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Pioneering Soul Singer Wilson Pickett Dies at 64

Wilson Pickett, whose dynamic soul hits reflected his turbulent offstage life, is dead at age 64. VOA's Ray McDonald has more on the singer known as the "Wicked Pickett."

"634-5789" was a major soul hit from 1966. That year marked the high-water mark for Wilson Pickett whose songs remain party staples to this day.

Born in Prattville, Alabama, Wilson Pickett was the youngest of 11 children. He says his mother Lena was a stern disciplinarian, and would hit him with anything at hand. At 14, the family moved to Detroit, and Wilson began singing on street corners. In 1959, he joined a group called The Falcons, which included future stars Eddie Floyd and Joe Stubbs, the brother of Four Tops leader Levi Stubbs. The group had a 1962 hit, "I Found A Love," before Wilson went solo.

Signing with Atlantic Records in 1964, Wilson Pickett achieved artistic success. He teamed with Stax Records' house band, Booker T and the MGs. Pickett and guitarist Steve Cropper co-wrote the 1965 hit "In The Midnight Hour." Its raw intensity set the pattern for his subsequent releases.

Wilson Pickett enjoyed 16 Top 40 hits between 1965 and 1972. He sang with a ferocity equaled by few other acts, and he doubled his songs' impact by living as hard as he performed. He sported diamonds and furs, drove a Rolls-Royce, and acquired the nickname the "Wicked Pickett" after pinching an Atlantic Records secretary. He even helped Ford Motor Company score a runaway hit with its hot new car by recording "Mustang Sally."

Wilson Pickett recorded well into the 1980s, when his volatile personality began to work against him. In 1991, he was arrested for driving his car across the lawn of the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey. A year later, Pickett was sentenced to five years' probation after injuring an 86-year-old man while driving drunk. He was also arrested on charges of cocaine possession and assaulting his girlfriend.

Even at his lowest, however, Wilson Pickett remained a star. He resurrected his career in 1991, when his music appeared in "The Commitments," a hit movie about an Irish soul group. He performed at the film's premiere in New York City. He entered the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1991, while his final album, "It's Harder Now," won multiple W.C. Handy Blues Awards in 1999.

That same year, he moved to Virginia, where he occasionally performed his old hits. Speaking in a 2001 interview, he said "God blessed me with the talent and the chance. I knocked on enough doors, and this is what I can give myself credit for."

Wilson Pickett succumbed to a fatal heart attack January 19 at Reston Hospital Center. He was 64. He is survived by his fiancée and four children. He will be buried beside his mother in Louisville, Kentucky.