Album Review: Jackie Wilson — Higher and Higher

A giant in the world of r&b and soul, Jackie Wilson’s career got a big break when Johnny Otis (father of Shuggie) discovered him in the early 1950s. Wilson passed through the ranks of several notable groups, often coming and going before those acts achieved their biggest fame. By the end of the decade, he signed a deal with Decca, and was assigned to its subsidiary label Brunswick. Between and 1958 1969, Wilson would release some 21 albums; the first to chart was 1963’s Baby Workout; he’d have to wait a few more years to appear on the charts again, with 1966’s Whispers, a #15 hit on the r&b charts, with more measured success on the pop album charts (#108). But the momentum was there: 1967’s Higher and Higher placed on both charts (r&b #28, pop #163).

But album chart placements don’t tell the full story: every one of Wilson’s ‘50s era singles made it into the Top 20 on the r&b charts, and six of those nine placed on the pop Top 40. His singles charted six times in 1960, ten times in ‘61, sixi n 1962… on and on. Every one of the man’s singles placed on both the pop and r&b singles charts in the years 1957-69. He did reasonably well in the first half of the ‘70s, too. So Jackie Wilson is best thought of as a singles artist, and what a singles artist.

But here we are in 2023 with a new vinyl reissue of one of those albums. Higher and Higher takes its title from one of Wilson’s biggest smashes. Backed by the Funk Brothers, Wilson delivered a soul-strirring and lively vocal performance in a single take on July 6, 1967. In some ways, the song is of a piece with Motown tunes of the period, though it also hints at ‘70s soul.

The spirited take of “Higher and Higher” stands in star contrast to the syrupy string balladry of “I Don’t Need You Around. “Far better – and more in keeping with the title track’s vibe – is “I’ve Lost You,” which was also released as a single (with modest success). “Those Heartaches” splits the difference, serving up balladry but with an arrangement that serves the song. It, too, sounds a bit ahead of its time.

As its title suggests, “Soulville” is a grittier, horn-fueled number than suggests that the infleunce of Memphis-based Stax was percolating northward. Also superb is “Open the Door to Your Heart,” with thrilling brass and strings (plus a driving if under-mixed bass line, probably from James Jamerson). Released as the single’s b-side, “I’m the One to Do It” is solid as well, with hints of Otis Redding, but with a string arrangement Redding wouldn’t likely have gone for. The backing vocals are ace, too.

“You Can Count On Me” sounds like a single, too. But it wasn’t released as one. The strings soar. And Wilson shows his gospel roots on “I Need your Loving” a rousing number that finds him edging to Ray Charles’ territory. “Somebody Up There Likes You” features more guitar that you’ll find on this primarily strings-and-brass record, The song may have influenced Tyrone Davis’ brilliant “Turn Back the Hands of Time,” released two years later and sounding quite similar. The record wraps with the comparatively undistinguished “When Will Our Day Come.” The backing vocals and strings are nice enough, but the tune feels like a relic form an earlier time.

At a shade over 30 minutes, Higher and Higher is brief (as were most pop, r&b and soul releases of the era), and it only includes one hit. But the rest of the record is far above filler status, and as deep cuts go, Higher and Higher features more than its share. Recommended, especially in the form of the new Org Music reissue.