Friday, January 20, 2006

Wicked no more

KJ and I were driving into San Francisco yesterday when we learned from the radio news about the death of Wilson Pickett. Immediately, I found myself humming the tunes to his two best known soul classics, "In the Midnight Hour" and "Mustang Sally."

I also immediately found myself thinking about the Wicked Pickett's importance in the plot of the film The Commitments. In case you've never seen the movie — and if you haven't, you should — a group of roughhewn Irish kids from the north side of Dublin form a soul band. When Wilson Pickett tours Ireland, they make a valiant attempt to engineer an appearance by the legendary singer at the club where they're playing, so that he can hear them perform. Unfortunately, a fight breaks out between the members of the group, and they miss their opportunity to meet the great man.

When Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, there was a great deal of controversy about the fact that he hadn't been elected earlier. Regardless, no one with even the least amount of understanding of the history of American popular music in the latter half of the 20th century could deny Pickett's pervasive influence. His powerful style, both on the stage and off, left its mark on countless rock, soul, and R&B vocalists.

Pickett was so cool that he could cover a tune by the Archies, of all people ("Sugar, Sugar"), and have a top 25 hit with it. The Wicked One got name-checked by John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, and appeared as himself in the unfortunate sequel Blues Brothers 2000.

Personally, I thought Pickett deserved a great deal of credit just for introducing the phrase "ride, Sally, ride" into the American vernacular a good fifteen years before anyone knew who Sally Ride actually was.

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