On September 29 in 1975, Jackie Wilson was performing as part of Dick Clark’s Good Ole Rock ‘N Roll Revue in New Jersey. While singing “My heart is crying” from his signature song “Lonely Teardrops,” Wilson had a heart attack and fell and hit his head. Medical personnel saved his life. But because of the time it took them to revive Wilson, he ended up in a coma.
Jackie Wilson’s Death
Although Wilson recovered slightly, his great voice never spoke again. He spent the rest of his life in a semi-comatose state, dying on January 21, 1984.
A few months after Wilson died, Marvin Gaye was killed on April 1, 1984 when he intervened in a fight between his parents and his father shot him. I remember hearing about Gaye’s death that year, but I do not recall hearing anything about Wilson.
There are a number of reasons why Gaye’s death may have received more attention than Wilson’s death in the news. There were was not many years between the 49-year-old Wilson and Gaye who was one day short of his 45th birthday. But Wilson seemed less relevant and from another era.
Gaye was in the middle of a comeback, having won a Grammy for “Sexual Healing” a year earlier. By contrast, Wilson was still performing his classic songs on an oldies tour before spending almost a decade a coma. Also, Gaye’s death was more surprising and violent then Wilson’s, which also may have contributed to the media attention.
Wilson’s Troubled Life
Wilson’s coma and death were not the only indignities and problems he faced in his troubled life. He fought drug addiction, and his womanizing led to an angry lover shooting him in 1961.
During the height of Wilson’s career, he had to play to segregated audiences in the South. At one point New Orleans police arrested and beat him after they disapproved of one performance.
Wilson faced other problems. In 1967, he was arrested on morals charges in South Carolina for being in a motel room with a white woman. In 1970, his 16-year-old son was killed by a neighbor during an argument.
Wilson faced financial difficulties too. Throughout his career, his manager did not handle money properly and Wilson was left with tax debts and no money.
In the early 1970s, though, Wilson started turning his life around. He gave up alcohol and drugs. And he got rid of the manager who caused his financial problems. But then he had the heart attack. When he died, he was penniless, so he was buried in an unmarked grave in Detroit, like a pauper.
The Joy in Wilson’s Music
I absolutely love his recording of “Lonely Teardrops.” I love Jackie Wilson’s voice, and I love to see his performances. You can see the precursor to some of Michael Jackson’s moves in Wilson’s dancing.
On the Million Dollar Quartet tapes, you may hear Elvis Presley talking about seeing Jackie Wilson sing Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” and you can hear the admiration in Presley’s voice. Wilson’s talents inspired other artists, like Van Morrison who wrote and recorded “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile).”
Those artists heard the jubilance and rapture in Wilson’s performances, which explains why he was called “Mr. Excitement.” I like to think that when Jackie Wilson was on stage that last time in 1975, singing about his heart crying, that his final moments of real consciousness were of the type of joy conveyed in the performance below.
Bonus Performance: In this clip from 1974 around a year before Wilson’s final performance, Roy Orbison and Del Shannon introduce Jackie Wilson performing “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” along with “Lonely Teardrops.”
Why do you think Jackie Wilson is not given more attention? What are your favorite Jackie Wilson songs? Leave a comment.
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