The span and evolution of mainstream music in the United States is rooted and has been supported by the genius of black musicians. Using the stage as their ceremonial ground, the microphone as their symbol of greatness, and with their voices taking on griot powers – these artists transcend and surpass all physical barriers allowing us – the audience -into a world where a melody, a verse, a dance move allows us to feel a special kinship with them. The issue, however, with black genius is that for all of the glory and blessings that it bestows upon the world, it usually comes with its share of heartbreak. Hearing of a once popular black artists losing it all due to addiction, illness and pariahs that they had mistaken for friends is sadly not a rare thing. Their lights dim, their magic is forgotten and the names that were once on everyone’s lips evaporate with the movement of time.
Jackie Wilson is one of the most enigmatic singers to have emerged out of the later half of the 20th century. Having inspired greats such as Michael Jackson, his showmanship was unparalleled. But with his quick fall out of spotlight due to a debilitating heart attack, Wilson’s mark on music has been lost (unless you count the scene in Coming to America where Prince Hakeem belts out Wilson’s “To Be Loved”). As is the case with black genius, what many fail to remember one chooses to commemorate. On Monday March 4th at the supper club, 54 Below, Broadway Black witnessed the resurrection of Jackie Wilson through the highly talented Chester Gregory. Gregory parlayed the talents that have seen him awarded time and time again to breathe life to Wilson’s story.
The production, “The Eve of Jackie,” takes place on September 28, 1975 , a day before Wilson would suffer a collapse on stage that would lead to being in a coma for about eight years. Gregory infuses details about the man Wilson was through his dialogues and monologues as well as hit songs. Through the show we learn of Wilson being shot in the back, with a bullet lodged too near his spine to be removed. We learn of the killing of his son, the financial abuse he suffered at the hands of his manager, and his unending appetite for women.
The mark of a great performance is when the performer has such high levels of charisma, talent and sophistication that audience members suffer from the suspension of belief. This means that those witnessing the performance are no longer using a part of their brain to think about the upcoming commute home, their job or their kids — their mind stops focusing on minute matters to soak in every ounce of the brilliance that is taking place before them. Chester Gregory’s performance cast a spell strong enough on those present on March 4th to do so. In the heat of the show, audience members could be heard cheering him on with “Gon’ Jackie!” and other words of support, believing his body became a portal for the spirit of Jackie Wilson to come through and tell his story.
“The Eve of Jackie” is genuinely a strong body of work. In it we see how fame can be both a blessing and a curse for those with massive talent. We see how a man can burn down, rise from the flames anew to only be pulled away from the next chapter of his life. And most importantly we get to witness the respect of a black genius of today for a black genius of yesterday.