We originally ran this piece in 2006 when "The Wicked" Wilson Pickett died. Since then we've also lost James Brown who is featured in this text.
A lot of the article revolved around the very last of Murray the K's live Holiday shows in New York City. We were recently contacted by Don Lehnoff, a musician in Mitch Ryder's band for the 28 shows over that 1967 Easter holiday. "It's interesting to read your account. It's very accurate to my knowledge. I thought you might appreciate a few more details from somebody who was there."
What follows is an updated version of the article including Don's anecdotes.
R.I.P: WILSON PICKETT
I was having a drink with my buddy JC at a local bar, and during our discussion about the state of the world, golf, women, and all the usual stuff, I glanced up on the silent TV screen and saw a photo of Wilson Pickett. Ok, so you start thinking, when was the last time Wilson Pickett was seen on the news? What did he do? Shoot somebody? Get stopped at the airport with a little weed in his bag, a little coke?
No, no such luck. It was that photo; you know the one, that photo. It only meant one thing; the guy was dead. Sure enough next came the dates - 1941-2006. Wow, what a jolt, the Wicked Pickett had died. That slowed us down. Had to digest that news for a second. Wilson Pickett . . . the Wicked Pickett, not a superstar in the rock and roll soundtrack that accompanied our youth, but a major player for sure.
Pickett, I mean God damn, if I had to break it down . . . you know, really think about it . . . Soul Brother Number One is and always will be James Brown. In the second spot, Otis Redding. I mean, "Try A Little Tenderness" alone earns him that. The fact that the late great Bill Graham, a man who presented everyone and anyone who ever mattered in the history of rock, called Otis the greatest live performer of all time would surely earn him the number one spot of all-time great soul singers. That is if this one of a kind, nothing ever like him before, nothing ever like him again, the real Elvis, James Brown didn't exist.
But you know, life on this planet is a trip, and I don't know what kind of past life karma Mr. Redding brought along with him for his journey, but the fact is this - as incredible as he was, and as unique, sensational, magnificent, and totally mind blowing as he was - Mr. Dynamite was just a little better.
James Brown is untouchable. That's just the way it is, but coming up third on the all-time soul singer list is indisputably The Wicked Wilson Pickett!!!!
Pickett . . . I mean, forget The Beatles, and Buddy Holly, and all that true, but way over myth-a-sized history of rock and roll . . . let's get down to it. Let's take a walk down funky, funky, Broadway. This is the stone-cold reality of it all . . . there wasn't a bar band from Fresno, California to Westerly, Rhode Island, from Detroit, Michigan to Jacksonville, Florida who didn't perform "In The Midnight Hour" from the day Pickett released it until the disco era destroyed the bar band scene. By the way, not only did Pickett put the song over, but he also co-wrote it with Steve Cropper, the legendary guitarist from Booker T & the MGs.
Return with me now to the mid-sixties . . . Catholic school . . . fear and negativity beaten into us little kids every day for 8 to 10 of our most impressionable years. What did we know?
That is all we knew, but God up above wasn't happy with the horror these dysfunctional people were filling his children's heads with, so as Mott The Hopple sang a few years later, "God gave rock & roll to us." Through the miracle of rock and roll radio and Murray the K, Scott Muni, The WMCA Good Guys, and whoever these angles were in your part of the world (like Joey Reynolds in Buffalo, or Wolfman Jack in Southern California), we heard the light.
There was a real world beyond the dogma, and so The Beatles, Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Four Seasons, and Jay and The Americans began to show us the way, but it was the soul singers who showed us the truth.
The Wicked Wilson Pickett was truth: "There you sit all by yourself, everybody's dancin', they can't help themselves, The groove is much too strong, you can't hold on long, so get up, don't fight it, you've got to feel it."
Don't fight it! You've got to feel it. Think about that advice for a second.
And as the years rolled on, there was Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, plus the great, unbelievable vocal groups like The Dells, The Temps, The Tops, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and all the rest - all coming in at number four and onward, because Pickett was number three.
You know the deal, there were nights gone by when James was at home, and Otis was gone, and somewhere out there on the planet, in France, or in some little hamlet in Louisiana, Pickett was performing, and on that night he was number one, you dig? Hey, there were probably many other evenings when James was performing over there, and Otis was over there in that other joint, and The Wicked One was performing at still another place, and the point is if you had the honor of attending Pickett's show, you saw the number one guy that night because that was your reality. James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett . . . the best of the best. The last man standing is James Brown of course, because he's the king of them all y'all, but Pickett lived in that unique stratosphere. He was soul royalty.
So we raised a glass to another of our departed 60's hero's and I thought of a story another friend of mine told me. He was a young guy who had a job selling candy at one of Murray the K's big holiday shows, "Music In The 5th Dimension"
Murray the K, one of the all-time great New York rock and roll DJ's had presented all-star shows for years at The Brooklyn Fox, and Brooklyn Paramount theaters. The shows consisted of about a dozen of the then current hit makers in a huge review. A typical show would consist of Jan & Dean, The Dovells, Randy & The Rainbows, The Miracles, The Angels, The Tymes, The Drifters, The Chiffons, Jay & The Americans, Gene Pitney, The Shirelles and The Ronettes. Each act would do two or three tunes, depending on how many hits they had. For the price of admission you got the live show, a movie, and a free Murray the K Golden Gassers album, an oldies collection.
Of course in the 50's these rock and roll extravaganzas were hosted by Alan Freed. When Alan Freed took it on the chin during the payola scandal he was out and rock and roll TV host Clay Cole was in.
Clay's Christmas Show in '60 at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater featuring Little Anthony and The Imperials, Bo Diddley, Chubby Checker, The Drifters, Neil Sedaka, Dion and more broke the all-time box office record. Then Clay lost his TV show and thus the ability to promote the next live show so Murray the K, then the top rated night time jock on 1010 WINS was selected to take over. He did three a year - The Big Christmas Holiday Show, The Easter Show in the spring, and an end of summer show a week before Labor Day.
By 1967 they had run their course because a new wave of rock music was taking hold. Keep in mind this was just a few years before Bill Graham changed the way rock concerts were produced with his Fillmore's.
Murray departed from his solo act and vocal group presentation and made a valiant attempt to capitalize on the new sound and face of rock by booking self-contained electric bands. Nevertheless, the show billed as "Murray the K presents Music In The 5th Dimension" marked the end of an era.
The shows took place over 40 years ago in 1967 from Saturday March 25th to Sunday April 2nd at the RKO 58th Street Theatre in Manhattan. There were five shows a day starting at 10 in the morning and lasting till after midnight.
Mitch Ryder headlined.
Don Lehnoff: It actually wasn't "Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels." At the insistence of his producer, Bob Crewe, Mitch was embarking on a solo career and we appeared as the Mitch Ryder Show. I was part of a 10 piece band hired to back Mitch up ... 5 guys from Baltimore, 3 from the Chicago Loop who opened the Ryder shows, plus a trumpet from Florida and guitar from New York. The "Wheels" declined the opportunity to be augmented with horns, so they parted company.
Hedging on his bet, Murray booked two soul acts - Wilson Pickett and Smokey Robinson. Smokey, even though advertised, never appeared.
Don Lehnoff: Smokey Robinson was hired for the show as advertised, but at the first rehearsal I sat in the audience seats and watched Robinson, still wearing his trench coat, arguing on stage with Murray the K. At one point Smokey stormed off the stage and up the aisle to the exit, not to return. It was my understanding that he walked out on the show because Mitch Ryder was billed above him, but I can't swear to that. In retrospect, that would be considered absurd billing ... but this was the high point in Ryder's career and he was being seriously hyped by the serious hype machine of Bob Crewe. We headlined everywhere we played, with the one exception of a concert in Chicago where another Crewe product, The Four Seasons, was billed above Mitch.
Nobody cared that Smokey no-showed. The Blues Project with a very young Al Kooper and The Young Rascals appeared, and two very historical moments in rock went down when The Cream (yeah it was Cream, but they were billed as The Cream) and The Who both made their American debut. Both bands were billed as "Direct from England."
The Cream did two songs per show, "I Feel Free" and "I'm So Glad" or "Spoonful, then The Who destroyed their instruments at each performance.
Pete Townsend of The Who: "We were smashing our instruments up five times a day. We did two songs - the act was twelve minutes long and we used to play "Substitute" and "My Generation" with the gear - smashing it at the end, and then we'd spend the twenty minutes between shows trying to rebuild everything so we could smash it up again."
Don Lehnoff: What Townsend said in that quote is totally true. Keith Moon's kit was set up on a raised platform on wheels ... just a big wooden dolly. At the end of "Generation" they would crash the gear and Moon always flipped over his tubs and cymbals. As soon as the front curtain closed, their roadie would rush in and pile everything up on the dolly and wheel it straight back into a small scenery room back stage where he had set up a little work shop. With drills, screws, clamps and the like he would piece everything back together in time for the next show. The band decided it wasn't worth the expense of shipping the abused gear back to England, so on the 28th and final performance they boosted the smoke pots into explosive bombs and almost literally blew up the amps. A stage hand with a fire extinguisher had to be summoned to put out the fires.
Pete Townsend: We didn't really know what was going on and we didn't take it very seriously. And when it got to the last day, we all put funny masks on and went in and sat and listened to (Murray The K) with these masks on. I remember he asked us to take them off, demanded we remove them."
Murray with The Who
Turns out a lot of acts that Murray claimed were his best friends really weren't. In fact many didn't even like him.
Ronnie Spector: "The Beatles were only putting up with him because he was a big New York disc jockey, but they thought it sucked that he called himself the fifth Beatle and they couldn't wait to get rid of him."
Al Aronowitz: "Everybody hated Murray, hated him for his power and success, hated him because he screamed and hollered and wore tight pants, hated him because he forced his ego down your throat like a hard-sell used car dealer who makes it seem like you're going to buy the car anyway, but you've also got to take him along as part of the deal."
Murray's young fans, the kids, dug him, but the young punks known as The Who thought he was a joke.
Pete Townsend: "(Murray) used to complain because he had what he called his personal microphones, which used to come in for a bit of bashin'. And so we used to actually get daily lectures from him about abusing his personal microphone, which we thought was pretty funny."
Roger Daltrey broke a total of 18 microphones during the entire run. To the Who and some of the other new acts Murray was like the strict school principle and they were the punk kids. Backstage it was chaos; Ginger Baker was drunk from first show to last, there were LSD trips, flour fights and flooded dressing rooms. As great as the show was on stage, the show backstage was the real rock and roll experience. The new wave of rock stars were driving Murray crazy.
This brings it all back to Wilson Pickett, The Wicked Pickett, who had seen it all and didn't like what was going down.
Don Lehnoff: Wilson Pickett was more or less the model for the new Ryder band, with Ryder being marketed as the "blue-eyed soul" version. We even covered some Pickett tunes in our show. They even took Mitch down to the Apollo one night to sit in with Pickett on a later show. Pickett's drummer at that time was Buddy Miles.
Pete Townsend: "Wilson Pickett called a meeting because we were using smoke bombs as well, and he felt that we were very unprofessional, and that the smoke was affecting everybody else's act."
The thought of Wilson Pickett lecturing Keith Moon with Murray the K, Mitch Ryder, Eric Clapton, Al Kooper, and Paul Simon hanging around in the background is mind boggling, but it happened.
My buddy, a teenager at the time, only worked at those shows selling candy so he could see each and every performance. He told me that on the last night, after the final performance, Wilson Pickett gave Murray, all the acts, the stagehands, and yes, even the candy vendors, a bottle of Scotch, and the party began. The golden era of huge holiday rock shows that started with Alan Freed and continued with Murray the K ended . . . with The Wicked Pickett.
Pete Townsend quotes from Musician Magazine.
The late Al Aronowitz quote from his website, The Blacklisted Journalist
Ronnie Spector from the New York Daily News