Sunday, 26 July 2009

1986 Jackie Wilson: Reet Petite

Thanks to the miracles of television advertising, 1986 saw the return of a spate of 1960's songs to the UK charts on the back of Levi's series of evocative adverts for their 501 jeans. Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye (or rather their estates) both benefited from the renewed interest in their work, but contrary to what you might read in other, less scrupulously informed (ahem) sites than this, 'Reet Petite' was never used as part of any such advertising campaign. So why the sudden appearance of a thirty year old song at the top of the charts? Well I think two things play a part here, the promotional video and (context, remember?) the time of year.

First, the video. London based animators Giblets produced (entirely for their own benefit) a highly inventive claymation video to go with the song that played out like Bruce Bickford on Prozac. After a screening on BBC's Arena programme, the interest generated in both it and the song resulted in both being released as two sides of a complimentary package.

What this means is that, with this re-release, it's hard to divorce Jackie Wilson the soul/R&B innovator of the original 1957 Brunswick recording (Coral in the UK) with the Morph-like dayglo colourful kiddie friendly plasticine figure of the 1986 model. And it leaves me to ponder which of the two I'm meant to be reviewing here. Certainly the song remains unchanged, and it's a testament to Wilson's talent that he can leapfrog the decades and generations and still sound as thrilled to tell you about the sweetest girl you'll ever meet as he did when he first met her in '57. But all the context of the original is lost.

That it's original success funded the fledging Motown label and hence a hundred other musical careers is forgotten. That Wilson was an entertainment maverick from the mould of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway who stood out against the dichotomy of straight rock & roll and the last gasps of tin pan alley in the 1957 chart is irrelevant. Who cares anymore and does it matter in light of its new context where the forced jollity of the gooning figure in the video reduces Wilson to little more than a cartoon cipher fit only to entertain the kids with his cheery vocal stylings at Christmas (the second factor to play a part in its second bite of the cherry)? That part most certainly does matter. To me anyway.

Am I being snobbish about all this? Probably. But seeing 'Reet Petite' back in the charts this way is like packaging Krug Clos du Mesnil in an alcopops bottle and then serving it up in a coffee mug. In hindsight, I know that further re-releases of some of his other singles ensured that the scope of Wilson's output was shown in the round, but I think most of my annoyance is aimed at the fickleness and vagaries of the record buying public who can lap up drek like the De Burgh and Berry singles while ignoring artists of talent and stature who are left to languish in the poverty of obscurity until they are resurrected by some freak lightning bolt of novelty. Like a funny video. But you pays your money and you takes your choice.

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