of the most important in the progression of music in many fronts.  Ignoring the trend to make things sound smooth, Pickett let loose with all his power, and across the decades and genres, this approach has influenced countless other performers.  Though he had already scored a handful of hits with his former group, as well as working as solo performer, there is perhaps no song in his catalog that compares to his approach and sound on "In The Midnight Hour."  The fact that a member of The Funk Brothers was part of the writing team for the song rings clear, as the band plays with a power and passion that is unlike any other of their recordings, and this is likely due to the fact that Cropper "knew" how to make his bandmates sound best.  The Funk Brothers burn across "In The Midnight Hour," bringing an amazing, irresistible swing to the gritty, funky sound that is led by the almost over-blown horn section.  It is this aspect of the music that made the song an undeniable dancehall smash, as even to this day, the song can ignite a room as soon as the opening notes are heard.  As the track progresses, one is left to wonder if it is Pickett's inspired singing that is pushing the band to greater heights, or if the sensational performance of The Funk Brothers is the very source of Pickett's uncanny execution of the vocals.  Regardless of which was the cause, there is simply no denying the power and energy behind the song, and it is a majority of the reason why more than four decades later, there are few songs that can compare to Wilson Pickett's 1965 single, "In The Midnight Hour."

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