Magazine article The Spectator

When the Wheels Come Off

Magazine article The Spectator

When the Wheels Come Off

Article excerpt


by Tony Douglas Sanctuary, L14.99, pp. 415



by B. B. King with David Ritz

Sceptre, 799, pp. 324

Rock stars these days have all the advantages, which may be why so few of them are of much interest as human beings. If the rock biography has become debased curency, it's at least partly because most of its subjects have enjoyed such incident-free lives. So they released another record? So they played a few more gigs? Do we care?

Rock's pioneers had none of the advantages, and so lived predominantly terrible lives that are much more fun to read about. Some, like Buddy Holly and Hank Williams, died almost surreally young, having packed more experiences into a couple of decades than most of us manage in seven. One or two, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, are still going, and are never photographed without huge smiles on their faces. All too many, like Elvis Presley and Jackie Wilson, managed to hang on only until middle age, when the wheels fell off with a mighty clatter. Of all these, perhaps the saddest story is that of Jackie Wilson, which makes it all the more surprising that no one has told it before.

Tony Douglas's book is the first fulllength biography of a remarkable singer. Wilson is probably best known in the UK for 'Reet Petite', which rather bizarrely reached number 1 in 1986, a mere 29 years after its first release. But between 1957 and 1968 he notched up 24 top 40 hits in the US, including `Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher And Higher' and 'I Get The Sweetest Feeling'. If you know these songs - and you surely do - you will know that Wilson possessed one of the most distinctive and fluid pop voices of them all, with a vocal range that defied physics. His wild and charismatic live performances - Douglas generally favours the adjective 'rapturous' - inspired Elvis and countless later singers. Possibly because it has not been played to death on dismal 'Gold' radio stations, his music remains amazingly fresh. The best songs still sound as though they were recorded yesterday, and maybe always will.

His life, though, was a complete shambles. Born in Michigan in 1934, and brought up like so many blues and early R&B performers under the paternalistic shadow of the Detroit motor industry, young Jackie was what indulgent parents usually call a handful and everyone else calls a nightmare. …

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