Wilson Pickett "Chocolate Mountain" (Henry Stone Music HSM 5058-2)
by Pete Nickols
WILSON PICKETT’S GREATEST MOMENTS WERE ON ATLANTIC BUT DON’T HASTILY WRITE OFF THIS MID-70’S FUNKIER SET
I’m Gonna Do It All Over; Let Me Know; The Best Part Of A Man; Love Will Keep Us Together; Sweetwater Jail; It’s Gonna be Good; I’m Changed; How Will I Ever Know; That Woman; Are You Ready.
Wilson Pickett was quite simply one of THE great soul singers. Oldies radio listeners who only ever get to hear his pacier hits “In The Midnight Hour”, “Mustang Sally” and “Land Of 1000 Dances” probably think of him merely as an old soul star who could do a good job on a mid-to-fast-paced dance item. Others more into soul music rightly rate much of his Atlantic output and appreciate also his very considerable ability with slower-paced gospelly soul songs; but Pickett’s phenomenal gospel-honed voice and involvement in his best songs marked him down as a major soul performer and even as late as the mid-70’s, a producer as astute as Brad Shapiro was not likely to take too many musical liberties when ‘updating’ Wicked Pickett.
Which brings us to this 1976 album, recorded at Sound Shops Studio in Nashville and released here for the first time in CD format, thanks to a CD-R pressing by rights-owner Henry Stone. Henry and Shapiro invented the Wicked label specifically of course for Wilson once they had him on contract after he had left RCA and he managed two R&B single hits for them on the label, “The Best Part of A Man” making a respectable No.26 on the chart early in 1976 (having entered in November 1975) on Wicked 8101, while the follow-up, Pickett’s revamping of Howie Greenfield and Neil Sedaka’s song for Captain & Tennille, “Love Will Keep Us Together”, made No.69 in the Spring of that year on Wicked 8102. This success prompted the 10-track “Chocolate Mountain” album which duly appeared on Wicked LP 9001, though, sadly, it failed to dent the R&B or Pop album charts.
Shapiro chose a musical ‘sound’ to tie in with the more funky demands of the mid-70’s but Pickett’s voice and approach to a lyric never really changed – even a mediocre up-tempo, almost poppy “I’m Gonna Do It All Over” couldn’t ‘de-soul’ Pickett; while the 70’s-style struttin’ southern funk of Mack Rice’s “Let Me Know” was just ‘food and drink’ to Wilson.
Clarence Reid’s driving, punchy “The Best Part Of A Man” was ‘catchy’ commercial funk (though to a good standard) and it’s no surprise that this had been an R&B hit on forty-five.
Also commercially successful was Pickett’s soul-funk ‘take’ on the aforementioned Neil Sedaka song “Love Will Keep Us Together”. Pickett sings Sedaka? You’d be amazed how good it sounds!
Much more swampy and bluesy with plenty of ‘rap’ from Pickett is the pacy “Sweetwater Jail”. The slide guitar playing on this driving opus is also outstanding. I really love this track.
“It’s Gonna Be Good” was the flip of the Sedaka song on Pickett’s Wicked 8102 single. For me Wilson’s fine vocal is lost just a bit too much in the busy instrumental mix but the overall effect is of an involving bouncy piece of funky soul, which features some trademark Pickett ‘on key’ screaming near the end.
“I’m Changed” is yet another pacy, funky opus with some fine femme back-up singing behind Wilson’s top-drawer lead-vocal. The song almost becomes like a fast call-and-response gospel outing.
The pace finally slows to a loping mid-tempo for “How Will I Ever Know” which retains the answering ‘gospel-girls’ behind Wilson who is wondering if his own girl is lying to deceive him and, if so, how will he ever know that he’s her man.
Donnie Fritts’ “That Woman” slows us right down to a melodic, lilting tempo for a fine piece of country-soul. Pickett works the telling lyrics like the soul veteran he already was by 1976 and the quality of this excellent song shines through for all to enjoy.
“Are You Ready” brings the CD to a close. Wilson begins unashamedly with a melismatic verse of the spiritual Swing Low Sweet Chariot before the insistent jogging rhythm kicks in for the song proper, which the lyrics make plain is still basically a gospel song, with those femme back-up singers really coming into their own again. This is infectious good-time gospel-soul and Pickett is well able to imbue it with all his sanctified vocal nuances.
Not all the tracks here will appeal musically, maybe, but the Wicked One was still in great shape, that’s for sure!