They called him “Mr. Excitement,” because when he took to the stage to sing one of his more than 50 charting hits, the audiences (particularly the young ladies in the crowd) went absolutely crazy - screaming, jumping, rushing the stage, passing out. He was Jackie Wilson, and if you were into soul music from about 1958 to 1972, you more than likely had a few Wilson 45s in your collection. Maybe more than a few.
He was a big star, albeit one with a troubled personal life, and when he had a heart attack onstage in 1975, he slipped into a coma that left him incapacitated until his death in 1984. Nevertheless, Wilson was an enormous influence on many beloved hit makers, from Van Morrison to Michael Jackson, to even current artists like Hozier. Oldies radio still plays his hits, and occasionally you’ll hear him singing in the background of a television or streaming advertisement; if companies want you to get excited about their products, who better to put you in the mood than Mr. Excitement himself?
If you’re unfamiliar with Wilson’s work, or want to educate someone who wants to know more, you could do worse than bring up these five stellar tracks:
“Reet Petite”: The energy that comes out of this man seems to propel the whole affair, from the horn section to the rhythm section. The first time you hear it, it will rock you back. Van Morrison’s song “Jackie Wilson Said” name checks this one in its first line, borrowing just a little of that energy for one of his biggest hits. But it all starts here.
“Lonely Teardrops”: Wilson’s doo-wop roots come to the fore on this song, his first R&B No. 1. You get to hear the full range of his voice in “Lonely Teardrops,” from his perfect enunciation in the quieter moments, to the pure power coming out of the choruses. And what’s more, it all goes by in just under breathtaking, intense three minutes.
"(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher": You’ve probably heard this song a hundred times, in ads or movies or television shows, and not known who it was singing. “Higher and Higher” is another of Wilson’s vocal triumphs, and a feel-good song if ever there were one.
“My Empty Arms”: Wilson could do sad songs, too. This one’s operatic melody (from an actual opera, I Pagliacci) gives Wilson the perfect canvas on which to show off the full dramatic possibilities of his voice. It’s a remarkable song and performance – utterly unforgettable.
“Baby Workout”: Wilson would show off his dance moves when he performed this song and his audiences would follow suit. Well, at least those members of the audience not screaming or weeping or trying to get onstage.