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Feb 10

JACKIE WILSON – “Reet Petite”

FT + Popular58 comments • 4,086 views

#582, 27th December 1986, video

“Reet Petite” would have fit right in on an advert: I scratched my head for a while trying to remember which it came from. No luck – so I went and looked it up, and of course it wasn’t on one at all. It got to number one on the back of an animated short – played on BBC arts show Arena – in which a triangle-headed plasticine Jackie shook and jived while mouths on stalks quivered behind him in an angular landscape which reminds me a little of Krazy Kat. As an enactment of the song’s pop-eyed restlessness and vocal flexibility it works, and it’s more a fan video than an advert. All the giant caricature lips threw me at first but as a sung performance “Reet Petite” is a real celebration of the mouth with all its trills, twists, held notes and squawks of joy.

Its easy ascent to Number One, though, is a bit more problematic than its video. We’ve occasionally seen records top the charts a half-dozen years, even a decade after they were recorded, but “Reet Petite” came from a generation away: a hit in 1957, and a hit very much of 1957 in its swinging, wisecracking urban R&B feel. As a listener I remember feeling completely alienated – not only did I think it was goofy but it felt like a betrayal of what I’d assumed the charts were for: showcasing new music, even if it wasn’t my new music. Adam Ant hits are as old now as “Reet Petite” was then, and now I can love it, thrill to “she’s AWWL-right!” But at the time its success really bothered me, and an instinctive dislike for reissues remains (meaning this and most others will grab a point or two less than they might have).

So even though “Reet Petite” wasn’t an advertising song it’s worth making a few general points now about what I think was going on. The mid-80s, and the introduction of the CD, saw record labels wake fully to the potential of their back catalogues. People were prepared to buy the old stuff, even if they already owned it. And this raised another question: if that could work for albums, why not for singles? Plenty of great records lurking in those vaults, waiting for potential audiences. What’s more, sales of new singles were in decline – none of the great pop bands of the early 80s were selling like they used to. No better time to promote old records, you’d say.

Except if any label executive did think like that, they hit a problem. The singles market was awareness- and novelty-based: kids bought a track cos they heard it on the radio or saw it on the TV. The crucial radio stations put new records on their playlists, not old ones. And there was no way of getting this stuff on TV at all. So aside from special campaigns – like the Beatles reissues in 1982 – the market for classic singles qua singles was limited to imprints like Old Gold, two old hits on one 7”, steady enough sellers to get a small rack in WH Smith or Virgin but nothing more than a sideline.

And then Bartle Bogle Hegarty helped change all that. They made a commercial for Levi’s – “Laundrette” – in which Nick Kamen stripped down to his underwear while “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” played. The ad is remembered now for its chain-reaction smashing together of sex and denim, but the music was just as important – a reissued “Grapevine” got to #8. This was the vector needed to sell old singles: license them to a well-made advert and you had the equivalent of a video on heavy rotation.

So what was the music that adverts would help sell? Soul music, first and foremost: old soul music, that constant echo in 80s music now completing its journey from style mag reference point to a nationally understood signifier of the authentic, the real, the rooted in a brittle and shallow world. After all, the only people in the world who bang on more than marketers about authenticity are rock critics – even if the two disagree deeply on what it might be or mean.

This was the context in which “Reet Petite” emerged – through quite a different channel, but another piece of proof that timely reissues of singles could really clean up. The after-the-fact success of old soul, R&B and rock’n’roll music in the late 80s charts could be seen as a vindication for songs which were often neglected at the time. But it could equally be seen as confirmation that much of pop had stagnated in the mid-80s: the growing turn to classicist values reaching a logical conclusion. If Tony Hadley, say, was working in the shadow of Marvin, why not just listen to Marvin, who wasn’t in anyone’s shadow? But this new context had a chilling effect on these old songs. A song as free and easy as “Reet Petite” had suddenly become part of a rulebook.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    swanstep on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Hmmm… Jackie Wilson hasn’t really been a character in my world (beyond ‘Higher and higher’), so it’s been interesting for me to read up on him now. What a horror end of life story for an evidently lovely man and huge talent. I thought nothing would top Curtis Mayfield’s tragic last ten years (after a lighting rig accident on stage) for brutal waste and torture of a great human being, but Wilson’s story is up there.

    That said, while it’s obvious that ‘Reet Petite’ is an astounding record with some serious vocal gymnastics in it, for whatever reason the song just doesn’t grab me the way Wilson’s more straightforward ’60s stuff does or, say, Louis Jordan’s late ’40s stuff does. Musically RP is such a fascinating hybrid – big band, sun elvis, rca elvis + jordinairres, about 5 different types of later soul in anlage – but for me the overall effect is crowded and overpowering rather than strictly pleasant. Berry Gordy wrote this? Blimey – talented dude. Figures tho’: there’s a record label’s worth of ideas in this one song and its arrangement.

  2. 27
    Kat but logged out innit on 3 Feb 2010 #

    My context for adoring this record was plain and simple: I was five years old and loved the silly video that looked a lot like Trapdoor. I knew that the jeans advert song and My Baby Just Cares For Me were famous old songs (probably because my parents knew the words!) but as far as I was concerned Jackie Wilson was a fictional dude in a blue suit made out of clay, straight out of kids’ tv. The record is absolutely fantastic of course – and also the reason I learned how to roll my Rs at a very early age :)

  3. 28
    Billy Smart on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Its really before documented pop discourse existed, but I’d be absolutely fascinated to know about any sort of press or critical response to this in 1957.

  4. 29
    Alan on 3 Feb 2010 #

    ditto to liking all of the songs in #22. maybe less so on the quo. elkie and alf got a play on that recent and previously mentioned POTP that featured Popular’s next #1 at #1.

  5. 30
    Martin Skidmore on 3 Feb 2010 #

    I am prompted by comment 15 to add a bit of backstory about Jackie Wilson: he became well known when he replaced Clyde McPhatter in Billy Ward And The Dominoes in 1953 (McPhatter left to form the Drifters). The high yipping and other vocal tricks came in part from McPhatter, who was a far more OTT singer emotionally, if rarely as tricksy as on RP. Listen to BW&tD’s The Bells for the most excessively emotional performance ever committed to vinyl. The Drifters’ version of White Christmas has McPhatter in sillier mode.

    Anyway, I love RP, and always enjoy it enormously, and while I would never wish to claim reissues as the best of their latter day, 7 is too low for such a joyous, fun record.

  6. 31
    inakamono on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Interesting to read the comments about oldies revivals at this time. To me it felt more like a revival of oldies revivals, because I remember the period around 74/75 when the charts seemed to be full of oldies. Honey by Bobby Goldsboro for example getting to No.2 for the second time, or Young Girl By Gary Puckett & The Union Gap going top ten again just half a dozen years after its first run. I also remember that time as being a real low ebb for pop music [with some significant exceptions of course] — after all, the Bay City Rollers were at their peak around then.

    Maybe there’s some correlation between the two: when the “current” acts are pretty second-rate, there’s a gap to be filled and the oldies creep in and fill it. I can’t seem to remember any influx of oldies during the later 70s and early 80s; maybe there just wasn’t a need for them.

    However, I will thank this period for introducing me to Nina Simone, who had never crossed my radar before. I always associate the Reet Petite revival with the revival of My Baby Just Cares For Me, and I’ve been hooked on Nina ever since. So sometimes revivals can be a good thing.

  7. 32
    Mutley on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Re #28. A contemporary admiring comment on Jackie Wilson is made by none other than Elvis Presley during the Million Dollar Quartet session. Elvis saw Jackie perform in Las Vegas in 1956 in the group Billy Ward and the Dominoes. He didn’t know Jackie’s individual name at that time, but said that his version of “Don’t be Cruel” was “much better than that record of mine..”

  8. 33
    Billy Smart on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Re #16 and others. The thought’s just struck me that the periodisation of the availability of old music precisely corresponds with John Ellis’ 3 stages of television; an age of scarcity, an age of availability (the video/ CD), then a digital age of plenty (internet).

  9. 34
    Tom on 3 Feb 2010 #

    #33 Music’s actually a lot further along – while there’s a hell of a lot of old digitised TV out there to get the more obscure stuff still requires a good deal more legwork than music.

  10. 35
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 3 Feb 2010 #

    seventh seal watch: tich and quackers on bit-torrent

  11. 36
    thefatgit on 3 Feb 2010 #

    @33 Billy, is there a specific year when broadcasters’*archived recorded material switched to video tape? And was cellulose film used before then?

  12. 37
    Billy Smart on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Because old videotape was so expensive, BBC programmes were transferred to 16mm telecine recordings until the early 1970s, which also meant that copies could be reproduced and distributed.

    I’m not sure when precisely in the 1970s the practice changes, but I do know that the BBC started systematically recording and keeping all programmes on videotape in the autumn of 1977.

    Each ITV company had its own archiving policy (ATV’s seeming to be “throw it away!”)

  13. 38
    wichita lineman on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Re 31: Good call. 1975 was a stinker of a year, though Young Girl and Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross had both gone Top 10 again in ’74. 1975 also saw Je T’Aime and The Israelites back in the chart, as if there was some weird 1969 mini-revival. One of the Top 40′s more obscure mysteries.

    The doo wop revival, which was represented on Popular by Blue Moon, similarly saw oldies re-chart in the fallow period of 1960/61.

  14. 39
    Elsa on 3 Feb 2010 #

    In the States a lot of TV programs (as we call them) from the ’60s or earlier were never preserved at all on any medium and are lost. If they were on videotape originally the tapes were often erased to be used for new programming. Infamously, the 1968 appearance of Lennon & McCartney on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show when they were announcing the formation of Apple was not saved by the network.. the only version of it I’ve seen is a grainy film that some TV watcher made by pointing a portable camera at his TV screen.

  15. 40
    AndyPandy on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Oran ‘Juice’ Jones “The Rain” and the Dramatics “In the Rain” are completely different songs both tune and lyrics-wise – the former sort of a revenge song the latter the singer describing walking in the rain to hide his tears.

    Parts of The Dramatics distinctive instrumentation has been sampled in on more than 1 occasion by hardcore and techno tracks.

    It’s debatable whether this could be described as “soul” as we came to know it and by my time may have been played at a rock n roll/doowop club but definitely not a soul club.
    Having said that “I Get the Sweetest Feeling” was one of the rare pre-1970s hits that you would hear at soul/funk clubs/weekenders while that scene still existed pre-1988.

  16. 41
    LondonLee on 3 Feb 2010 #

    The version of ‘Grapevine’ in the Nick Kamen 501s ad was a sound-a-like cover version because, I think, record companies weren’t wise to the marketing potential and didn’t want their music cheapened by use in a commercial. They soon got wise obviously and ad agencies started to employ people to dig up oldies to use. I had two mates working at Saatchi & Saatchi at the time who were working on a Burger King campaign (think it was) and they came round my flat one night to dig through my soul records to see if any might be suitable. They ended up choosing “Me and Baby Brother” by War, but I assume the client didn’t go for it otherwise we might have been talking about that record at some point.

    I hated this video back then, thought it turned Jackie Wilson into a novelty act though admitedly his operatic vocal style could get a tad cartoony at times. A lot of fun but I prefer him being more soulful like ‘I Get The Sweetest Feeling” and it’s thumping b-side “Soul Galore”

  17. 42
    Elsa on 3 Feb 2010 #

    I wonder when was the last time a man or woman on the street used the word “reet.” That bit of slang is deader than the Lindy Hop.

  18. 43
    Matthew K on 3 Feb 2010 #

    #23 – Rory, I can assure you this song and its clay video were most definitely on the air and in my brain back in 1987 Tasmania. Probably as a result I can admire it for its pop brilliance and great performance, but I feel nothing but irritation when I hear it. I tend to prefer soulless music to soul any day.

  19. 44
    rosie on 3 Feb 2010 #

    Elsa @ 42: Beside the Tyne they say ‘reet’ all the time. Also, it is a few years since I attended jive nights regularly but I believe there is a still a dedicated band of lindyhoppers dedicated to getting in the way of their deadly rivals the lerocers!

  20. 45
    Snif on 4 Feb 2010 #

    #23 and #43 – It also got plenty of airplay (and TV play on local music shows) in Adelaide!

    I seem to recall reading/hearing somewhere that Nina Simone absolutely hated the Aardman film clip for “My Baby Just Cares For Me.”

  21. 46
    Elsa on 4 Feb 2010 #

    Rosie: Crazy, man, crazy. How did Jackie end up using a bit of Geordie slang?

  22. 47
    wichita lineman on 4 Feb 2010 #

    Re 40. Atmospherically? Both got sound effects, dead moody, about being in the rain, y’know…

  23. 48
    Rory on 4 Feb 2010 #

    #43 – really? I’m amazed. Genuinely hadn’t heard it before, even though I was still keeping an eye and an ear out in ’87. Now if it had been ’89, I wouldn’t have had a clue…

    So did it chart? I can’t find any stats online, and my old pile of Australian Music Report charts is long gone.

  24. 49
    Gavin Wright on 4 Feb 2010 #

    Totally agree with #20 and #21 about the video – I saw it recently on one of those ‘Every Number One of the Eighties’ music channel countdowns and found it incredibly unpleasant. I’d agree with Tom’s mark for the song itself – it’s a great vocal, even if I prefer the other big Jackie Wilson hits.

    As for the reissues thing, it was more or less standard practice by the time I’d started paying attention to the charts – in fact I remember when Madness had a hit with a re-released ‘It Must Be Love’ in 1992 I was confused that there didn’t appear to be a proper *reason* for it. Of course there was the then-new Divine Madness hits compilation (my first ever album as it happens) but I just assumed there must be an advert or film or *something* to explain the timing – of course it turned out to be the Madstock-era reunion but the idea of bands splitting up and reforming was alien to me at that point…

  25. 50
    thefatgit on 4 Feb 2010 #

    “Reet” being Geordie for “right” is also listed on Babynames.com as the greek name for “Pearl” (and there’s me thinking it was short for Rita) who knew? I’m willing to guess that there are obselete meanings from the ’40s/’50s that we have no knowledge of (unless someone can prove otherwise).

  26. 51
    Erithian on 4 Feb 2010 #

    For this and a lot of questions from my youth I turn to the back issues of Mad magazine. At a point in the early 70s when Howard Hughes was believed to be on the point of emerging from his reclusive existence, “Mad” carried a feature titled “Inside Howard Hughes’s Wallet” which purported to show the documents he’d collected prior to coming back into the public eye. The gag was that his world-view was stuck in the 40s – so for instance he wanted to do a TV interview with Milton Berle on the Texaco Star Theatre because he’d never heard of Johnny Carson. And in one letter to a friend he said he was looking forward to hitting New York because he had “a zoot suit with a reet pleat and a drape shape that’ll knock the bobbysox offa them!” So that’s what the word “reet” signified to me when I first heard this song sometime in the 70s – something vaguely affirmatory and definitely cool, albeit stuck in a time-warp.

    As a record, yes I enjoyed it, if not as much as “I Get The Sweetest Feeling”, it was certainly fun. The video I didn’t go overboard for – yes it was fun too, but detracted slightly from the record as being somebody else’s interpretation of it. But, risking opening a can of worms here, is it really racist? Any claymation/Aardman-type animation is going to involve a degree of caricature, and if you’re caricaturing someone you have to focus on their distinguishing features. If you’re a political cartoonist, it’s almost racist *not* to lampoon Obama now and again, and if you do so you have to exaggerate facial features the way you would with Gordon Brown. With Jackie Wilson, it’s a portrayal of an individual black man rather than a minstrel “type”, and surely, too, it’s showing affection rather than ridicule.

  27. 52
    Rory on 4 Feb 2010 #

    Aha: its impact in Oz was regional, and it didn’t do well in Sydney, which suggests it wouldn’t have charted highly overall. #42 Sydney, #11 Melbourne, #17 Brisbane, #1 Adelaide, #29 Perth. No idea about Hobart, but that at least explains your memory of it, Snif.

  28. 53
    MikeMCSG on 5 Feb 2010 #

    #22 wl – Alison Moyet was/is not a pre-punk oldster. Her first record was Yazoo’s Only You in 1982 a synthpop classic. It’s a shame she sullied her reputation with those awful supper club covers when she went solo.

  29. 54
    wichita lineman on 5 Feb 2010 #

    I was thinking of her as part of the Live Aid era establishment, most safe and dull. I love the Yazoo stuff but, boy, did she become an oldster before her time. Quite a lot of warmth upthread for Is This Love, mind you! Still sounds like a 5th rate Cher album track to me, with the most unnecessarily loud snare in all pop history.

  30. 55
    abaffledrepublic on 5 Feb 2010 #

    Am I the only one here who can’t stand this record? I don’t know whether it’s the OTT vocals, the stupid naff horns that echo them or the overall feeling of enforced jollity that probably made it a big hit at Christmas parties. Whatever, I hated it at the time and still hate it now. The video gave me the creeps as well.

    Much much better just around the corner though, and totally agree with all those praising the Oran Juice Jones tune, it’s absolute class.

  31. 56
    anto on 5 Feb 2010 #

    Re :55 I wouldn’t say I can’t stand it but I don’t especially rate it.
    I didn’t realise it was so well thought of. I assumed even Jackie Wilson fans considered it a bit lightweight.

  32. 57
    Jimmy the Swede on 6 Feb 2010 #

    But of course Wilson was a Geordie! You’ve all heard of “Wor Jackie”, haven’t you?

  33. 58
    vinylscot on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Sorry to come to this one so late – has anyone else heard really strong echoes of this record in Paolo Nutini’s recent “Pencil Full Of Lead” ditty?

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