Wilson Pickett ‘Mr. Magic Man. The Complete RCA Studio Recordings’ 2CD (Real Gone Music) 4/5

wilson-pickettBy the beginning of the 1970s, soul singer Wilson Pickett was moving with the times and he scored a major success with his final Atlantic recording, ‘In Philadelphia’, that was a marked departure in style from the grittier southern recorded albums. The then newly ascending Philly sound was in its infancy and a single ‘Engine number nine’ shot up the charts. This handy anthology neatly takes up the story where Pickett’s Atlantic contract finished and a new chapter in his career with RCA began. Wilson Pickett was already an established artist and consequently there was little need to re-brand him since he had an immediately recognisable voice and overall sound.
The first album for RCA was ‘Mr Magic’ and while the title track was a minor hit, as a whole there was something a little missing of the magic that his Atlantic albums captured in abundance. However, the second album, recorded in Nashville in 1973, was ‘Miz Lena’s boy’ and was co-produced by the singer and Brad Shapiro. It retains some of the rougher edge to Pickett’s previous work and there is certainly an old school feel to ‘Soft soul boogie woogie’ with blues-inflected electric piano and the use of horns. Why break a winning formula when it attracted attention in the past? Pickett was always an excellent chooser of cover material and in this case ‘Help me through the night’ had been a recent chart entry for Kris Kristofferson and Pickett transforms the number into an uptempo soulful ditty. A tasteful mid-tempo song, ‘Is your love live better’, is taken at a leisurely tempo while the Stax-influenced, ‘Take a close look at the woman you’re with’, was a top forty entry in the R & B charts.

During the early 1970s Wilson Pickett’s voice was still in its prime and the 1974 album, ‘Pickett in the Pocket’, saw him return to Muscle Shoals. The Memphis Horns were on board for stabbing horn accompaniment and the classy female background vocals were supplied by none other than Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes. This is arguably the strongest album of all the RCA records and it is one that most logically follows on from the Atlantic era. A storming mid-tempo southern soul opener was penned by singer-songwriter George Jackson and is a winner in every department with some tasty piano rounding off the pleasurable experience. The deep soul ambiance continues on a gently uplifting ballad in Isn’t that so’ and there is something of a blues feel to ‘I was too nice’, co-written by Pickett and Dave Crawford, the latter of whom would play a vital role in Candi Staton’s career in the mid-1970s. Only the slightly dated neo-Stax sound of ‘Don’t pass me by’ sounds a trifle passé in comparison to the smoother soul sound that was permeating the United States from the Philadelphia International staple. In 1974 Pickett recorded a ‘Live in Japan’ double album that reprised some of old material and fused it with the new. Sadly this album is not contained within and that is pity. By 1975 Wilson Pickett was primarily associated with a previous era and the advent of disco made his old-school soul seem somewhat behind the times. A change of musical direction arrived with ‘Joint me and let’s be free’ and in truth it confused long-term fans and did not attract a substantial number of new ones. Funk producer Yusuf Rahman was recruited, but the result is not especially convincing to these ears in comparison to rivals of the stature of Earth-Wind and Fire, the Ohio Players and even veterans the Isley Brothers who had evolved their distinctive sound. It works best on the ballads and the blues influenced numbers with a cover of a Paul Butterfield tune, ‘Take your pleasure where you find it’, the pick of the bunch among the uptempo songs and a killer bass line throughout. An aching ballad of some distinction comes in the shape of ‘What good is a lie’ and with fine female background vocals and horns, this was a vintage blast from the past. It should have been a hit single, but in fact no single was ever released off the album, a sure sign that the record company had lost faith in their singer. To give some idea of how this material compared with his mid-late 1960s classics, one only has to listen carefully to ‘Smokin’ in the United Nations’, a pretty decent driving number, yet not nearly as strong in the horns department and, recorded in L.A, just a little too on the smooth side for Pickett’s trademark delivery. Wilson Pickett would pass away aged just sixty-four in 2006. While his Atlantic sides will remain the definitive era in his career, these RCA albums as a whole stand the test of time pretty well and any fan of Pickett or indeed quality soul music will want to hear them.

Tim Stenhouse