Jack Leroy Wilson Jr. (June 9, 1934 – January 21, 1984) was an American soul and rock and roll singer and performer. Wilson was a prominent figure in the transition of rhythm and blues into soul. He was considered a master showman and one of the most dynamic singers and performers in pop, R&B, and rock and roll history, earning the nickname “Mr. Excitement”.
Wilson gained initial fame as a member of the R&B vocal group Billy Ward and His Dominoes. He went solo in 1957 and scored over 50 chart singles spanning the genres of R&B, pop, soul, doo-wop, and easy listening. This included 16 Top 10 R&B hits, six of which ranked as number ones. On the Billboard Hot 100, Wilson scored 14 top 20 pop hits, six of which reached the top 10.
According to Larry Geller, who visited Wilson backstage in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley, the singer had a habit of taking a handful of salt tablets and drinking large amounts of water before each performance, to create profuse sweating. Wilson told Elvis Presley, “The chicks love it.”
On September 29, 1975, Wilson was one of the featured acts in Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue, hosted by the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He was in the middle of singing “Lonely Teardrops” when he suffered a massive heart attack. On the words “My heart is crying” he collapsed on stage; audience members applauded as they initially thought it was part of the act. Clark sensed something was wrong, then ordered the musicians to stop the music. Cornell Gunter of the Coasters, who was backstage, noticed Wilson was not breathing. Gunter was able to resuscitate him and Wilson was then rushed to a nearby hospital.
Medical personnel worked to stabilize Wilson’s vital signs, but the lack of oxygen to his brain caused him to slip into a coma. He briefly recovered in early 1976, and was even able to take a few wobbly steps, but slipped back into a semi-comatose state.
Wilson’s friend, fellow singer Bobby Womack, planned a benefit at the Hollywood Palladium to raise funds for Wilson on March 4. Wilson was deemed conscious but incapacitated in early June 1976, unable to speak but aware of his surroundings. He was a resident of the Medford Leas Retirement Center in Medford, New Jersey, when he was admitted into Memorial Hospital of Burlington County in Mount Holly, New Jersey, due to having trouble taking nourishment, according to his attorney John Mulkerin. Wilson’s friend Joyce McRae tried to become his caregiver while he was in a nursing home, but he was placed in the guardianship of his estranged wife Harlean Harris and her lawyer John Mulkerin in 1978.
Wilson died on January 21, 1984, at the age of 49 from complications of pneumonia. He was initially buried in an unmarked grave at Westlawn Cemetery near Detroit.
In 1987, fans raised money in a fundraiser spearheaded by an Orlando disc jockey “Jack the Rapper” Gibson to purchase a mausoleum. On June 9, 1987, his 53rd birthday, a ceremony was held and Wilson was interred in the mausoleum at Westlawn Cemetery in Wayne, Michigan. His mother Eliza Wilson, who died in 1975, was also placed in the mausoleum.
Wilson was posthumously inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He is also inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. Two of Wilson’s recordings were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. He was honored with the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Legacy Tribute Award in 2003. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Wilson No. 69 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and number 26 as one of the greatest singers of all time.