When Wilson Pickett arrived at the airport in Accra to headline the Soul to Soul festival, he was greeted by a sea of Ghanaians loudly chanting his name. As his fans flocked to him, the singer was offered a swig of the local corn-made gin, took a sip, then reeled backward and pretended to collapse amid raucous laughter. Several days before the concert, the man known as the “Wicked Pickett” for his combustible performances on and off stage was already putting on a show.
Though he had never performed in Africa before the 1971 festival, Pickett was a star in Ghana. There he wasn’t known as the “Wicked Pickett” but as “Soul Brother No. 2,” second only to James Brown in the country’s affections. Pickett was not yet 30, but already had a string of hits in America, including “In the Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally,” and they’d been blaring from transistor radios across Ghana for years. Something about the gruff tone of Pickett’s voice, the thunder in those rhythms cut through language barriers.
Pickett sang like there was doom just around the corner, and for a black man strutting his fine stuff in the rural South during the ‘60s, there often was.
Pickett sang like there was doom just around the corner, and for a black man strutting his fine stuff in the rural South during the ‘60s, there often was. The singer did nothing quietly; he was quick-tempered, and was known to wave a gun around if properly provoked. He drank and drugged, cursed and caroused through life. He never fully conquered his demons, but he was never anything less than real. He always insisted on recording everything live in the studio, mistakes and all, right up until his death at age 64 in 2006.
He could be ornery. He kept his distance from the locals in Africa at first, but slowly warmed up to the sense of occasion as the time to perform approached. His name was everywhere — on posters, in newspapers, as part of radio advertisements – and by the time he took the stage at 4 a.m. on March 7, 1971, the crowd was estimated to be at least 100,000 strong.
The singer was to follow Ike and Tina Turner, even as the tremors from Tina’s volcanic dancing alongside the Ikettes were still rippling through the audience. To his chagrin, Pickett found himself sharing a dressing room with Ike and Tina as they were exiting the stage. In his excellent Pickett biography, “In the Midnight Hour,” author Tony Fletcher reports that Ike Turner offered Pickett a snort of cocaine as a peace offering, but Pickett wasn’t about to take his hit off Turner’s knuckle as instructed. Turner huffed and tossed the coke out the window, and Pickett took the stage in a foul mood.
Dressed in a form-fitting rhinestone-and-lavender jumpsuit, Pickett could only smile at the ecstatic reception he received, and his anger melted into a crowd-pleasing, high-energy set devoid of ballads. This was no time for introspection. Instead, Pickett, pouring sweat, sang like his life depended on it. He pushed his voice so violently it threatened to shatter, but never did. As his producer Jerry Wexler once said, “Wilson would scream notes, where other screamers just scream sound.”
Like a preacher he searched aloud for an answer, and finally provided one: ‘Soul ain’t nothin’ but a feelin’.’
As the show nears its crescendo, Pickett addresses the audience: “What is soul?” Like a preacher he searched aloud for an answer, and finally provides one: “Soul ain’t nothin’ but a feelin’.” Then he pours that feeling into a high-octane “Land of 1000 Dances.” The audience dances in celebration, massed against the stage, and then a few break off to join Pickett, who mimics their movements, basking in the moment. By the time he exits at dawn, “Soul Brother No. 2” had likely moved up the ranks past James Brown.
Even more so, his week in Ghana had shifted his perspective on the world, at least temporarily. Pickett had been almost defiantly apolitical before his arrival there, often deflecting interviewers’ questions about racial inequality. But after his Soul to Soul experience, Pickett spoke out. “There’s a lot of talk at home in the States about developing a sense of Black pride,” he said. “But you’ll never really know it until you’ve gone back to your roots and seen what a beautiful country Ghana is and how beautiful your African brothers and sisters are.”
The goodwill was short-lived. Pickett returned to the continent in 1976 to perform in South Africa, a tour in part designed to bolster the Black population and protest Apartheid. But the promoter who arranged the tour was disappointed that Pickett evinced little interest in the country’s political issues. “I don’t know if he was apolitical or just didn’t care,” said the promoter quoted in Fletcher’s Pickett biography. “He seemed to be more interested in the material cause of why he was in South Africa.”
As many in the music industry had already discovered, Pickett’s prickliness was part of the volatile what-you-see-is-what-you-get package. They didn’t call him the “Wicked Pickett” for nothing.