May 1970: Wilson Pickett Makes It Sweet with "Sugar, Sugar"

Wilson Pickett in 1970
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Ron Howard/Redferns

On Jan. 11, 1922, a teenager named Leonard Thompson made history.

Not music history, mind you, but medical history, and we freely admit that this is the sort of revelation that’s likely to make you go, “Wait, so why are we talking about it here on SoulMusic.com, then?”

Because on this date, the aforementioned Mr. Thompson – all of 14 years old at the time – became the first person ever to receive an injection of insulin as a treatment for Type 1 diabetes. When we became aware of this anniversary, rightly or wrongly, our mind immediately went to straight to one particular song: a little ditty called “Sugar, Sugar.”

Written by Jeff Barry with Andy Kim, “Sugar, Sugar” first found itself on record store shelves in May 1969, when it was released as a single by The Archies, an animated band that didn’t actually exist but nonetheless came to life in the studio through the efforts of singer Ron Dante, with backing vocals by Toni Wine and the aforementioned Mr. Kim, and instrumentation from a top-notch collective of studio musicians. Despite being fictional, The Archies took “Sugar, Sugar” to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in ’69, and in addition to spending eight weeks in the top spot in the U.K., the song also became a chart-topper in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and Zimbabwe.

At this point, you likely have the song coursing through your brain like sugar through your bloodstream, but you may still not quite comprehend why we’re talking about here.

Enter Wilson Pickett.

In the spring of 1970, “Wicked” Pickett released his version of “Sugar, Sugar,” although it initially made its debut as a B-side, backing his version of a Dick Holler composition entitled “Cole, Cooke & Redding.” It wasn’t until the radio station WDRC contacted Atlantic Records and told them that they’d gotten it backwards, that “Cole, Cooke & Redding” should be on the flip side instead, that the label changed direction and reissued the single in the manner WDRC suggested.

Read More: 5 Songs to Soothe the Soul

Pickett was an artist whose choice in cover songs showed a singer who wasn’t afraid to reinvent a tune by making it more soulful than anyone would think possible, and “Sugar, Sugar” is definitely a textbook example of his gift. Many rock critics will happily mock The Archies, but the fact that Pickett was able to take a bubblegum pop song and turn it into a soulful single...that’s talent, baby.

As a post-script, we’re obliged to mention that, from a chart standpoint, Pickett’s version of “Sugar, Sugar” couldn’t compete with The Archies’ version, but he did take it to No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 4 on the R&B singles chart, and that ain’t nothin’! So give Pickett’s performance a spin: you won’t believe the loveliness of loving it, and you won’t believe it’s true, but...it is. It totally is.

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