Chuck Jackson was born July 22, 1937 in Latta, South Carolina, one of seven Jackson kids. And if ever a guy had the right to sing the blues, it was Chuck Jackson.
As a child, he never knew his father. When Jackson was eighteen months old, his mom gave him to her parents to raise in South Carolina and then moved to Pittsburgh to get a job in the mills. She never called home for her boy, and was pretty much a non-entity in his life after that.
Jackson had a home with his grandparents, but had to earn his keep. Almost from the time he could walk, his job was to pick cotton, and his only respite from the grueling, back-breaking labor was music.
Grandma made sure he attended church regularly, and he began to sing in the choir at age six. By the time he was eight, Jackson had his own fifteen-minute radio show on Sunday mornings, playing the piano and singing between the obituaries and church news. When he was twelve, his church choir represented Dillon County in a statewide competition.
Their finale was the old hymn “The Holy City,” and he wowed the crowd and judges as the featured soloist, winning a scholarship to South Carolina State College in the process.
It was his way out of the cotton fields, much like football was a way out of Western Pennsylvania's mills and mines. But there was the small matter of him being only twelve years old. The scholarship would wait for him, but college was a long way down the road.
But when he was fourteen, his black school failed to open. Instead of being behind a desk learning the three Rs, he was back in the fields when a school bus full of white kids sped by on the way to class at their school. He had enough, and like his mom before him, ran away from Latta to Pittsburgh.
He stayed with his aunt until he was sixteen, when he went back to South Carolina to finish high school, a prerequisite to collecting that scholarship at SCSC.
Now Pittsburgh was never the textbook example for race relations, but it sure seemed like it compared to the Jim Crow south of the mid-fifties. Jackson lasted in his home state until 1957, when he returned to the Steel City.
Jackson hooked up with the Ray Raspberry Gospel Singers, a group with a national reputation on the gospel circuit.
When two members of the Del Vikings, one of the hottest doo-wop/R&B acts to come out of Pittsburgh, were shipped overseas by the Air Force just as their biggest record, “Come Go With Me” was climbing up the charts, Jackson auditioned for the group and landed a replacement gig.
Jackson sang with the Kripp Johnson, Dot Records version of the Dell Vikings, later becoming Chuck Jackson and the Versatiles after Johnson left to rejoin the original act. (Don't ask - at one time there were three versions of the Del Vikings; they kept industry lawyers rolling in royalties for years). He also recorded for Calico as Chuck Johnson and The Jaycees, releasing "Mister Sandman" b/w "Oh Baby Mine" in 1960.
Opening one night for Jackie Wilson and impressing him with his work, Jackson became part of Mr. Entertainment's Revue.
Wilson taught Jackson how to go out and slay an audience, as only Wilson could do. He also got a taste of the road, performing at The Regal in Chicago, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Howard in Washington DC and the king of soul houses, The Apollo in New York, which would eventually become Jackson's home stage.
It was at the famous Harlem venue that Chuck got his big break when Scepter A&R man Luther Dixon saw him perform. Other labels such as Brunswick (Wilson's longtime recording home), RCA and Columbia got into a bidding war for his services, but Jackson decided to go with Scepter/Wand.
Along with Scepter acts like Dionne Warwick and the Shirelles, Jackson's early 1960s arrangements blended pop, "uptown" R&B, and New York-session professionalism. The songs featured brass, strings, and female backup vocalists. He scored three hits as a duet act with Maxine Waters: “Something You Got” (Wand 181), “Hold On I’m Comin’” (Wand 1148), and “Daddy’s Home” (Wand 1155).
His raspy vocals stirred in some soul, but he never captured the growl of Wilson Pickett or James Brown, the Stax and King benchmarks. He offered up cool soul, not country clay; after all, his idol was the Count Basie Orchestra’s Joe Williams. His smooth sound made him a tough man top pigeon hole musically.
His stuff is so universal that several later became successful hits for other artists. C&W's Ronnie Milsap covered "Any Day Now" in 1982, and it reached #1 on the Country and Adult Contemporary charts. R&B/pop artist Michael McDonald had a huge hit with his cover of Jackson's "I Keep Forgettin'".
In fact, Tom Jones made his mark in America with a song that was originally written for Jackson, "It's Not Unusual."
His first Scepter/Wand single, 1961's "I Don't Want to Cry", which he co-wrote, charted on both the R&B (#5) and the top-forty pop charts. He followed it with “I Wake Up Crying,” #13 on R&B charts, and #59 on the pop listings. With that song, Jackson became the first black artist to chart a Hal David and Burt Bacharach song.
1962's "Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)" was next, the Burt Bacharach-Bob Hilliard classic, which would go on to become one of the great crossover records of the era. It topped out at #2 on the R&B lists and #23 on the pop charts.
One of his better known singles, "I Keep Forgettin'" (1962), was written and produced by Leiber-Stoller, and 1964's "Beg Me." In all, Jackson would go on to release twenty-one singles that charted for Scepter/Wand, most of them minor r&b hits.
The highlight of the mid-sixties were his duets with Maxine Brown, titles like “Beg Me,” "Something You Got," Shep and the Limelites' "Daddy's Home," or “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” a cover of the Sam and Dave hit. But he would never have another Top 40 song.
In 1967, Jackson finally took up Smokey Robinson on a long-standing offer to join Motown, which seemed a natural for his pop/soul sound, and bought out his final years at Scepter.
His debut single, the Smokey song “(You Can’t Let the Boy Overpower) The Man in You,” only charted at #94. The flip side, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” was a hit in the U.K., which would eventually lead him to joining the Brit Northern Soul circuit, but didn't do much to embellish his Motor City cred.
Jackson’s three LPs for Motown were considered by critics to be the best of his career, but none sold. His cold streak buried at least two more albums’ worth of music that was left for dead in the Motown vaults. (The three released albums and their 48 tracks were combined as "Chuck Jackson - The Motown Anthology, Motown #983 293-1).
In 1970, Jackson left Motown for ABC and cut "I Only Get This Feeling” that had the sound of a hit, but wasn’t. ABC didn’t promote him, and probably with good reason; they went under shortly afterwards. Jackson then signed on with EMI, where he got even less love.
Jackson teamed with old friend Dionne Warwick (they consider each other to be brother and sister) for the 1997 "If I Let Myself Go," nominated for a Grammy as the Best Duet. It was the 23rd charted song of his long career.
But hey, he's still rollin' on. Jackson has continued to record on small labels like All Platinum and Carolina, and still performs, often abroad. In 1990, he headlined the Northern Soul Festival in Great Yarmouth, England, and he has been a huge favorite on the Northern Soul circuit ever since.
He’s headlined at the Apollo Theater more than any other artist in history, and he produces shows there, too. Not too surprisingly, he's a winner of the Apollo Theatre's Hall of Fame Award. Jackson's been on The Tonight Show, Soul Train and American Bandstand.
Now he works mainly weekend gigs, and spends a lot of time on inner-city projects. Jackson's even a member of New York's Friars Club.
From the gospel of South Carolina to the doo-wop of Pittsburgh, Chuck Jackson has evolved into the king of cool soul.
Chuck Jackson "I Don't Want To Cry"