Written by Pickett and Steve Cropper, this song evolved from a couple of sources. The title and theme came from Wilson’s previous work as a Gospel singer and was a frequent saying of his on his early recordings. The other inspiration was a dance, the “Jerk”, a popular dance step kids were doing across the country.
Steve Cropper wrote and co-wrote many songs, one famous recording was with Otis Redding “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay”. Along with Steve, in the Stax Records house band/session musicians known as the M.G.’s, was Donald “Duck” Dunn (Bass) and Al Jackson (Drums). Stax keyboard player Booker T. Jones, who usually played with Dunn, Cropper and Jackson, did not play on the studio sessions with Pickett.
When Wilson Pickett was an up and coming artist, he was sent to record at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Steve Cropper went to the nearest record shop and began searching through the record bins, looking for something Pickett had done.
I found two or three things… some Spiritual things that he had sung lead on…I didn’t know what groups he’d been in or whatever. But I used to work in [a] record shop, and I found some gospel songs that Wilson Pickett had sung on. On a couple [at] the end, he goes: ‘I’ll see my Jesus in the midnight hour! Oh, in the midnight hour. I’ll see my Jesus in the midnight hour.’ In every song in the fade-out, he’d go into this ritual, ‘I’m going to wait till the midnight hour, oh in the midnight hour,’ and he’d start preaching this midnight hour thing, and I said ‘That’s it’
Cropper got the idea of using the phrase “in the midnight hour” as the basis for the song. More likely, Cropper was remembering the Falcon’s (Wilson’s previous group) 1962 song “I Found a Love,” on which Pickett sings lead and says “And sometimes I call in the midnight hour!”
The other inspiration was the popular dance “the Jerk”. Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records, (who, to the chagrin of those present, Wexler demonstrated in the studio) said to Cropper:
Why don’t you pick up on this thing here?” He performed a dance step… This was the way the kids were dancing; they were putting the accent on two. Basically, we’d been one-beat-accenters with an afterbeat; it was like ‘boom dah,’ but here was a thing that went ‘um-chaw,’ just the reverse as far as the accent goes.
Pickett’s partnership with Steve Cropper and Atlantic Records produced a long series of hits that included, “Don’t Fight It” (1965), “634-5789”, (#13 in 1966) “Land Of 1,000 Dances”,(#6 in 1966) “Mustang Sally” (#23 in 1966) and “Funky Broadway” (#8 in 1967).
Not the best audio but does give you a view of him and his powerful voice in his live performances, including his vocalizations that were reminiscent of James Brown. The other major hit, “Land Of 1,000 Dances”, was written and first recorded by Chris Kenner in 1962 and has been covered by many artists including Ted Nugent, the J. Geils Band, and “Fats” Domino as a co-author of the song with Kenner. Domino agreed to record the song in exchange for half of the song’s royalties. Wilson Pickett recorded the song during his first set of sessions at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (known as the Swampers) and the Memphis Horns.
Wilson Pickett was born March 18, 1941 in Prattville, Alabama, and sang in Baptist church choirs. He was the fourth of 11 children and called his mother
The baddest woman in my book telling historian Gerri Hirshey: I get scared of her now. She used to hit me with anything, skillets, stove wood — (one time I ran away) and cried for a week. Stayed in the woods, me and my little dog.
Pickett eventually left to live with his father in Detroit, Michigan in 1955. There, Pickett performed on street corners with other singers, under the influence of recording stars such as Little Richard, whom he referred to as “the architect of rock and roll.” In the 1950s, Pickett put together the Violinaires, a gospel group. After singing for four years in the popular gospel-harmony group, Pickett, lured by the success of gospel singers who had moved to the lucrative secular music market, joined the Falcons in 1959. The Falcons were an early vocal group bringing gospel into a popular context, thus paving the way for soul music. He co-wrote and sang lead on their 1962 hit “I Found A Love” which included the phrase “sometimes I call in the midnight hour”. His style and ad libbing were evident from the start and a foreshadowing of things to come.
Soon after recording “I Found a Love”, Pickett cut his first solo recordings, including “I’m Gonna Cry”. Pickett also recorded a demo for a song he co-wrote, “If You Need Me”, a slow-burning soul ballad featuring a spoken sermon. Pickett sent the demo to Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records. Wexler gave it to the label’s recording artist Solomon Burke, Atlantic’s biggest star at the time. Burke admired Pickett’s performance of the song, but his own recording of “If You Need Me” became one of his biggest hits (#2 R&B, #37 pop) and is considered a soul standard. Pickett was crushed when he discovered that Atlantic had given away his song. When Pickett—with a demo tape under his arm—returned to Wexler’s studio, Wexler asked whether he was angry about this loss, but denied it saying “It’s over”. Pickett’s version was released on Double L Records and was a moderate hit, peaking at #30 R&B and #64 pop.
Pickett’s first significant success as a solo artist came with “It’s Too Late,” an original composition (not to be confused with the Chuck Willis standard, or the Carole King song, of the same name). Entering the charts on July 27, 1963, it peaked at #7 on the R&B chart (#49 pop); the same title was used for Pickett’s debut album, released in the same year. Compiling several of Pickett’s single releases for Double L, “It’s Too Late” showcased a raw soulful sound that foreshadowed the singer’s performances throughout the coming decade. The single’s success persuaded Wexler and Atlantic to buy Pickett’s recording contract from Double L in 1964.
After “In The Midnight Hour” and his string of other hits Pickett didn’t confine himself to the environs of Stax for long; soon he was also cutting tracks at Muscle Shoals. He recorded several early songs by Bobby Womack. He used Duane Allman as a session guitarist on a hit cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” He cut some hits in Philadelphia with Gamble & Huff Productions in the early ’70s. He even did a hit version of the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar.” The hits kept rolling through the early ’70s, including “Don’t Knock My Love” and “Get Me Back on Time, Engine Number 9.”
One of the corollaries of ’60s soul is that if a performer rose to fame with Motown or Atlantic (who was the parent company for Stax Records), he or she would produce little of note after leaving the label. Pickett, unfortunately, did not prove an exception to the rule. Pickett continued to record sporadically with several labels over the following decades (including Motown), occasionally making the lower to mid-range of the R&B charts, but he had no pop hit after 1974. After his last record to chart, “Fire And Water”, he remained fairly active on the touring front until falling ill in 2004.
By the time disco took hold in the 1970s and popular music continued to change in the 1980s, Pickett’s star faded, though he continued to tour and record on occasion. He also became more unstable in his personal life and developed a drinking problem. In 1974, he was arrested for brandishing a gun during an argument in New York. Thirteen years later, Pickett was arrested and sentenced to probation for possession of a loaded shotgun in his car.
The 1990s saw a revival in Pickett’s career. In 1991 attention was brought to his importance as an artist when the hit film “The Commitments” was released. The film focused on a young Irish band obsessed with American soul music and a desire to meet Pickett himself, although he did not appear in the film. While his career was revived, Pickett had a series of run-ins with the law. While living in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1991, he drove his car onto the mayor’s lawn, spewed death threats, and was arrested. Pickett was convicted of drunk driving in 1993. The conviction resulted in a sentence of a year in jail and five years probation. During his time in jail, he got into a fight with another inmate and injured his eye. Pickett had to have a number of surgeries to fix the damage. Pickett was also arrested for cocaine possession several times and went to rehab.
In 1999, Pickett moved to Ashburn, Virginia, and recorded his first album in more than a decade “It’s Harder Now”. That album was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Traditional rhythm and blues vocal performance” as well as three W.C. Handy Awards, given by the Blues Foundation, in 2000.
He continued to tour until the end of 2004, when he decided to take a year off from performing. He planned on recording and touring again, but his health began to decline. On January 19th, 2006, he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 64. He was laid to rest at the Evergreen Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Pickett was honored on March 20th, 2006, at New York’s B.B. King Blues Club with performances by his long-term backing band The Midnight Movers, The Commitments, Ben E. King, Bruce ‘Big Daddy’ Wayne, and Southside Johnny in front of an audience that included members of his family, including two brothers. In the final analysis, he will be remembered as a major force in Soul music who placed over fifty songs on the Billboard R&B chart and sixteen more on the Hot 100.
“In the Midnight Hour” has also been recorded by Ace Cannon (instrumental), Archie Bell & the Drells, Tom Jones, the Chambers Brothers, Chris Farlowe, the Jam, Bob Kuban and the In-Men, Roxy Music, Delbert McClinton, the Righteous Brothers, Johnny Rivers, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Guy Sebastian, James Taylor, Them, Tina Turner, Mary Wells, and the Young Rascals. The Grateful Dead also did a rendition of “In The Midnight Hour” at the Fillmore East on April 29th 1971, among other performances.
“In the Midnight Hour” reached number one on the R&B chart in Billboard magazine dated August 7, 1965 and crossed over to the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 reaching number 21: however according to Stax owner Jim Stewart the domestic sales total of the single in its original release was a moderate 300,000 units. However “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett has become an iconic R&B track, placing at number 134 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time, Wilson Pickett’s first of two entries on the list (the other being “Mustang Sally” at number 434). It is also one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, Pickett’s only such entry. The song is currently ranked as the 175th greatest song of all time, as well as the eleventh best song of 1965, by Acclaimed Music.