Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Please Note: The Detroit Historical Museum is closed due to flooding.

Wilson, Jackie

Known as “Mr. Excitement,” Jackie Wilson was an R&B and soul singer who was born in Detroit, Michigan on June 9, 1934. With his debonair good looks, four-octave vocal range and sensual dance moves he was an early success in making the transition from R&B to pop. Both Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were influenced by him.

Wilson grew up in Detroit’s North End, and Highland Park. In his teens he formed the Every Ready Gospel Singers Group, performing in local churches. Truancy issues led him to drop out of school in the ninth grade, and a knack for finding trouble sent him twice to the Lansing Correctional Institute, where he learned how to box, and subsequently was a Golden Gloves boxer.

Forced by his mother to end his boxing career Wilson returned to music, singing with the Thrillers, who became the Royals, then Billy Ward and the Dominoes before going solo. In 1957 he signed with Decca subsidiary Brunswick Records. Boxing companion Berry Gordy, Jr. and cousin Roquel “Billy” Davis co-wrote some of Wilson’s hits, such as “Reet Petite,” “To Be Loved,” “I’ll Be Satisfied” and “That’s Why.” Wilson’s chart-topper was “Lonely Teardrops,” co-written by Berry Gordy, Davis and Gordy’s sister Gwen, which sold over a million copies. “Baby Workout,” and “Higher and Higher” were other hits that went from number one on the R&B chart to the top ten pop chart.

A frequent guest on The Ed Sullivan Show, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and Shindig, Wilson’s performances could be electrifying, with his deft footwork (courtesy of his boxing training), knee drops, and splits. He would casually remove his suit jacket, slinging it over his shoulder as he crooned, which, along with his pompadoured good looks, added to his aura of suave sophistication.

Wilson married his pregnant, high school sweetheart, Freda Hood when he was 17. They had four children and divorced in 1965. His extra-marital affairs with Harlean Harris, whom he married in 1967, and Juanita Jones, led to a jealous Jones shooting Wilson in 1961, resulting in life saving surgery and the loss of a kidney. His management promoted the story that Wilson was shot trying to intervene in a suicide attempt by an obsessed fan. 

While performing at Latin Casino Dinner Theater in New Jersey on September 29, 1975, Wilson suffered a major heart attack and never recovered, remaining in a semi-coma state for eight years. He died on January 21, 1984, and his funeral was at Detroit’s Russell St. Baptist Church, where he began singing. Jackie Wilson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.