Maybe the young Jackie Wilson knew his time on earth was going to be short-lived—that would explain why he bolted through life at such a dizzying pace. He was throwing back cocktails and gambling at the age of 10. Had his first child at 17, and (maybe) fathered countless others. He excelled at singing, dancing, and even boxing. He racked up stacks of money, only to discover he was going to lose it all. Now, let’s go on a roller coaster ride with these facts about Jackie Wilson, Mr. Excitement.
Jack Leroy Wilson Jr. was born on June 9, 1934, in Highland Park, Michigan—but he spent a lot of his young life further south in Mississippi. This was where his grandparents lived, and the church choir there had a huge influence on Wilson as a child. The influence, however, wasn’t religious at all—it was only about the music. As it turned out, Wilson might have been better off in the long run, if he’d listened to the preacher just a little bit.
The sermons at the Mississippi church were falling on Wilson’s deaf ears, but heeding the preacher’s words may have kept Wilson out of trouble. You see, Wilson lacked a strong role model. Back at his home in Detroit, Jackie faced a heartbreaking home life. Dad was generally not around. He was a big drinker and usually out of work.
And then, when Wilson turned nine, his father abandoned the family altogether. So Wilson, with no father figure in sight, looked around for someone else to be his role model. To say he made a poor choice is a devastating understatement.
With dad out of the picture, 10-year-old Jackie Wilson found other male mentors. Unfortunately, they were in street gangs. Wilson’s gang of choice had the name The Shakers and Wilson got into all kinds of trouble while under their tutelage. In addition to life on the streets as a gang member, Wilson was doing something else while he was out there.
He’d sing his heart out for the money strangers would toss into his hat. Instead of using the money to improve his life, however, he spent it in the worst possible way.
Even though Jackie Wilson was only 10 years old, he was using his hard-earned money not to buy toys, but booze. Gang life was obviously a bad influence on young Wilson, but it wasn’t his only affiliation. Wilson’s mom arranged for him to be a member of another group: a church choir. But how could Wilson be in both a gang and a church choir?
You see, for Wilson, it wasn’t about good or evil. It was only about the music. Wilson soon outgrew the choir—and the gang—and joined a gospel quartet called the Ever Ready Gospel Singers. Wilson, however, was only ever ready for more trouble.
The Ever Ready Gospel Singers became very popular in local churches, and Jackie Wilson even earned money for his performance. After the concerts, the quartet shared the spoils of the church donations. In the evenings after the service, however, Wilson was taking big risks. He often put the money they made toward gambling.
On many nights, Wilson walked away from the poker table with the entire quartet’s earnings all for himself. Wilson was accumulating a long list of vices—all before becoming a teenager. Next on the list? Making whoopee.
Wilson began spending time with a girl named Freda Hood. The youngsters were not yet teenagers, but Hood reported that Wilson was more than a little knowledgeable about what went on in the bedroom. Wilson and Hood began an intimate relationship—one that would last for many years. Already, Wilson was living the life of an adult—and he’d barely reached puberty.
This might explain why his teachers were having a heck of a time keeping him under control.
Jackie Wilson spent a lot of his school time in detention for his poor behavior. It got so bad that instead of just sending him to the principal’s office, they sent him to a corrections facility—a prison for young offenders. Instead of wasting his time away, Wilson took the opportunity to learn something useful: boxing. Wilson was soon competing in the Detroit amateur circuit.
Wilson loved boxing and hated school, which made his next decision a no-brainer.
At 15 years of age, Wilson decided he’d had enough of school and quit—maybe thinking boxing would be his career of a lifetime. One day while in the middle of a match, Wilson’s mom called out his nickname: ”Sonny! Sonny!” It was a brutal mistake. When Wilson turned to look for his mom, his opponent used the opportunity to beat him to a pulp.
Mom saw the brutal beating happen right before her eyes. At that moment, Wilson’s mom knew that she would never allow boxing to be a part of her son’s future.
Wilson’s mom was horrified by what she saw at the boxing arena, so she turned to Wilson and made a demand: you’ve got to quit boxing. Surprisingly, mom still had some major sway with the more than independent Wilson, because when mom told him to quit boxing, he did it. We’ll soon see, however, why Wilson was about to have no time for sports—or anything else for that matter.
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Wilson may have quit boxing, but he still had another big disappointment in store for his mother. At 17, he was still dating Hood, who he’d met when he was 10. The two were acting like an already-married couple when Hood revealed she had a surprise for Wilson. She was pregnant. When Hood’s father found out, he went ballistic: there was going to be a wedding.
As it turned out, this sticky situation was just the tip of the iceberg.
The truth was that Wilson had been with other girls besides Hood. And, if we can believe the rumors, she wasn’t the only one who got pregnant with his kid. Some say that Wilson got close to 15 girls pregnant while he was still a teenager. Wilson did marry Hood, and did something serious to show how he would care for his new family: he took a job in a factory.
Wilson suddenly had a wife, a kid, and a job. But was he really ready to settle down?
Even though he was a new husband and father at the tender age of 17, Jackie Wilson still had time to pursue his singing career. Wilson performed in various clubs until a talent agent noticed him and gave him an amazing opportunity. The Dominoes, an immensely popular R&B vocal group, was looking to replace their lead vocalist, Clyde McPhatter.
Miraculously, the talent agent got Wilson a chance to audition. McPhatter was a huge deal, but Wilson had a few tricks up his sleeve
Wilson walked into the audition for The Dominoes with a swagger that was beyond his years—and his wealth of experience as a singer. But it wasn’t just a swagger, he also had something to say to the assembled Dominoes. Wilson stated unequivocally that he was a better singer than McPhatter himself. It knocked them off their feet.
The Dominoes sat there stunned at the young man’s impudence—and then they heard him sing.
Wilson’s talent was so big, that the Dominoes had to ignore his little faux pas. They hired him on the spot and asked him to do something just for them: change his name. Wilson's real name was Jack Wilson—but he often went by Sonny. The Dominoes wanted neither of these, they wanted Jackie Wilson—and the rest, as they say, is history.
Wilson’s bravado had paid off—but could he actually fill McPhatter’s shoes?
Jackie Wilson had bragged about being a better singer than McPhatter, but it actually didn’t pan out that way. The Dominoes suffered from the loss of McPhatter and didn’t do as well with Wilson at the helm. By 1957, Wilson came up with a secret plan. He wanted to leave the band, but who could he join up with? Well, Wilson pulled a surprise Beyoncé and went solo.
He quickly put the word out that he was looking for new material to record, and one person who responded really stood out.
The respondent who stood out was a young songwriter named Barry Gordy. The two had both been boxers, so Wilson and Berry really hit it off. Berry was the one who ended up co-writing Wilson’s signature tune: “Lonely Teardrops.” Sadly, as we’ll see, this tune would also play a role in the end of Wilson’s career—and his life. And what about Gordy?
Well, Gordy went on to start Motown records and change the face of popular music forever. With Gordy as his songwriter, Wilson’s fame began to soar.
Wilson was soon putting out number one records, but, to get the full Jackie Wilson experience, you had to see him perform. He got the nickname “Mr. Excitement” for three reasons: his dance moves, the passion of his voice, and his sense of style. He was an inspiration to many artists like James Brown, and even Michael Jackson.
In fact, one king of entertainment was so moved by Wilson's performance that he demanded a meeting.
Jackie Wilson met and befriended the king of rock ‘n roll himself: Elvis Presley. It turned out to be a bit of a mutual appreciation club. Music fans called Wilson the Black Elvis, which Presley countered with a hilarious response. He called himself the white Jackie Wilson. The two had a lot in common—and the number one thing was controversy.
Wilson’s electrifying stage show, like Presley's, involved a lot of gyrations. Many parents of teenage girls thought Wilson’s movements were offensive. Wilson, however, didn’t stop with just thrusting his hips, he also removed his clothes. He’d start with the jacket and tie—suggesting to the audience that he was a little too hot.
By the end of the performance, his sweaty chest would be front and center. Thrusting hips: check. Clothes removed: check. What else could Wilson do to enrage conservative parents?
Taking his clothes off was one thing, but what Wilson did with his props was, to some anyway, beyond acceptable. His rather intimate relationship with the microphone was simply described as “suggestive.” Wilson was also accused of pretending to unzip the fly of his trousers. It was only a matter of time before his show would get a warning: for mature audiences only.
But as for the fans? They ate it up. And they were lining up to get on stage with Mr. Excitement.
During his performance, Wilson would always get the audience involved with the show. It was his routine to pull women from the audience and get them to kiss him. People started to notice Wilson always avoided choosing the most beautiful women from the audience for his nightly smooch. Likely they thought he was doing it out of kindness for those less blessed in the looks department.
Sadly, the real reason was much more callous than that.
It turned out that Wilson picked, what he called the “ugly girls”, out of the audience for a very selfish reason. He wanted to give America the impression that if an ugly girl could kiss him, then any girl could. It was his way of making his image, and his records, irresistible to his paying audience. Well, at a 1960 concert, Wilson was about to take it to the next level.
The concert was in New Orleans, and Wilson had whipped the audience into a frenzy with his music and his suggestive dance moves. Some of the concertgoers were so taken by the show that they wanted to be part of it, and made a chaotic and savage run for the stage. Luckily, law enforcement was on hand to keep this from happening.
Wilson, however, had a surprising reaction.
Jackie Wilson wasn’t really concerned for his safety. In fact, he was more interested in seeing what would happen if his fans joined him on stage. To let the audience members complete their storm of the stage, Wilson grabbed an officer who was trying to keep the fans down on the floor. And, it turned out that Wilson did more than grab the officer—or at least, that’s what the court said.
When Wilson had to face the consequences for what happened that night, a judge laid down the law. He charged Wilson with assaulting a member of law enforcement. It could’ve spelled doom for his career—but Wilson had a way of bouncing back.
Wilson’s brush with the law didn’t deter his rocketship ride to mega-stardom. His performance—at least a very cleaned-up one—made it onto The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand. At the same time, he was performing sold-out live shows. He even, like his white doppelganger Elvis, appeared in a movie. His career was on fire—but what about his love life?
By 1961, Wilson was 27 years old and, in case you forgot, had been with the same woman since he was 17. The couple now had four children, but before your heart gets warm and fuzzy about a show biz marriage that actually worked, you should know the scandalous truth. Wilson was a serial cheater. Hood and the kids lived in Detroit and Wilson rented a New York apartment, which made having affairs all the easier.
On February 15, 1961, Wilson came home to his Manhattan apartment with model Harlean Harris. While Wilson was trying to get Harris into his apartment, a crazed fan appeared. This wasn’t so out of the ordinary—until Wilson noticed a disturbing detail. She was holding a revolver. Wilson was in shock and assumed the worst: she was going to shoot him, Harris or both.
But the deranged woman did something that surprised everyone. She aimed the revolver at herself.
Jackie Wilson said that it appeared that the crazed woman was going to shoot herself, so, in a brave and valiant effort to save the stranger, Wilson jumped on the woman. Two shots rang out and both ripped into Wilson’s abdomen. Paramedics rushed Wilson toward Roosevelt Hospital. He needed immediate surgery in order to save his life. Would they get there on time?
Wilson did get to the hospital in time, and doctors got right down to giving Wilson the surgery he needed to save his life. In the end, the doctors were successful, but Wilson would be left with two sad reminders of this near fatal incident: he’d only have one kidney, and he’d have a bullet lodged in his spine for the rest of his life.
Wilson had survived, and it was quite a fantastic story. But he was hiding the dark truth about that night.
The truth was that Wilson didn’t really try to save the crazed fan’s life. Another truth? The woman wasn’t a crazed fan—it was yet another girlfriend Wilson was stringing along. The woman’s name was Juanita Jones, and she was furious when she saw Wilson with another woman. That’s why she pulled out the revolver. Wilson’s manager Nat Tarnopol had created the story about an obsessed fan to save Wilson’s reputation.
The management company, however, should have been saving something else of Wilson’s: his hard-earned cash.
When Wilson’s manager, Tarnopol, wasn’t playing spin doctor for Wilson’s messes, he was supposed to be managing Wilson’s money. Well, it seems he wasn’t doing a very good job of it: Wilson found himself suddenly broke. How was this possible? In 1961, when the average annual salary was just $5,000, Wilson declared an income of over $260,000.
So, where was all the money?
Not only was Tarnopol bad at managing Wilson's money, it seemed he was also bad at paying the singer’s taxes. And Wilson was about to face the consequences. The IRS approached Wilson looking for all the tax money—about $300,00—he still owed them. Wilson hadn’t seen this coming. He’d trusted Tarnopol to take care of things like paying taxes and investing his money.
It seemed that Tarnopol had done neither. The IRS was not about to give Wilson a pass, and they began looking at Wilson’s assets. They needed to take something valuable to pay off his debt.
The IRS went on the attack and seized Wilson’s house in Detroit, which is where his wife and children lived. But apparently, this wasn’t enough. Wilson had to set up a payment plan to get himself out of debt. In this, one of the most tragic times of his life, Wilson’s wife left him. Hood had had it with the cheating, the money problems, and all the drama.
Drama? You call this drama? She should’ve stuck around to see what would happen next.
In 1964, Jackie Wilson was performing at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. The authorities had been bothering Wilson about a certain $2,200 he owed from failing to fulfill a contract for a performance. Somehow, Wilson heard that officers were going to take him in following his St. Louis concert—so he did something jaw-dropping.
After leaving the stage, Wilson jumped out of the club’s second-floor window to avoid the officers. Regardless, authorities later caught up with him, and he spent a night in prison. But his troubles didn’t end there…
Later, in March 1967, Wilson found himself in trouble with the law again. He was on tour in South Carolina and he and his drummer were looking for a good time. They met up with two young women and persuaded them to come to their hotel room. Officers soon descended on the hotel room and took Wilson and the drummer in. Why? Probably because the women were white.
Wilson's reputation was at an all-time low, but Tarnopol—his unreliable manager—had a great idea to fix it.
Harlean Harris had been the woman Wilson was dating behind his wife’s back when his other girlfriend had shot him. Well, Tarnopol thought it would be a great idea if Wilson married her. After all, the couple already had a child together—even while Wilson had still been with his first wife. So, in 1967, Wilson walked down the aisle with Harris.
Unsurprisingly, this union was doomed to a brutal end. In 1969, they split. Wilson wiped his feet of the 1960s. Surely the 70s would be better.
Sadly, the next decade started ominously bad for Wilson. One day, his son, Jackie Jr. was on a friend’s porch in Detroit. Junior was arguing with his neighbor and suddenly a shot rang out. Jackie Jr. clutched his chest and fell to the ground. Tragically, Wilson’s son did not survive the incident. On hearing the news, Wilson went into a deep depression and shut himself in his house.
Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of a desperate spiral.
Wilson was having trouble getting over losing a son. Sadly, he turned to drink and drug use to soothe the pain and, as you might imagine, neither helped him. A few years later, he would face even more heartache. One of his daughters died after having a heart attack, and another got caught in the crossfire of a drug deal that went wrong.
Clearly, being one of Wilson’s children was nothing more than a ticket to a short life. Luckily, there was some good news on the horizon.
Remember back in 1961, when Jackie Wilson had found himself completely broke? Well, there was something he didn’t know. The real situation was something completely different. It came out in a 1975 trial that his manager— remember Tarnopol?—actually owed Wilson royalties for his music. And the amount added up to a whopping $1 million.
All Wilson had to do was sue Tarnopol and collect his million-dollar check. As we’ll see, when it comes to Wilson, things don’t always go exactly as planned.
While preparing to sue Tarnopol, Wilson went back to performing. In this reboot of his career, he picked up an odd habit. Before going out on stage, he took handfuls of salt tablets followed by huge glasses of water. When asked why he did this, he said it was because it made him sweat a lot. And what was the advantage of that? Wilson said that it drove his female fans wild.
His body, on the other hand, wasn't as thrilled with this bizarre ritual.
In September of 1975, Wilson swallowed his salt tablets and hit the stage at the Latin Casino in New Jersey. Everyone there that night was in for a big surprise. The performance—for Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue—was going well. Wilson was soon into his signature hit, “Lonely Teardrops” and the audience was mesmerized.
As he sang the lyrics “My heart is crying,” he did something he’d never done before. Wilson dramatically fell to the stage. The audience went wild—but they shouldn’t have.
The audience at the Latin Casino assumed that Wilson’s slow collapse to the stage was part of his emotional act. Dick Clark, who was backstage at the time, saw something different. He saw a man in a medical emergency. Clark stopped the concert and watched as backup musician Cornell Gunter got down on his knees and attempted to revive the singer.
The paramedics were on their way—but would they get there in time?
The paramedics took over from Gunter and then rushed Wilson to the hospital. They finally brought some stability to Wilson’s vital signs and it looked like Wilson would be all right. Doctors guessed that it was a heart attack or stroke that had caused the terrifying incident. Just when it looked like everything would be alright, the worst happened. Wilson slipped into a coma.
Wilson’s coma was puzzling the doctors. They didn’t buy that a heart attack alone was responsible for his comatose state. When they asked people who’d been on stage what happened, they found out something they didn’t know. Yes, it appeared that Wilson had had some sort of attack on stage. But they also noticed something else.
As Wilson fell to the stage floor, his fragile head had banged against a heavy piece of equipment. This was not good news for Wilson's prognosis.
Wilson’s coma went from days to weeks, and then to months. Loved ones tried to keep their hope that one day Wilson would recover. The next year, 1976, friends noticed that Wilson was showing small responses. Slowly and miraculously, Wilson began his recovery. He wasn’t quite himself, but he managed to stand up and take a few steps—albeit shaky ones.
Wilson was back. But for how long?
Sadly, his recovery was short-lived: Wilson soon returned to his comatose state, which the doctors now called semi-comatose. Now remember, before the incident, Wilson was about to sue his ex-manager for $1 million. When Wilson fell to the stage floor, the lawsuit was put on hold. Without this money, Wilson was unable to pay his outrageous hospital bills.
Wilson, although unaware of it in his coma, was facing bankruptcy again. That’s when the community came together.
Friend and fellow musician Bobby Womack saw that Wilson was suffering and in need of support. He arranged a benefit in Wilson’s honor that took place at the Hollywood Palladium. It was on March 4, 1976, and all the proceeds went to paying Wilson’s ever-increasing hospital bills. It was a huge and significant help, but all the money in the world wouldn’t be able to stop what was coming for Wilson next.
Even though the benefit helped him financially, Wilson’s health quickly went from bad to worse. He was unable to take in any nourishment, so they moved him to a hospital in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Eventually, Wilson caught pneumonia and quietly passed away. It was 1984 and Wilson was just 49 years old. Sadly, his problems weren’t over yet.
Jackie Wilson’s estate still didn’t have any money, so there was nothing to pay for a proper burial. Authorities had no choice. They laid his body in an unmarked grave. For the second time since his onstage collapse, the music community—this time, led by disc jockey “Jack The Rapper” Gibson—banded together to collect money.
Thanks to the support of fellow musicians and fans, Wilson’s remains found a new home—in a mausoleum at a cemetery in Wayne, Michigan.
No one can deny that Wilson had a rocky life full of highs and lows, but it wasn’t easy on his children or wives either. As we’ve seen, not many of Wilson's children lived to a ripe old age. But what about his other children? According to rumor, he had quite a few that he didn’t acknowledge. Actor and singer Bobby Brooks Wilson is one of them.
But how Bobby Brooks Wilson found out about his father is nothing short of incredible.
Bobby Brooks Wilson was adopted and had no idea who his father was—but was actively searching for him. Brooks was a singer and actor and got a gig doing impressions at a show called Legends in Concert in Atlantic City. One of the impressions Brooks was famous for was Jackie Wilson. One night, the renowned Motown band Four Tops saw Brooks perform.
They all had the exact same thought: he must be Wilson’s son. A DNA test later verified their suspicion: Brooks had finally found his family, and added “Wilson” to his name. Which makes you wonder: how many other mega-talented Jackie Wilson offspring are performing out there?
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