Chuck Jackson, Another Artist Who Deserved More Fame Than He Got
It’s an injustice that the roll call of great 1960s male soul singers — Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, Ben E. King, etc. — often excludes Chuck Jackson.
Jackson, who died Feb. 16 at the age of 82, had everything it takes to make that list except enough hit records — and the right breaks to score those hit records.
All Chuck Jackson needed to make his musical case was two records that did hit the charts in the early 1960s: “I Don’t Want To Cry” and “Any Day Now.”
He turns “Any Day Now” — written by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, who also wrote lyrics for songs like “Our Day Will Come” and “In The Wee Small Hours” — into one of the great underappreciated records of the 1960s.
But if Jackson flew under the radar, he kept the plane in the air.
“What some people miss,” he said in a 1991 interview, “is that I never left the business. I never stopped doing it. I made albums. I played Vegas, Reno, Tahoe, the West Indies, Jamaica.
“In the ’70s, things got cold. Now there’s been a warming up. There are no comebacks, but there’s a time when you fit again. Today when I sing ‘Any Day Now’ or ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ or ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,’ I’m reaching the old and the young.”
Jackson had the kind of voice that could reach anybody, a powerful tenor baritone that he started developing when he was 5 or 6 and singing in the choir at his grandmother’s church.
From there he followed a classic soul singer path, starting with a gospel group, moving into a rhythm and blues vocal group, breaking off to go solo as an opening act and finally having hit records on his own.
“I’m one of the few artists who headlined the Apollo four times,” he noted, thanks to a suave, seductive stage presence not unlike that of Cooke or Teddy Pendergrass. The ladies loved him.
It all came together by a combination of plans and happy accidents.
“I was in college at South Carolina State around 1955,” he recalled, “when the first student boycotts were starting [over the local school board’s refusal to desegregate public schools in accordance with the Supreme Court’s Brown Vs. Board of Ed ruling]. I didn’t want to go back to college, so I went to Pittsburgh and started my career.”
The first stop was the Raymond Rasberry Gospel Singers, a well-known group led at the time by Carl Hall, who would later sing in The Wiz on Broadway and who was reputed to have the widest range of all gospel lead singers. “He could hit an F above High C,” Jackson said.
Next stop, after military service, was the Del Vikings, a move that did not please his religious grandmother.
“She was against [my moving into popular music],” Jackson said. “But I had no problem with it, because I wanted to be successful.”
Jackson stayed with the Del Vikings, whose crossover hits included “Come Go With Me” and “Whispering Bells,” for 18 months, taking the lead on a couple of tunes like “Willette.”
“I enjoyed my time there,” he said. “I loved groups like Shep and the Limelites, or the Flamingos and the Moonglows, that could really sing. A lot of the groups by that time couldn’t sing, but the Del Vikings could.
“I just had trouble singing background, because I was the strongest voice in the group. Then one night Jackie Wilson heard us. I loved Jackie. He floored me. He came up to me and said, ‘You’re a soloist. If you stay with them, you’re done.’
“So I left and started opening shows for Jackie. One time when we were opening at the Apollo, he was very hoarse and couldn’t hit some of his notes. So he came to my dressing room and I said, ‘Let me stand behind the stage and hit the notes for you.’ I could hit the last note of ‘Night.’ We did that on and off for the whole week.
“After a while, all the major record companies were after me. Then Florence Greenberg and Luther Dixon [of Sceptor Records] came to see me. Florence was like Berry Gordy before Berry Gordy. They told me they were just starting a new label [Wand] and they wanted me to be their star. That meant more to me than a payment, so I went there with no front money.”
Wand released a string of Jackson singles, including “Any Day Now,” “I Don’t Want To Cry” and “I Keep Forgetting,. Jackson recorded his first album there, backed by Count Basie’s band.
He was successful enough that his grandmother relented. “After ‘I Don’t Want to Cry’ came out,” he said, “I remember she was on her dying bed and she told me that if I treat people right, God will still do right with me.”
God doesn’t control radio playlists, however, and come 1964, Jackson was among the artists who found the British Invasion was claiming a big chunk of radio’s airtime. But American record companies recovered and in 1966 Jackson signed with Motown, a big-time powerhouse.
Except not for Jackson.
He recorded there for several years, but without top writers or the strongest promotion, his recording career stalled.
He later called signing with Motown “the worst mistake of my life,” but in 1991 he was philosophical.
“Some people told me,” he said, “that they signed me to clear the path for Marvin Gaye. I don’t know. Whatever happened, there’s no sense crying over spilled milk.”
He paused and laughed. “Of course, you do a lot of crying when you don’t have any hits.”
Jackson was also frustrated, along with many of his 1950s and 1960s contemporaries, by the fact they shared little of the money that their old recordings earned when the 1980s CD reissue boom exploded.
“You don’t have the money to fight the companies by yourself,” said Jackson. “So a lot of us banded together. But then you have to give up 50% of what gets recovered.”
Jackson continued to support himself largely through personal appearances, which he said wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
“The big problem with traveling is that it always keeps getting more expensive,” he said. “It costs you more money to fly and get hotel rooms. If I could get food to eat, clothes to wear and a car when I need it, I’d play for nothing. That part is a pleasure.”
Jackson and some of those fellow artists made headlines in 1988 when they worked and played with the late Lee Atwater, a blues and R&B fan and musician who was also a leading Republican campaign strategist for eventual President George H.W. Bush.
While Atwater was immersing himself in black music, he was also creating the “Willie Horton” commercials for the Bush campaign. Horton was a convicted murderer who got a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison under a program supported by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Bush’s Democratic opponent. Horton fled to Maryland, where he raped a woman after beating her fiancé. The Bush ad spot, while it focused on public safety, was condemned by critics as a thinly veiled and stereotyped dog whistle to white voters about the menace of dangerous black men.
Jackson said his association with Atwater was a separate matter.
“I didn’t know that part of Lee,” Jackson said in 1991. “I didn’t know the politics side, that other side. We never talked politics, only music. He didn’t know whether I was a Democrat or Republican. When Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, the Memphis Horns and I played for a Young Republicans Christmas party, no one was allowed to ask us about politics.
“I know the tabloids said he was using us, but I used to tell him, ‘We’re using you, too.’ We’d laugh about it.”
That is to say, Jackson was not apologizing.
“We were just people he enjoyed being around,” said Jackson. “He loved blues and R&B. He loved the Memphis sound. It was his release. He’d go home on Friday night and pick up his guitar.”
Atwater died in March 1991, and a few months later that was still fresh in Jackson’s mind.
“I was close to him,” Jackson said. “I had called him the day before he died and he said he wanted me to sing at his memorial. He wanted me to sing ‘People Get Ready’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’
“So I did, and there is the President and thousands of other people seeing it. Afterward, the President stood up and beckoned to me. He told his security to let me through. He was crying. He pulled me to him and kissed me. It was the greatest moment of my life.”
Chuck Jackson would live another 32 years, singing for most of those years and being inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame in 2015. He became a vocal advocate for R&B music and its artists — a fitting role for a singer who embodied both.