Wilson Walks After Midnight In Memphis

May 29, 2012

When Atlantic Records took an interest in what was happening in Memphis at Stax, an intriguing comparison of the greenness of grasses took place. When it came to making records, there was a New York way, and there was a Memphis way.

In New York, the Artist and Repertoire person (the predecessor to the producer) carefully worked with the performer to select materials to be recorded. The session was booked, arrangements and charts written, the union musicians called in, and the performance was recorded like clockwork. Working in a multi-track environment, it wasn’t unusual to overdub parts in order to perfect the product.

In Memphis, the musicians played, the singers sang, the one-track tape machine rolled, and a record occurred. Rarely was anything written, except in the heart, if not in the DNA, of the participants.

Tom Dowd came down from New York with his fancy multi-track recording ways, and the folks at Stax thought “This is how we should be doing things in Memphis.”

Jerry Wexler came down from New York to Memphis and saw the spontaneous creation of magic and thought, “They can’t do these things in New York, so we need to send our artists to Memphis!”

One of the first Atlantic artists Wexler brought to town was Wilson Pickett. Wilson’s roots were in Alabama, and he took up his craft as a teen in Detroit. The gospel Violinaires launched his recording career on Chess. Then it was on to the Falcons, with future Stax stalwarts Mack Rice and Eddie Floyd. Pickett segued to a solo career, and each chart single made a blip on Jerry Wexler’s radar at Atlantic. When Wilson came over to Atlantic, they took the traditional New York route, but knew there was something better out there.

Out there was down here in Memphis. The first single they produced, written by Pickett and Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, would eventually rank #134 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. Before they met, Cropper researched Pickett’s earlier material, even his gospel work, and noticed a phrase in the ad-libs in the fade out of “I‘m Gonna Cry;” a throwaway mention about “the midnight hour.” With that phrase in mind, a classic was constructed, built on a foundation inspired by the new dance craze, the Jerk. R&B always had a proclivity to emphasize beats two and four in a measure. This song and subsequent Stax releases, added a slight delay, building anticipation and intensity to the sound. And it probably served to spike the “easy-to-dance-to” percentiles on American Bandstand‘s “Rate-A-record.”

It may come as a surprise, but despite being number one on the R&B chart, “The Midnight Hour” just missed the top 20 on Billboard at the time, and in original release only sold 300,000 copies. But appreciation of the song has grown with time. Cover versions have been waxed by acts as divergent as Martha Reeves And The Vandellas and The Grateful Dead.

John Lennon owned a portable jukebox in the mid-60‘s, and in that 40 record assortment was a copy of Pickett’s “Midnight Hour.”

Wilson Pickett’s stay in Memphis didn’t last long. The other big songs from his three sessions he recorded here included “634-5789 (Soulsville, USA),” and “Ninety-Nine And A Half Won’t Do.” Personality clashes between Pickett and Stax owner Jim Stewart led to a parting of ways. But Wilson’s next stop down the road, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, put him in the top 10 with “Land Of 1,000 Dances.” And there was another song which curiously didn’t make the top 20, but has a life of its own now, “Mustang Sally.”