In the summer of 1968 The Beatles were nearly 6 years into their singular reign over the music world when they released ‘Hey Jude,’ the epic 7-minute ballad that would spend 9 weeks at number 1 in the U.S., the longest for any Beatles single. Who would try to follow that? Wilson Pickett, that’s who. Now, cover versions are a tricky business at any time. But covering an anthem, by the greatest band of all time? Maybe you’d want to at least give it a chance to breathe a little. “Wicked” Pickett, incredibly, released his version 3 months later.
The future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee was well known for his soulful cries on classic R&B hits like ‘In The Midnight Hour,’ ‘Land Of 1,000 Dances’ and ‘Mustang Sally,’ but I’d stack his performance here alongside them all. He starts calmly over ethereal organ in the first verse, but once the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section kicks in for the second one he hits the line “You were made..made to go out and get her” hard. Funky horns greet verse three, and Pickett’s vocals begin a slow simmer. By the time he gets to McCartney’s iconic line “Take a sad song and make it better” at 2:26, you know he’s about to come to a boil. And at 2:43, he absolutely explodes. If just once in my lifetime I conjure the emotion Pickett exudes over the next 75 seconds, it will have been worthwhile. It’s raw. It’s frantic. It’s otherworldly.
Oh, and one other thing: If you take note of the piercing guitar that circles around Pickett’s manic howls, that’s none other than Duane Allman, pre-Allman Brothers Band, whose playing on the track inspired a Muscle Shoals session artist to call it “the birth of Southern Rock.” Southern rock baptized with wicked soul. Amen.