Tony Fletcher’s latest rock biography, In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett (Oxford University Press), both follows and leaps ahead of his growing shelf of writings about musical legends and the industry behind them. While some might wonder how the author of previous books about Keith Moon, R.E.M. and the British New Wave band the Smiths, as well as a memoir all about his own start as a young zine writer in late 1970s London, could suddenly shift to an exploration of the 1960s R&B scene and its eventual demise, it turns out the Mt. Tremper resident trod into similar territory a decade ago with a well-received history of the New York City music scene, All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77.
Fletcher himself addresses the shift in tone in a preface to the new book, pointing out how Pickett’s hard-driving soul classics were a regular part of the soundtrack with which he grew up, from his introduction to the shouter’s great “In The Midnight Hour” via a “breakneck” version by The Jam, one of the first bands he interviewed, through to regular playing of “Land Of 1000 Dances” at teen parties. But he also acknowledges being drawn to the American-ness of Pickett’s story, via the soul shouter’s having come up out of pre-Civil Rights rural Alabama to music-rich Detroit just as rhythm and blues shifted through doo wop into soul music, hitting a chart-topping stride during the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s before he and his peers slipped through Disco into oldies shows, addictions, later nostalgic awards, and a fairly tragic death.
As with his earlier close-up looks into the history behind the music we still obsess about (and get pushed back to, on YouTube and other channels, by books like this), Fletcher mixes up a variety of approaches. He recreates key scenes, from recording studio vignettes to street and domestic flashes of violence, with larger-picture summaries of the grand societal and historical forces at work. He also delves into deeper analysis of just how hit singles, and full albums (including their cover images and wording), either work their magic or miss intended marks. And throughout the biographical narrative he maintains an ongoing emphasis on the various ways in which the money games behind the music industry work to spur and/or hem in creativity.
There is a great story line here — from Pickett’s ambitious ascension through cloying, hard-earned stardom to the tragedies brought on by bad decisions and personal failings to a bottom-hitting denouement. As well as the sort of unrecognized-by-the-hero redemption that’s the very definition of classic irony. More importantly, the work is tautly edited, lending Fletcher’s writing less of the fan-like enthusiasm that allowed his rise as a music writer and more of an historian’s recognition of larger forces at work.
In other words, this book has a subtle way with modern American history, and character, as well as great character studies of Duane Allman, James Brown, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Lloyd Price, Jerry Wexler, and the monumental Bobby Womack. As well as hints at what such now-gone scenes as early 1960s Detroit, late-60s Memphis, early-1970s Miami, Muscle Shoals, and even New York and New Jersey’s quasi-suburban soul star neighborhoods of both the late 1960s and early 1980s must have been like.
But without the propulsion of his previous mash-up of full-throated fan-dom and innate knowledge of the worlds his characters have risen out of, there’s a bit less fun here than in Fletcher’s previous books. Until, that is, one returns to the various bits of music he references and writes about.
Dedicated to fellow Shandaken-based music biographer Holly George-Warren and his local band The Catskill 45’s,with nods to fellow local rock writers Anthony DeCurtis and Jonathan Gould, In The Midnight Hour is indeed a testament to this former British-born Onteora school board president’s deep absorption of what it is to be American in this racially-divided nation, now and over the past half century. It’s simply not quite as raucous a yowl as anything the Wicked Pickett himself let out during his long, troubled career.
Fletcher will read from In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett at Golden Notebook on February 18, 2017.