Before Michael Jackson, there was Jackie Wilson. The dynamic performer, nicknamed "Mr. Excitement," dazzled predominantly African-American audiences with his incredible showmanship and booming voice. Unfortunately, he failed to achieve due recognition for his contributions to soul music until after his untimely death in 1984. But Wilson's impressive songs have withstood the test of time, and have attracted new generations of fans. One of his best tunes, "Baby Workout," exemplifies his energy, smooth voice, and ability to fuse pop and R&B.
Wilson first emerged on the R&B music scene in 1953, when he replaced Clyde McPhatter ("Lover Please") in the then-popular group Billy Ward and the Dominoes. After departing the group to forge a solo career, he scored a hit with "Reet Petite," written by fledgling songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. This team proved successful, as Gordy penned several songs for Wilson, including the classics "Lonely Teardrops" and "To Be Loved." By the early '60s, Wilson recorded what All Music deems "singles that often used horn arrangements and female choruses that have dated somewhat badly." However, 1963 proved to be a big year for Wilson, as he experienced a top five hit with "Baby Workout," written with friend Alonzo Tucker. Reaching number one on the R&B charts, the track now serves as a testament to Wilson's irresistible talent.
Lyrically, "Baby Workout" offers little originality. It concerns a young man urging a woman to hit the floor with him; after a horn-filled fanfare, Wilson wastes no time. "Come out here on the floor/ Let's rock some more!" he cries. The snapping beat kicks in, perfectly accompanying Wilson's clear, sharp voice: "Now when you get out here/ Don't you have no fear," he insists. As the chorus begins, the tune transforms into a dance lesson:
Oh, my momma, move up (first step)
Party move back (second step)
Shuffle to the left (third step)
Wobble to the right (fourth step)
Background singers provide additional encouragement, repeating words and, in this case, chanting the number of steps. While the sometimes heavy-handed singing typical of '50s music seems slightly out of place here, but even that cannot overshadow Wilson's enthusiasm and soulfulness. When Wilson commands listeners to "work out all night long," they are compelled to obey.
"Baby Workout" proved to be an ideal showcase for Wilson's charisma, both vocally and, when he performed it live, visually. Unfortunately, Wilson never became as huge as James Brown, Jackson, and crooners such as Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. He experienced numerous tragedies, including being shot by female fan in 1961 and suffered a career-ending stroke onstage in 1975. According to All Music, "his career was more seriously endangered by his inability to keep up with changing soul and rock trends." Indeed, after Wilson's 1967 comeback hit, the ebullient "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," he never regained momentum, and music history largely overlooked him by his 1984 death. But his 1987 posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally earned him the recognition he deserved, honoring his contribution to early soul music.
"Baby Workout" provides a rhythmic introduction to Wilson's immense talent; be sure to explore the rest of his catalog to fully appreciate his vast influence on modern R&B artists.