Jackie Wilson’s path to becoming a sensation on The Ed Sullivan Show began in the north end of Detroit, Michigan where he spent his early years. For Jackie it was a battle between his love of music and juvenile delinquency. He started drinking at a young age, was in and out of gangs, dropped out of school and spent time in a juvenile correctional facility – all before the age of 17. Jackie eventually turned to boxing as a release for his anger and won the American Amateur Golden Gloves Welterweight title.
At the same time, he started to perform with various gospel and R & B groups, including The Falcons and The Thrillers. After being discovered at a talent show by agent Johnny Otis in 1951, his big break came in 1953 when he was chosen to replace lead singer Clyde McPhatter in Billy Ward’s Dominoes. Wilson was the group’s vocal lead for three years before he began his solo career.
Jackie signed with record label Brunswick in 1957, and released his first single “Reet Petite.” The song, which was well received, was co-written by Motown’s Berry Gordy, Jr. Gordy later called Wilson “The greatest singer I’ve ever heard — The epitome of natural greatness. Unfortunately for some, he set the standard I’d be looking for in singers forever.” Gordy would collaborate on nine of Jackie Wilson’s hit singles including “To Be Loved,” “That’s Why (I Love You So),” and “Lonely Teardrops” (all of which were performed on Sullivan). He used the royalties he earned writing these hits to start his own record label, Motown.
While both artists were gaining national exposure in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Jackie Wilson and Elvis Presley heavily influenced one another’s styles, moves and live stage acts. Jackie’s unique blend of rhythm and blues, soul and rock ‘n roll brought him success on both the R & B and Pop charts. His live performances at major Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York nightclubs earned him the nickname “Mr. Excitement.”
Always a strong supporter of African-America talent, Ed Sullivan was eager to have Jackie appear on his show. On December 4th, 1960 Sullivan introduced him with “Here is, making his first appearance on television…Jackie Wilson!”
It may have been Jackie’s first live television performance, but Wilson showed no signs of stage fright as he opened with a dynamic performance of “To Be Loved,” where he dropped to his knees and mesmerized the audience. In his next song, “Lonely Teardrops,” Jackie appeared to outdo Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr. with his classic dance moves and amazing spins. After a commercial break, Ed and Jackie joked around and then Jackie sang “Alone At Last,” a song based on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B Flat. Following Wilson’s act, Ed told the audience “That’s the first of many performances he is going to make on our stage, even if I have to drag him on here.”
Jackie Wilson returned to The Ed Sullivan Show on May 28th, 1961 to perform two songs from his Al Jolson Tribute Album, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet.” Just three months earlier, Wilson had been shot by an obsessed fan, although some said he was wounded by a jealous girlfriend after she caught him with another woman. The shooting resulted in Wilson losing a kidney and it permanently left a bullet near his spine. Nobody could tell that night on The Ed Sullivan Show as a well-dressed Jackie Wilson again showcased his fine footwork while singing “For Me and My Gal” and “I’m Coming on Back to You.”
In 1962 Jackie Wilson made multiple appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. On January 21st, he performed a hypnotic version of his 1958 hit “That’s Why (I Love You So).” He returned in April to sing “Hearts,” and then a month later he performed an unforgettable, rousing version of his #1 hit “Lonely Teardrops.” That night he also sang the ballad “Forever and a Day.”
For Jackie’s final Sullivan appearance in March 1963, he performed a fabulous version of “Baby Workout” which was set in a dance club. Surrounded by dancing couples and accompanied by a big band, Jackie radiated charisma and sexuality. He closed his last ever appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show by entertaining the audience with the operatic ballad “Night.”
In 1975, while performing onstage, Jackie suffered a massive heart attack and he never was able to fully recover. In 1984, he died in a nursing home, just three years before he would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Wilson’s brand of pop, soul and R&B earned him 46 R&B hits, 24 of which crossed over to the Top 40. Jackie Wilson’s style, sound and dynamic stage performances influenced many great performers including Elvis Presley, Van Morrison, James Brown and Michael Jackson.