The amazing Jackie Wilson was known to his many fans as “Mr. Excitement”! He was one of the most inspirational and pioneering artists of the 1950s when Black music was called “Race Music.” He was one of the most underrated performers of all times.
What is not known by many is that Berry Gordy wrote some of his biggest hits. In fact, it was because of him that we have a Motown Records Company. For the record, when you look at Elvis Presley what you see is a carbon copy or at least an attempt to be Mr. Jackie Wilson. This man was an innovator, and one of the early initiators of what became to be known as Soul Music.
In his early years, the pretty boy was a prize fighter and had a reputation for being rather quick-tempered. In spite of his phenomenal success, his personal life was full of tragedy. In 1960, in New Orleans, Wilson was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer when fans tried to climb onstage with Wilson. He shoved a policeman who had shoved one of the fans.
On February 15, 1961, in Manhattan, Wilson was injured in a shooting. It is said, the real story behind this incident was that one of his girlfriends, Juanita Jones, shot and wounded him in a jealous rage; when he returned to his Manhattan apartment with another woman, fashion model Harlean Harris, an ex-girlfriend of the late Sam Cook. Supposedly, his management concocted a story to protect Wilson’s reputation that Jones was an obsessed fan, who had threatened to shoot herself and that Wilson’s intervention resulted in his being shot.
Wilson was shot in the stomach: The bullet would result in the loss of a kidney, and lodged too close to his spine to be operated and removed. However, in early 1975, in an interview with author Arnold Shaw, Wilson maintained it actually was a zealous fan who he didn’t know that shot him. “We also had some trouble in 1961. That was when some crazy chick took a shot at me and nearly put me away for good….” Nonetheless, the story of the zealous fan was accepted, and no charges were brought against Jones. A month and a half after the shooting incident, Jackie was discharged from the hospital and apart from a limp and discomfort for a while; he was quickly on the mend.
At the time, Jackie had declared annual earnings of $263,000, while the average salary a man earned at the time was just $5,000 a year, but he discovered that, despite being at the peak of success, he was broke. Around this time, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seized Jackie’s Detroit family home. Tarnopol and his accountants were supposed to take care of such matters. Fortunately, Jackie made arrangements with the IRS to make restitution on the unpaid taxes and to re-purchase the family home at auction.
As far as money troubles went, this was not even the beginning for Wilson. Nat Tarnopol had taken advantage of Jackie, mismanaging Wilson’s money ever since he took the role of Wilson’s manager. He even had power-of-attorney over Wilson’s finances, giving him complete control over Jackie’s money. Shortly before Wilson suffered a heart attack in 1975, Tarnopol, and 18 other Brunswick executives were indicted on charges of mail fraud and tax evasion stemming from bribery and payola scandals. Also in the indictment was the charge that Tarnopol owed at least $1 million in royalties to Wilson.
In 1976, Tarnopol and the others were found guilty; an appeals court overturned their conviction 18 months later. Although the conviction was overturned, judges went into detail, outlining that Tarnopol and Brunswick Records did defraud their artists of royalties and that there was sufficient evidence for Wilson to file a lawsuit. However, a trial to sue Tarnopol for royalties never took place, as Wilson lay in a nursing home comatose. Sadly, Wilson died riddled with debt to the IRS and Brunswick Records.
Freda Hood, Wilson’s first wife, with whom he had four children, divorced him in 1965 after 14 years of marriage, frustrated with his notorious womanizing. Although the divorce was amicable, Freda would regret her decision. Freda never stopped loving him, and Jackie treated her as though she were still his wife.
His 16-year-old son, Jackie Jr., was shot and killed on a neighbor’s porch in 1970, and two of Wilson’s daughters also died at a young age. His daughter Sandra died in 1977 at the age of 24 of an apparent heart attack. Jacqueline Wilson was killed in 1988 in a drug-related incident in Highland Park, Michigan. The death of Jackie Jr. devastated Wilson. He sank into a period of depression, and for the next couple of years he remained a recluse mostly, drinking and using drugs.
Wilson’s second marriage was to model Harlean Harris in 1967 with whom he had three children, but they separated soon after. Wilson later met and lived with Lynn Crochet. He was with Crochet until his heart attack in 1975. However, as he and Harris never officially divorced, Harris took the role of Wilson’s caregiver for the singers remaining nine years.
On September 29, 1975, Wilson was one of the featured acts in Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue, hosted by the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Where he was in the middle of singing “Lonely Teardrops” when he suffered a heart attack, during the middle of the line “My heart is crying.”
When he collapsed on stage, audience members initially thought it was part of the act. Clark then ordered the musicians to stop the music. Cornell Gunter of The Coasters, who was backstage, noticed Wilson was not breathing. Gunter was able to resuscitate him, and Wilson was then rushed to a nearby hospital.
Medical personnel worked nearly 30 minutes to stabilize his vitals, but the lack of oxygen to his brain caused him to slip into a coma. He briefly emerged in early 1976, and was even able to take a few wobbly steps but slipped back into a semi-comatose state. He was a resident of the Medford Leas Retirement Center in Mount Holly, New Jersey when he was admitted to Virtua Memorial Hospital due to having trouble taking nourishment.
Jackie Wilson died on January 21, 1984, at the age of 49 from complications of pneumonia. Initially, he was buried in an unmarked grave at Westlawn Cemetery near Detroit. In 1987, a fundraiser collected enough money to purchase a headstone. Maybe the song “Lonely Tear Drops” came from his soul and spoke to the singer in a way that no one understood, as it seemed to be the story of his life. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…