Known to everyone for mid-60s belters like In The Midnight Hour, the late 60s found Wilson Pickett applying his gritty yawp to some unusual covers. The drawn-out anguish in his version of the Supremes You Keep Me Hanging On is just glorious.
More incongruous - and regular Dusters will know I'm a sucker for the weird shit - is his cover of Sugar Sugar, a bubblegum pop tune so twee the Monkees turned it down for being too cheesy, so it was released by a fictional band of cartoon characters, The Archies. It was the monster hit of summer 1969, and still high in the charts when Pickett gave it his solid soulful treatment. (For an equally unlikely take, check out Bob Marley's version, a Jamaican 45 that finally got worldwide release on The Complete Wailers box set).
For the B-side, Pickett did another bizarre recut. Abraham Martin and John was a late 1968 American hit for Dion, previously best known for turn of the 60s edgy-end-of-cleancut pop fare like Teenager in Love, Runaround Sue and The Wanderer. This song was quite different, a reflective ballad grieving the deaths of progressive public figures Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John Kennedy. The verse simply replaced the name in order to draw a sense of moral lineage between the three men, adding a fourth verse for Bobby Kennedy.
Has anybody here, seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die youngBut I just looked around and he's gone.
Here in the UK we best knew it as a top ten hit for Marvin Gaye, whose impeccable intelligent subtlety of phrasing and gliding molten chocolate voice perfectly suited the lyric's mix of stoicism and thoughtful melancholy. For reasons unknown (was Motown already showing a fear of Marvin getting into political ideas that would lead to such a battle to get the What's Going On album released?) this version was never released in the USA.
In his preamble to the song, Wilson Pickett credits Moms Mabley's then-current 1969 version as his inspiration. Pickett, however, remoulds it as a tribute to three giants of soul music who died young.
I have simultaneous contradictory feelings about it. On the one hand it's an inventive, touching and sincere nod from one soul singer to his antecedents, drawing on soul's gospel roots to address mortality.
Yet it also seems a tasteless belittling of the fact that dying of lung cancer, being shot in dubious circumstances or going in a plane crash aren't the same as being assassinated by reactionaries because of your political beliefs. You know Bob Dylan's comments at Live Aid about how it would be good if some of the money could go to help American farmers? It's a bit like that.
Whatever, it's certainly a great piece of vinyl era oddity, which is exactly what this blog's about.
download Sugar Sugar (4.3MB MP3)
download Cole Cooke and Redding (5.4MB MP3)