Review

Jackie Wilson was one of the great natural talents of soul and R&B during the 1950s and '60s, but you wouldn't always know that from listening to his records. Wilson and his A&R people had rather curious ideas about what to do with his powerhouse voice, and he cut lots of material -- standards, show tunes, adult pop hits -- which cast him in the mold of a middle-of-the-road supper club singer rather than the soulful dynamo who exploded on nightclub stages. The History of Jackie Wilson, Vol. 2: Jackie Sets the Standards collects 40 songs from Wilson's Brunswick Records catalog that reflect this side of his musical personality, and while there's never any question that Wilson has a tremendous voice with a broad range and plenty of expressive power, he doesn't seem especially well-suited to this material most of the time. Did anyone really think it was a good idea for Wilson to record "You'll Never Walk Alone," "People" or (gulp) "My Yiddishe Momma"? Wilson never gives less than 100 percent on these selections, but sometimes this just makes things worse; he struggles to find a soulful undercurrent in "Ode to Billie Joe," "My Way," and "Sonny Boy" to the point of forcing one in even if it doesn't fit, and the emotional overstatement only makes these sides sound all the more absurd. The highly polished and hackneyed arrangements don't do Wilson any favors, and ultimately, it's remarkable that a handful of songs work in spite of it all, especially "Danny Boy," "Night," "St. James Infirmary," and "For Once in My Life," numbers where Wilson finds a way to reach the songs on his own terms. There's an old cliché about a singer being so good that he could sing the telephone directory, and there are moments where that sounds preferable to what's on Jackie Sets the Standards; given Wilson's incredible talent, this is usually at least listenable, but it also demonstrates just how misguided Wilson's recording career could be. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

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