“In this publication, I am sharing with the readers the stories about my father that I hold very dear in my heart. These are my personal experiences and stories that have been shared with me and my mother, family members, and fans.” The writer of the lines above and the author of the book titled The Life of Jackie Wilson – the Legacy Continues is Brenda Wilson, Jackie’s daughter born out of wedlock at the turn of the 50s. She’s an entrepreneur and entertainer in her own right, too, and has received numerous, mostly local Michigan awards. She’s also the founder of www.jackiewilsonfoundation.org/.
There are not many books about Jackie Wilson and those that actually have been published are somewhat controversial and to a degree semi-scandalous, portraying Jackie in a rather negative light and based on untrustworthy or biased sources. There are Tony Douglas’ books Lonely Teardrops and Jackie Wilson: The Man, the Music, the Mob and Doug Carter’s The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson. Last year they still released two thin tomes: Harry Lime’s Jackie Wilson (52 pages) and Rise of the Falling Star: the Life of Jackie Wilson by Anthony Wilson and Reginald Abrams, Jr. (133 pages).
Brenda Wilson’s book came out also in 2020, in September, and it’s not very heavy either (180 pages). There are numerous black & white photos, but only six with Jackie in them. Foreword is by the late Mary Wilson, and there’s no index. This is a very quick and light read. Jackie’s bio and career milestones are rushed through rather sketchy, only on 72 pages actually. Brenda doesn’t write a lot about her personal memories but mostly refers to other persons, which is understandable, because she grew up mainly with her mother, Susie Mae Gibson.
Jack Leroy Wilson Jr. was born in Detroit in 1934, and some of his childhood and teenage friends included his cousin Levi Stubbs, Little Willie John, Nolan Strong and – the closest of them all – the guitarist Billy Davis. Jackie’s first serious foray into music was the Ever Ready Gospel Singers in 1950, but the quartet soon disbanded. Jackie’s first secular singles under the name of Sonny Wilson were cut for the Dee Gee label in 1952, including his first reading of Danny Boy. Incidentally, the legacy of that fist gospel quartet continued fifteen years later. Offspring of a couple of members formed in 1967 a new group called the Eveready’s, and that group has since cut numerous albums for Malaco Records.
Jackie’s mother put an early stop to his son’s boxing aspirations, but that hobby, which he became engaged in during his juvenile detention days, created a solid foundation for his later energetic and even acrobatic performances on stage.
Jackie’s next step in music was to replace Clyde McPhatter in Billy Ward’s Dominoes in 1953. He, however, was fired in early 1957 after getting into a fight with Billy. In Detroit he met Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the co-writers of the first song of his second solo period called Reet Petite, which Jackie supposedly linked to his first wife, Freda Hood. The record was released on Brunswick, which became Jackie’s recording home till the bitter end in 1975. The Brunswick era produced 50 charted single sides, and six of them hit the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot charts: Lonely Teardrops, Night, Alone At Last, My Empty Arms, Baby Workout and Higher and Higher, which incidentally was first recorded by the Dells but released on an album only a few months after Jackie’s single. Baby Workout and Whispers were Jackie’s most popular albums.
Jackie’s Brunswick stint became a confinement to him. He was robbed out of royalties and his management (Nat Tarnopol) and Mob bodyguards controlled his life. Jackie collapsed on stage in New Jersey in September 1975, but the most interesting thing is that this happened just before he was supposed to testify against Brunswick in an IRS tax case. So here we have another Sam Cooke type of a mystery open for speculations. Furthermore, to rub salt in the wound, in a semi-comatose condition in a nursing home Jackie was put under guardianship of his second wife, the late Harlean Harris, the infamous lady friend of many celebrities, including Nat Tarnopol. Jackie passed in 1984 at the age of 49.
It was nice to read Jackie’s story once again, but truthfully for passionate soul music lovers and followers of Jackie’s career there really isn’t anything new on these pages. Brenda shares some sweet loving memories about her father, but it reads more like a fan letter than a biography. At the end of the book there are messages and greetings from friends, and even 48 “did you know” trivia questions, typical to entertainment magazines.
After reading the book you’re left with an impression that it deals more with Brenda than Jackie Wilson. At least there’s not much about music or making of music, which for us soul devotees is the most important aspect in Jackie’s life. For more information on that section I recommend to read liner notes to some of the Jackie Wilson compilations, especially many twofers on Edsel and the ones that are available on the U.K. Ace Records. Consider this work not as an analytical research, but more like a recreational music book.