Highland Park honors Jackie Wilson with street renaming

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

“Lonely Teardrops.” “Reet Petite.” “Higher and Higher.” “Whispers (Getting Louder).”

Jackie Wilson first recorded at Detroit’s United Sound as “Son­ny” Wilson. In 1975, at 41, he had a heart attack and fell from a stage in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

While Jackie Wilson's soulful, four-octave range can be enjoyed via his music, there are few physical reminders of the man dubbed “Mr. Excitement” in his hometown.

He is a Detroiter worth remembering, considering his recording achievements in the ’50s and ’60s, his influence on singers such as Elvis, Michael Jackson and Usher, and his enduring popularity outside the U.S.

Soon there will be a symbolic marker honoring him as the city of Highland Park and the Jackie Wilson Foundation, run by his daughter, Brenda Wilson, will rename a block of Cottage Grove Street, just off Woodward, “Jackie Wilson Lane.”

“He was one of the most important singers of his time,” said Mayor Hubert Yopp, who attended Highland Park High School with Jackie’s sister Joyce Wilson. “People come from all over the world to see Motown, to see where the Temptations practiced. Jackie Wilson actually grew up on Cottage Grove. Our city is growing, it’s kind of starting over. This will help us promote our city.”

Born Jack Leroy Wilson in Detroit on June 9, 1934, Jackie Wilson grew up in houses on Lyman and Kenilworth in the North End before his family settled at 248 Cottage Grove in Highland Park in about 1943. He lived there until he left home in the early ’50s to join Billy Ward & the Dominoes.

The sign will be on the corner of Woodward and Cottage Grove. The “Jackie Wilson Lane” renaming program will happen at 6 p.m. Saturday, inside the studios of WHPR-TV in Highland Park, emceed by David Washington, on-air host of WPON’s “20 Grand Revue.” Mayor Yopp will speak.

Jackie Wilson’s daughter, Brenda Wilson, runs a foundation that bears the singer’s name.

“Many of my father’s fans are older, and we wanted them to be comfortable,” Brenda Wilson said.

In addition to Brenda Wilson, several of Jackie Wilson’s surviving adult children will be present: Anthony “Tony” Wilson of Detroit; Thor Lathan Kenneth of Atlanta; and Sabrina Wilson of Las Vegas.

Also attending will be city officials, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), and some of Jackie Wilson’s musician friends, including Joe Billingslea of the Contours and Billy Davis of the Midnighters.

Wilson deployed his satiny, emotional tenor in both school and church choirs, including Russell Street Baptist Church, where he was a member. He attended Highland Park High School before dropping out in 1950, when he was 16.

After the sign on Cottage Grove is erected, daughter Brenda said she hopes to have a bench erected in a small area near where her father’s house once was.

Mary Wilson of the Supremes (no relation to Jackie) will attend the event, which falls the night before the Rhythm & Blues Awards inductions at the Guido Theater in Dearborn, which she is flying in to emcee.

Jackie Wilson was loved by audiences for his operatic range — tenor Mario Lanza was one of his favorites, growing up — as well as his good looks and boxer’s grace when he danced.

He first recorded in Detroit, at United Sound, as “Sonny” Wilson — his childhood nickname — for Dizzy Gillespie’s Dee Gee Records, in sessions produced by Dave Usher. The songs he cut included “Danny Boy” and “Rainy Day Blues.”

Wilson left Detroit to join popular R&B act Billy Ward & The Dominoes in the early ’50s, replacing Clyde McPhatter, and Wilson went solo in 1957.

Wilson was indirectly responsible for the birth of Motown, since Motown founder Berry Gordy wrote a series of hit songs for him in the late ’50s (with Wilson’s Highland Park friend Billy “Roquel” Davis), including “Lonely Teardrops,” “To Be Loved” and “Reet Petite.” Gordy was so disheartened when he made virtually no royalties on Wilson’s hits that he resolved to start his own record company — and get paid.

Wilson’s career sputtered in the early ’70s, and his management, rumored to have mob ties, was more of a hindrance than a help. In 1975, at 41, when he was out on the oldies circuit, the singer suffered a heart attack and fell from a stage in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, hitting his head.

In and out of a coma for years, Wilson died in January 1984. He’s buried at Westlawn Cemetery in Wayne, Mich., the gravesite marked by an impressive monument made possible by donations from fans.

Mary Wilson recalled seeing Jackie perform at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom and the Gold Coast club in the late ’50s, when she was a teenager.

“After hearing him on the radio, it was one of those wonderful teenage moments when you saw your idol up close. We were like ‘Aaaah!’ ” Wilson said, screaming softly. “Mr. Wilson was always extremely handsome, dapper, he could dance and all that stuff. I was one of the screaming young girls and my dream was to meet Jackie Wilson.”

That dream was fulfilled a few years later when Mary, along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard were out on tour as the Supremes, with Jackie Wilson as the headliner.

“Mrs. (Ernestine) Ross, Diane’s mom, was chaperoning us out on the road at the time,” Wilson explained. “We had our first couple of records out. The theater would show a movie in between the shows, so Mrs. Ross had to go to lunch while the movie was on.”

Before she left, Ernestine Ross asked Wilson if he would “babysit” the teenaged Supremes, who were still kept on a tight leash by Motown. That might seem like putting the fox in charge of the hen house, but it delighted Diana, Flo and Mary.

“We were like ‘YES!’ So she went out, and he said ‘OK girls, now you be good, I’ve got to do something right here, but I’ve got my one eye on you.’ That was my big moment right there,” Mary said, laughing.

Susan Whitall is a longtime music writer, author and contributor.

Jackie Wilson

Jackie Wilson Lane renaming ceremony

6 p.m. Saturday

Studios of WHPR-TV (TV 33)

160 Victor, Highland Park