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The Wicked Pickett

By RD Heldenfels Published: January 19, 2006

The Midnight Hour has come for the last time for Wilson Pickett. Word just came to the office that he has died. In that incredible group of singers that came out of Atlantic Records in the '60s -- Aretha, Otis, Sam & Dave* -- Pickett more than deserves inclusion. However many demons he had in life, I'll carry his raspy vocals in my mental MP3 as long as I have memory.

Besides, how could you not love just the idea of a song titled ''Lay Me Like You Hate Me''? He wrote that one, too.

Although Otis Redding was the more brilliant musical presence overall, Pickett was a vital addition to radio, cannily presenting songs that smacked of parties and after-parties but with a drive that made them sound like there was a party in the studio, too. ''634-5789,'' ''Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,'' ''Mustang Sally'' and the incendiary cover of ''Hey Jude,'' where Duane Allman's guitar part and Pickett's vocals battle for the title of most anguished cry of love.

The ''Hey Jude'' album also contains one of my personal favorites, ''A Man and a Half,'' driven by a great horn chart and a lyric that Pickett insists is ''no brag, just facts.'' In the defining verse, Wilson and a camel are crossing the desert. ''The camel died trying,'' he sings, ''but your man and a half is here loving you tonight.''

Still, it's on covers that Pickett demonstrated his knack with a song. Not only ''Hey Jude.'' His version of Bobby Hebb's ''Sunny'' slows it down and digs deep. ''Everybody NeedsSomebody'' pays tribute to Solomon Burke but kicks Burke's version to the ground and runs over it. ''Funky Broadway'' is more impressive instrumentally from Dyke and the Blazers, more listenable in Pickett's version.

In sum, he was great.

For more about Pickett, check out Robert Christgau's guide to Pickett recordings here.

*It occurred to me Friday morning that some music fans are going to draw a finer distinction than I did here, considering Otis Redding and Sam & Dave more parts of the Stax/Volt family than Atlantic's. And I wouldn't want to understate Stax's importance to music -- or to my music collection. But I tend to think of the Stax artists as Atlantic people in corporate terms -- through Atlantic's distribution of Stax recordings in the '60s -- and in a musical state of mind.

Listening to soul music as a teenager, I drew a Motown/Atlantic line. Motown was smoother, more palatable, while Atlantic was grittier, edgier and more to my liking (although I also love a lot of Motown). It would make me crazy when something like ''Murphy Brown'' would treat Aretha Franklin as Motown, as if they couldn't hear the difference.

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