The Presentation of a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and release of a 50-song compilation album, “The Definitive Jackie Wilson,” coincides with the bereavement of Jackie Wilson’s Widow Harlean Harris Wilson
Nationwide — Harlean Harris Wilson, 81, was scheduled to make the acceptance speech at the presentation of a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her late husband, the legendary Detroit-born singer Jackie Wilson, September 4, 2019 in Hollywood. However, she passed away unexpectedly this past Saturday and in her place their son John Wilson will accepted the award for his father.
peakers and guests set for the ceremony include Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites, and Jackie’s Goddaughter Jody Watley will be among those attending.
“Though we are deeply saddened that Harlean will not be with us physically to accept Jackie’s star on September 4th, we are certain that she will be there with Jackie in spirit. Harlean Wilson was a beautiful woman inside and out who lived her life with tremendous grace and dignity and was loved by us all,” said Paul Tarnopol of Brunswick Records.
Prior to her unfortunate death, Harlean was involved with a forthcoming authorized biography and a documentary film about Wilson, a two-time Grammy Hall of Fame Inductee, a winner of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s special Legacy Tribute Award and Roll Hall of Fame recipient. She was very excited about the release of a 50-track compilation of remastered hits, The Definitive Jackie Wilson, available on Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and all other major digital platforms.
Less than two weeks ago, esteemed music journalist Jeff Tamarkin spoke with Harlean about her life, the forthcoming projects and Jackie Wilson’s legacy. Following is her story:
More than 35 years after his death, Jackie Wilson—one of the greatest soul singers of all-time and a second-year inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—is getting some overdue recognition, and no one could be more pleased about that than his widow, Harlean Wilson. On September 4, 2019, Jackie—known in the music business as “Mr. Excitement”—will be recognized with a star on Hollywood’s fabled Walk of Fame. For Harlean, the honor is the culmination of decades of tireless work keeping the late entertainer’s name in front of the public—and protecting both his legacy and her own.
“I’m so elated for him, so ecstatic about my husband getting this star,” says Harlean. “That title Mr. Excitement wasn’t just given to him; he worked for it.”
Harlean Harris—her maiden name—was only a teenager in the early 1950s when she first came across the name Jackie Wilson. Born in White Plains, New York, in 1937, she had been serving as the president of the Billy Ward and the Dominoes Fan Club when the rhythm and blues vocal group announced that its lead singer, Clyde McPhatter, was leaving to join the Drifters. Harlean, along with many other fans, was upset by the news that a young unknown named Jackie Wilson would be taking his place.
Then Harlean went to Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater, where she heard Jackie sing. “I had never heard a black entertainer sing on Jackie’s level, at all,” she says. “Nobody had.” At first she remained solely a fan but then one day she received a call from Jackie, who had seen her picture on the cover of Ebony magazine—Harlean was modeling at the time—and remembered her from the fan club. Jackie and Harlean (who had previously dated Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis Jr.) became a couple and several years later, in May 1967, they were married.
By that time Jackie Wilson had long ago launched a solo career and logged hit after hit, both uptempo numbers and ballads, including such timeless smashes as “Lonely Teardrops,” “That’s Why I Love You So,” “Night” and “Baby Workout.” Just months after the wedding, he scored his final Top 10 single, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” In a business that chewed up artists and spit them out, Jackie Wilson’s popularity never flagged—onstage he was a virtual dynamo, as charismatic a performer as any, while in the studio he was capable, says Harlean, of “singing anything.”
Jackie, she adds, owed much of his commercial success in the music business to his dedicated producer at Brunswick Records, Nat Tarnopol, who was also the head of the label and had originally brought Jackie to New York from their shared native city of Detroit. Unlike many other African-American entertainers of the day, Wilson was treated fairly by Brunswick and Tarnopol, says Harlean, but outside of the confines of the company, that wasn’t always so: The singer and his wife were often subjected to painful, vicious rumors and untruths, legal entanglements and other indignities, including women who claimed to be linked with Jackie romantically and, later, both men and women claiming to be his children. One crazy, completely fabricated story that persisted for some time had Jackie being held outside of an upper story of a building upside down by thugs until he agreed to sign a contract.
Reality did hit them hard one evening in 1961 though, when the couple experienced a horrific close call: Jackie had been shot by a woman who was reportedly jealous of his relationship with Harlean. “Jackie had stepped outside of our apartment to get the mail and I heard what sounded like two firecrackers going off,” says Harlean. She went to investigate the noise, and found Jackie grimacing and screaming, “She shot me,” while a woman stood nearby claiming she hadn’t meant to do so. Jackie summoned enough strength to hobble outside the building, where a patrol car happened to be passing by. But rather than take the victim to a hospital, the officers chased down the shooter inside the apartment building. Fortunately, Jackie’s injuries were not fatal, but it took more than a year before he felt ready to resume his career.
Rumors aside, Jackie and Harlean did produce one child together, a son they named John, known as Petie throughout his life. The young boy’s world was shattered irrevocably when, on September 29, 1975, Jackie Wilson suffered a massive heart attack while performing at a nightclub in New Jersey. Jackie, in a coma, was rushed to a nearby hospital, where Harlean (then separated from him) and Petie were denied visitation until they were able to produce paperwork proving that they were his legitimate family.
Jackie Wilson never fully regained his ability to function; he remained in the care of others, his career cut short unexpectedly and permanently. Harlean became his caretaker, simultaneously entering into a never-ending series of legal situations that would linger long past the death of Jackie Wilson on January 21, 1984, nearly a decade after he collapsed onstage. “I was the administrator of the estate because I was his court-appointed guardian,” says Harlean, “and everybody wanted to take the estate from me, with all kinds of excuses. Everybody came out of the woodwork. The whole matter went into federal court when it first happened and it’s still going on. Jackie wasn’t a businessman.”
Despite all of the hardships she has been through, Harlean Wilson retains nothing but admiration for the man she met more than six decades ago. While she is the first to admit that there were difficulties in their marriage—“I have eyes, I could see what was going on,” Harlean says—she remembers Jackie as a man who was “very vibrant, very effervescent, generous to a fault. He loved to sing and he loved life.”
Harlean Wilson has spent a lifetime doing her best to make sure that the world remembers and knows the truth about Jackie Wilson. Now, finally, with the unveiling of his Hollywood star and other high-profile projects soon to be announced, she will have accomplished her goal.
More information at www.JackieWilsonMusic.com
“Nina Simone: Four Women” at the Public Theater
By Catherine Lee
Christina Ham’s recently revised drama “Nina Simone: Four Women” introduces us to American singer/pianist/activist composer Nina Simone as she struggles to write a song to vent her fury and frustration about persistent, deadly racism.
Though classically trained as a pianist at Juilliard, Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) had been prevented by racism from advancing in that career path. Instead, after changing her name to Nina Simone to avoid family disapproval, her pop music star rose thanks to a rendition of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” in 1958. That Billboard Top 20 single led to recording contracts, including one with complete creative control.
By 1963, Simone had released studio and live recordings from Town Hall, the Village Gate, and Carnegie Hall in New York City, and the Newport Jazz Festival, a total of nine albums. She chose and personally arranged gospel, rhythm and blues, traditional songs, and music by Black diaspora-focused composers Oscar Brown, Jr. and Nat Adderley. Simone had resolved to employ her talents and notoriety as a popular singer and bandleader to do something powerful to call attention to the intolerable injustice of racists getting away with murder.
Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” introduces us to Simone in September 1963. Racist/terrorists, setting off 19 sticks of dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, had just killed four girls in a Sunday school class and injured 17 other worshippers.
Simone is writing “Mississippi Goddamn,” which she originally intended to respond to acquittals of the cold-blooded Mississippi murderers of Emmett Till in 1955 and Medgar Evers in 1963. Sixteen years after Simone’s 2003 death, “Mississippi Goddamn” will be enshrined in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
But in this latest brutal attack, innocent children’s lives are snuffed. Ham’s drama envisions Simone with writer’s block, stunned as she’s trying to compose. Simone is visited by African American sister characters who interact with her and each other.
Sarah, Saffronia, and Sweet Thing weigh issues that the composer has grappled with in her own life including religious vs. secular music; artistic authenticity conflicting with commercial success; continuing nonviolent protest in the face of unrelenting racist violence; colorism and Black women’s rights within the Civil Rights Movement; and the loneliness of Black women whose behavior and values are habitually questioned.
These visitors influence Simone to consider positive qualities and — with Simone herself as represented by Peaches — come to populate a separate new original composition, “Four Women.”
In 2017, the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN commissioned Christina Ham to amplify a one-woman Nina Simone show performed by Regina Williams. In a playbill interview for that first production of “Nina Simone: Four Women,” Ham said: “I saw the challenge of telling the story of how Ms. Simone went from being a mere artist to an artist-activist … She felt very strongly after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the murder of Medgar Evers that her music needed to change direction. She had written instrumentals before, but never songs with lyrics. … Her people were fighting in the streets for their rights, and her old music did not reflect that struggle. She had to start creating art that reflected the times for black people. If it meant making her mostly white audience uncomfortable, she didn’t really care.”
When asked why the play’s title spotlighted “Four Women,” Ham noted that Simone’s pro-women politics questioned “… painful things about being a black woman that still have yet to be put to bed 50 years after that song’s release. … I saw great value in telling a story that could delve deeply into the question of what exactly is an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times.”
Other plays Ham has written for young audiences also examine women caught in the crosshairs of history (“Ruby!: The Story of Ruby Bridges” and “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963”).
In 2021, during a residency at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, Ham made major revisions to “Nina Simone: Four Women.” Ham moved the setting from an Alabama church to Simone’s Mt. Vernon home to better account for the visitors’ appearances.
“They’re not women coming off the streets of Birmingham walking into a church crime scene,” Ham said. “These are women actually different than [Simone] is and she’s actually trying to realize this in the midst of the mental-health issues she battled.”
Performances run Fridays through Sundays, Jan. 20-Feb. 12, in the Russell Hill Rodgers Theater, 800 W. Ashby Place, San Antonio, TX 78212. Call 210-733-7258 or visit (ThePublicSA.org) for tickets.
Will Smith Creating Buzz for Emancipation
Will Smith is trying to make a comeback! Trevor Noah of The Daily Show recently interviewed him about that Oscar moment in March in which he confused his fans and lost a lot of followers.
Comedian Chris Rock made an ill-timed joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Will Smith walked onstage and slapped Rock on live TV. Soon after, Smith accepted his Oscar award for portraying Richard Williams in the film “King Richard.” After the show aired, he was banned from the Academy Awards.
Smith was on The Daily Show to promote his new film “Emancipation,” a historical drama in which Smith stars as a runaway slave facing treacherous territory and slave hunters to make it up north to fight in the Union Army.
Noah asked Smith to explain what he learned from that Oscar debacle.
“I guess what I would say is you just never know what someone is going through,” Smith said on the show. “I was going through something that night. … It’s like when they say ‘Hurt people hurt people,’ you know?”
The film’s director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has defended Apple’s decision to release “Emancipation” on the big screens on Dec. 2 and stream it on Dec. 9.
Smith said in a separate interview that he hopes his actions don’t penalize his team, who have done some of their best work on “Emancipation.”
Fuqua also stated in recent media articles, “Isn’t 400 years of slavery, of brutality, more important than one bad moment?’ We were in Hollywood, and there’s been some really ugly things that have taken place, and we’ve seen a lot of people get awards that have done some really nasty things.”
African Children’s Choir Visiting Nearby Churches in 2023
International nonprofit organization Music for Life announces the 2023 U.S. African Children’s Choir Tour. The tour will include 50+ stops across the country, sure to melt the hearts of audiences with their performance of popular children’s music, traditional spiritual songs and African cultural pieces.
The 2023 tour is much more than a concert. The African Children’s Choir is composed of African children, aged 10 to 12 years old, all who come from vulnerable backgrounds and have faced hardship and lack of education. However, they represent the potential of the African child to become leaders for a better future.
“The African Children’s Choir proves just how powerful music can be,” says Tina Sipp, Choir Manager for the African Children’s Choir. “These concerts provide hope and encouragement, not just to our audiences, but to the children whose lives are forever changed by their experiences with the Choir.”
The 2023 tour will kick off on Sunday, January 15, 2023, in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and will make stops in 16 different states before concluding on Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in Pinehurst, NC. For a full list of tour stops, visit https://africanchildrenschoir.com/tour-dates/.
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