If you saw the musical dramedy film “The Commitments,” you’ll recall the motley crew of young Irish rockers awaiting a rumored local club performance by the legendary Wilson Pickett.
Well, for a certain strata of Yorktown High School graduates from Arlington in the late 1960s, that performance became reality. For decades, our blast of a Wilson Pickett show in the school gymnasium generated a slew of conflicting memories about the surrounding racial tension, missing proceeds and hardball student politics.
It’s time to set the record straight. (Because our school’s got soul.)
In the fall of 1968, Wilson Pickett was a gravelly voiced Stax Records soul singer famous for such hits as “At the Midnight Hour,” “Mustang Sally” and “Land of 1,000 Dances.” The notion that the student government of ordinary suburban Yorktown could attract such top talent was a thrill. The booking was also an edgy move for a mostly white student body, a seeming reach-out to black classmates that some students, who preferred other available bands, resented as “liberalism.”
I was present as the show went on the evening of Jan. 19, 1969, watching students leave their chairs to dance in the aisles to Pickett and Florence Ballard (formerly of the Supremes), backed by horns from the Midnight Riders.
Student Council secretary Jean Offutt Lewis, now an artist, recently told me she had greeted Ballard when she arrived looking for her “dressing room,” which was the girls’ locker room. “One of the perks of being an organizer was getting front-row seats,” she recalls. “So after rehearsals, I went home to change. At the concert, Wilson recognized me sitting there, came over and sang to me.”
Retired math teacher Wilmer “Whiz” Mountain “was one of the faculty who ringed the front of the auditorium to `hold back’ anyone approaching the stage. I remember our principal was not too happy with the outcome. It didn’t make a lot of money for our school.”
Steve Nelson ’70 recalls jumping in his car with buddies after the show to follow Pickett’s car across Memorial Bridge, “until they stopped and a big, mean guy got out to ask what we were doing. Just going with the Flo, we said.”
For clarity on the racial politics, I reached Student Council president Monty Freeman (now a New York City architect). “The simple truth is that I and some fellow Student Council officers liked Motown and R&B and wanted a soul act. Not everyone involved agreed, and we prevailed. The very few black students that we had at Yorktown then did not factor into the decision,” he said. “We did lose money on the concert, which we probably would not have done if we’d booked a more mainstream white band…and we were criticized for that.”
Both the iconic performers went on to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ballard died a sad death by heart attack in 1976 at 32. Pickett, who later moved to nearby Ashburn, died in 2006 at 64, of the same cause.
But their Yorktown concert legend lives on. Last year, I was driving past my friend Doug Ammons’ home, and he flagged me down and told me to wait. He reemerged and presented me with a black-and-white photograph, taken by Michael Willson, YHS ’69, showing wicked Wilson himself, in close-up, in our own school gym.