When I first picked up this new megaphone to yell about music, I promised – teased, really – some particular episodes and anecdotes. I teased, “What veteran soul singer answered my impulse-driven phone call having just signed his first record deal in years?“
It was one of those “where are they now” musings, of the wistful sort that seldom leads anywhere. And it happened on a slow day in the teletype office – the “wire room” – at the old Gazette building on State Street in downtown Schenectady.
This was actually the second wire room for me, a windowless room on the back of the building, noisy with machine clacking, where the news from outside first came into the newspaper. My job was simple. For 13 hours a day, three days a week, I cut apart the stories printed on long rolls of thin paper and delivered them to editors in the newsroom who edited them. I rolled type-setting tape corresponding to those stories and placed them on a pegboard, waiting for delivery to the composing room for typesetting. The 17 machines around me ran smoothly in good weather, less so when the air grew humid.
The first wire room was on the third floor at the front of the building, a floor above the newsroom, so I dropped news stories down a chute to land behind its horse-shoe shaped desk. It was a pleasant enough space, apart from the clatter, with wall-to-wall windows offering a view of Baum’s Newsroom (Harry Leva, proprietor) across the street. There, bookies awaited the racetrack results to see which bets they’d have to pay*. Next door, radiating class, was the Imperial, a fancy women’s fashion mecca. Both are gone now, the Imperial converted into a restaurant called Mexican Radio, Baum’s leveled for its patio. Passenger and freight trains rattled on elevated tracks over State Street to the left, just past the Press Box – an adjunct staff office, with booze. Reporters and editors went out the Gazette door after their shifts – after the paper was put to bed – and into the Press Box just steps away. One woman, a comprehensively Gazette person, worked in the Gazette composing room, then at the Press Box and dated several editors in succession.
To the right from the Gazette and the Press Box, State Street passes with straight-line efficiency through a block of retail and restaurant energy; then, between two churches, it curves up hill past the Plaza, an ornate cinema still showing first run fare when we moved to town. It still housed goldfish in its lobby fountain, but stood defunct that day in 1978 when I picked up the wire room phone.
One summer night around then, State Street was filled with yelling, marching men. An early wave of layoffs hit GE, among the first salvos of cost-cutting that “Neutron Jack” Welch aimed at the workforce. Like a neutron bomb, he “killed” people with layoffs, leaving buildings intact. Our longtime car mechanic Belechew Emaelaf then worked at GE; he escaped being laid off since his supervisors considered him so essential they hid him for nearly two years.
Thousands of hourly union workers paraded down State past the Gazette that noisy night, having fun, not angry yet. Protesting but mostly playing, they laughed and joked around, like very big little boys headed into a bowling alley or baseball stadium. If they’d known how doomed they were, they might not have hunched in mock-clandestine crouches to peel off from the demonstration-march and pour into the Press Box.
Above that straight block where I saw that oblivious throng sat Veteran’s Park where, in the ‘Nam years, demonstrators stood stoic behind signs. Drivers honked in support or spat in derision. Steep enough to sled down, the park widens around a fountain. One surprising night, when I was too briefly home on leave from the Navy, years before, I waded there with the first woman I ever loved, both of us blissfully drunk.
That first wire room, speaking of love or the search for it, was on the same floor as Classified Advertising, a room of phone-bound young women. Some career types worked the day shift, others came in after high school. One afternoon, one of those high school girls, from a longtime Gazette family, brought in a thermos of whiskey sours to share. I had to pass Classified, then through the Sports Department – quiet by day when its editor took the longest lunches in journalism history, bustling and full of cigarette smoke by night – to get to the wire room. Those newspaper people were my social life until I met the dozens of working class hippies at Stereo Sound on Jay Street a block east.
State Street in the late 1970s was busy; there was lots to watch; so I did, between reading science fiction books borrowed from the library a ten minute walk away. To see directly below to the sidewalk, I had to perch on the desk. I was on all fours once when a touring school group – a handful of high school kids and two nuns – came in behind me, so silent under the complex treble roar of 17 teletype machines that I never heard them and was startled to turn around and find them silently gawking at my ass.
No such fun in the second wire room; no spectacle of State Street flowing cars and walkers in fluid parades, no demonstrations, no whiskey sours, no chance to watch the loitering eccentrics of the sort Schenectady indulged then.
That second wire room was all brick echo and isolation. So, I was bored one uneventful day; when the machines were all running in cooperative smoothness and I didn’t have to phone the Associated Press and United Press International offices in Albany to request repeats or repairs.
I wondered: “Where is Wilson Pickett now?”
Once a big deal, he’d charted radio hits since 1963, my junior year at Bishop Gibbons High School. But his best years were behind him, that day I wondered about him in the wire room. From 1965 through 1968, “In the Midnight Hour,” “634- 5789 (Soulsville U.S.A.),” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” “I’m In Love,” “Stagger Lee,” both “Hey Jude” and “Hey Joe” climbed both Hot 100 and R&B charts.
Born in Alabama, raised in Detroit, and first heard in Gospel groups, he made most of his music in Memphis. Southern soul-style, Pickett’s records layered wild Gospel-y shouts on funk grooves that hit hardest on the two-beat after Jerry Wexler suggested this rhythmic shift. Pickett sang raw, the studio band – Booker T’s MGs, without Booker T – cooked hot. As MGs guitarist Steve Cropper recalled for Kevin Phinney’s liner notes for a Pickett compilation album, “Basically, we’d been one-beat-accenters with an afterbeat; it was like ‘boom dah,’ but here was a thing that went ‘um-chaw,’ just the reverse as far as the accent goes.”
Hits put Pickett on the radio and on the road. He played here as the Union College Concert Committee, linked to the school’s radio station WRUC, brought top pop, rock and jazz groups to campus. The girl-group Shangri-Las and British Invaders Eric Burdon and the Animals once played here on the same show; jazz genius Louis Armstrong played on campus the next night. Shows on campus were for students only then, so I only heard about them years, decades, later. As I reported in the October 22, 2018 Gazette, when Little Richard played on campus, WRUC DJ Jeff Hedquist recalled their in-studio interview was wild as the stage show. Also in Union’s 60s hit-parade, as Hedquist and his Concert Committee colleague Bob Saltzman told me: the Kingston Trio; the Beach Boys; the Buckinghams; the Blues Project (featuring Schenectady guitarist Steve Katz); Otis Redding (seven months to the day before his fatal plane crash); B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix in an all-star revue. Saltzman said they paired Wilson Pickett with comic Flip Wilson as “Wilson Weekend,” April 27, 1968, in the Memorial Fieldhouse, which then had a dirt floor. Pickett’s single “She’s Lookin’ Good” was no. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 that week.
Pickett made a big noise, then left a big hole.
Where was he now? Why no hits in more than a decade? Was he alive? Had he lost that exuberant claxon of a voice?
In 1978, years before Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, years before the internet, finding out such things took more work than now.
I think I reached out to somebody with more show-biz industry savvy than I and found “The Billboard Guide” was the go-to source for information on music stars. A fat compendium, published annually, it listed performers by their agents and managers.
So, I phoned Billboard, in Manhattan, and asked. I doubt I knew enough to request contact information on Wilson Pickett as a free sample, pending possible purchase; but I did manage to persuade a kind young guy on the other end of the phone at the magazine to tell me Wilson Pickett was represented by one Jimmy Evans, in mid-town. I don’t recall the street or the number, but I do remember I dialed it right away.
A laid-back sort of guy answered, a southern black man from his drawly, molassess speech cadence. I asked for Jimmy Evans, the guy on the phone acknowledged he was the man, Wilson Pickett’s manager; and he told me he was with Wilson Pickett at that very moment.
Evans reported that they had just walked into the office, five minutes before, and that they were happily toasting, with a good champagne, their elation at having just signed a new record deal. This was Pickett’s first chance to record in about two years, with Big Tree, an Atlantic Records affiliate. “Hold on,” said Evans amiably. Then, way too soon for me to collect myself and in any sense get ready, that astounding voice boomed through the telephone: “Hel-LO!”
I was so astonished by THAT Voice – the voice that launched 1,000 dances, that energized many a “Midnight Hour” – that I stood right up. I stayed on my feet throughout the conversation, and I addressed him as Mr. Pickett, which still seems only proper. He was in the best possible mood and talked at length about his career and his life. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember very clearly a strong feeling of awe. When I told him where I was, he told me he used to come up there, to hunt and fish.
He told me about his new album and claimed – convincingly – that his voice was just fine and all there. He’d recorded it in Alabama, with cats who’d rocked his earlier records, and he felt comfortable making it and proud of the result.
Later that year, Pickett’s A Funky Situation album came out, exploded out, really. It erupted with the best-ever version of the Rascals’ “Groovin’” – as good as his Beatles cover, “Hey Jude.” “Lay Me Like You Hate Me” packed a similar R&B punch. In my “Electric Music” Gazette column in February 1979, I wrote “’A Funky Situation’ finds Pickett growling, howling and crooning with his old irresistible gusto – backed by super-funky instrumentals.”
When he sang those songs, he sounded as he had on the phone with me, confident, strong, having fun with it – just as he looked in the album photos. On the front, he’s in full force-of-nature sing-down-the-house glee; on the back, he’s more contained, gloating a little, maybe. “I’m back, deal with it – or, not.” In addition to the foghorn strength of his voice, Pickett always sounded happy to be singing, and that feeling came through the music.
The rest of the “A Funky Situation” album was OK, but it was clearly designed to hitchhike on the disco wave. It didn’t sell much; I think there was a follow up album that I never got my hands on.
Next thing I heard, he was getting busted for a drunkenly destructive drive across the lawn of some small-town Jersey mayor. In another mishap behind the wheel, a man died. I heard there were problems with drugs and drink.
Best thing I heard about his later years: in 1991, he was – quite properly, belatedly – inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. For some, that’s a green light to renewed career momentum, a fame transfusion that energizes them, often as some younger star takes up the cause of an elder hero and sponsors a new album. Bruce Hornsby brought back Leon Russell, who expressed gratitude for being rescued from “the rest area.” Tom Petty produced Del Shannon’s last album, his first in eight years; while Steve Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen recharged Darlene Love’s battery before David Letterman and Paul Shaffer made her combustible “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” an over the top holiday tradition.
But that comeback train didn’t stop for Wilson Pickett, Mr. Over-the-Top, himself. He died in 2006 at just 64, before he could complete a Gospel album he’d worked on for years in a return to his church-shout roots.
Little Richard preached at the funeral. In an interview around the same time, Little Richard told me he was proud that Pickett dubbed him the “Architect of Rock and Roll,” a title he cherished.
Now, Little Richard is gone, too – two matchless voices wielded by thrilling wild men giving us intoxicating musical fun. Thinking about them and mourning them both – Little Richard recently and Wilson Pickett more than a decade ago – I realized they both sang happy; Pickett with a raucous but engaging growl, Little Richard in an anarchic spirit, spiced with danger.
How grateful I felt that I got to see them sing, and to hear those voices over the phone.
We’ll take up some other teases later:
What hard-rock singer asked about the size of my unit?
What pre-show bet with my wife Ellie turned into a backstage mini-concert for her alone?
*Race results from the “New York track” – the horse-racing facilities operated by the New York Racing Association, Saratoga, Belmont, Hialeah – produced the “number” – a three-digit calculation that multitudes bet daily before the NYS Lottery began. Betting the right number paid 600 to one, though the odds were 1,000 to one. It worked this way: dropping all the zeroes, adding the digits of the win, place and show results of last three races in order yielded a three digit result. Payoffs for the 7thrace produced the first digit; the sum of 8thrace results yielded the second digit; the 9thrace calculation provided the third and last digit. Gambling lore legend has it that the wire-room staffer would drop the race results out the window to gamblers below who’d dash across to Baum’s and place a bet they knew had won. I never saw this happen, but loved the idea.
Ben Lomio’s Broadway News, half a block from Baum’s and the Gazette, was numbers-betting headquarters. Daily cash pickups required a two-car convoy an hour after the last race. The money car came first, carrying the collectors; then came the gun car, carrying protection. When I told my dangerously witty friend Henry Hunter about this, he immediately hatched a robbery plan. Henry had one arm, and his plan involved wearing two artificial arms. He figured the gun guys would first canvass the area for three-armed stick-up specialists. This wouldn’t take long, but bracing all the two-armed robbers would, before going after the one-armed miscreants. Relating this over lunch to the late, great cartoonist John Caldwell, I concluded my account of Henry’s plan this way: “The key to the caper was his ingenious disguise.” Caldwell lost it, laughing. He sprayed a mouthful of diet Coke across the table and all over Ellie, next to me in the diner booth. To this day, when somebody laugh-sprays a mouthful over their table-mates, THAT’s a “Caldwell.”