Part 2 of a look at various artists who have recorded the song “You Left The Water Running”. Part 1 is here…
I am the wicked….I am named the wicked, I got to be the wicked.”
“I’d describe my sound as a good piano player, a guitar in tune, a bass in tune, a funky drummer, and background girls in miniskirts.”
It was hearing Wilson Pickett’s blazing version of “Hey Jude” when the penny dropped. Sure, we all know “In The Midnight Hour”, have danced badly to “Land of 1,000 Dances” with an auntie or uncle at a wedding whilst inebriated, and most of us have seen The Commitments enough to be aware of Pickett, but sometimes it’s not until you hear a song that the radio hasn’t overplayed that it hits you.
Pickett’s voice is an extraordinary instrument and he has some great songs, backed by those classic house bands of Stax and FAME (Muscle Shoals) studios. The singing style comes from the young Pickett watching gospel singers in chapel.
“When I was a young ‘un, you’d see these big ole girls just gettin’ carried away by it all and hollerin’, lettin’ it all loose. I used to watch ’em, then I joined in and then I got the sound that I would use as the basis for my whole style of vocalising. I used that wild, abandoned style of singin’ and put it into the context of soul.”
However, Pickett was raised in Detroit, and the mix of City boy Pickett with the country boys in the Stax studio saw a clash of cultures.
Pickett spoke of the first time he flew to Stax studios. “I looked out of the plane window and I see black folks pickin’ cotton, and I say, “S–, turn this…plane around, ain’t no way I’m goin’ back there..”
The sessions were a success, but led to a falling out. Pickett had to use the FAME studios in Muscle Shoals to record “You Left The Water Running” for his Wicked Pickett album in 1967 because he had upset the band (namely the MGs without Booker T) at Stax-Volt recording studios at an earlier session. Pickett recorded several hit singles, including “634- 5789” and “99 and a Half Won’t Do” at Stax, but not everyone was happy.
“When the band went outside, cooling their heels away from the man of fire, he walked out to try and buy their affection, offering each $100 if they’d come back inside and cut with him. Their self- respect cost more than that, and Pickett was spurned, leading (Stax Records owner) Jim Stewart to phone (Atlantic Records boss Jerry) Wexler and tell him, though the arrangement seemed promising, not to send any more of Atlantic’s stars to Stax to cut the greatest songs of their careers. “The guys shut that door,” says Jim. “They said, ‘Don’t bring that asshole down here again. We don’t have to put up with that crap.’ The guys loved working with Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler. They just didn’t want to be subjected to Wilson.”
Wilson Pickett found early success in 1959 singing in a Detroit vocal group, The Falcons. Like many similar groups at the time, The Falcons had taken gospel music into a secular context, paving the way for what would become known as soul. And what a group it was, featuring Mack Rice (wrote Mustang Sally), Joe Stubbs (brother Levi was lead singer in the Four Tops) and Eddie Floyd (later a solo artist and writer for Stax).
Pickett sent a song he had written, “If You Need Me” to Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler who gave it away to Solomon Burke. The song became a hit for Burke in March 1963, much to Pickett’s chagrin, who had wanted to record the song himself. He would have to wait a few months, until June that year, before he had his own hit single, “It’s Too Late”. It wouldn’t be until 1965, having signed to Atlantic Records the previous year, that the classic million-selling “In The Midnight Hour” would confirm Pickett’s hit making credentials.
Was Wilson Pickett really wicked? Not according to Solomon Burke. “Wilson is not wicked. His is a gentle soul. He’s had a lot of hurt. He has a big family and he’s taken care of them.” It appears that for all Pickett’s bluster, he was simply a man who wanted to succeed on his own terms, all too aware of the circumstances of where he had come from, and with a burning desire never to go back there.
At both Stax and FAME studios, Pickett produced a great run of hit records from then until he left Atlantic in 1972. They are collected on several albums on Atlantic, all with those lovely plum labels, all of which are worth a listen.
My favourite album of Pickett’s is the one with “You Left The Water Running” hidden away on side 2, 1967’s “The Wicked Pickett”.
By the way, I have found this German TV show footage of Pickett – it’s extraordinary stuff:
…and here’ “You Left The Water Running”…
However, as much as I love Wilson Pickett’s version of this song, it’s still not the best version of “You Left The Water Running”. More next time…
Postscript: After listening to the early stones albums, it’s interesting to hear Pickett’s versions of tracks the Stones cut, including “Mercy Mercy”, “Time Is On My Side” and “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”.
- Interviews by Nick Kent and Michael Lydon from Rock’s Backpages
- Robert Gordon’s excellent history of Stax Records, “Respect Yourself”
- Gerri Hershey’s superb “Nowhere To Run”
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