If anyone ever decides to produce a biopic on the life of entertainer Jackie Wilson, they should consider Chester Gregory in the title role because he definitely has the goods to pull it off. Based on the audible response of the sold out audience present at his show “Eve of Jackie” Friday at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club, he would be a shoe-in.
Chester took a break from touring in the Broadway show “Sister Act,” in which he plays Officer Eddie Souther, to appear for two nights at the Cabaret. In his show, he pays tribute to the legendary performer known as “Mr. Excitement,” who inspired the likes of Elvis Presley, Al Green and countless others. Jack Leroy “Jackie” Wilson, who recorded over 50 hits singles between 1957 and 1975 was considered one of the most influential singers and performers in R & B and rock n’ roll and important in the transition to soul music.
Gregory, a native of Gary, Ind., broke into professional theatre playing Jackie Wilson in the original production of “The Jackie Wilson Story.” He credits a 2003 performance in front of Michael Jackson, another entertainer inspired by Wilson, who gave him a standing ovation, and his Broadway debut a week later in “Hairspray,” as being major highlights of his career.
Wilson collapsed on stage from a heart attack during a concert in Cherry Hill, N.J. and later fell into a coma which lasted for nearly nine years until his death in 1984 when he was 49 years old.
Gregory performed in character as Wilson for the Cabaret audience as if it were present at the entertainer’s live show. Rather than merely impersonating Wilson, Gregory captured his essence instead. Possessing a vocal tone and range similar to Wilson’s, Gregory channeled his idol through a performance in which he replicated the singer’s falsetto, signature choreography, passion and inexhaustible energy.
Accompanying Gregory was his band consisting of Jason Anderson on piano, his music director Carol O’Neal on drums and Adrian Morris on bass. Also performing with him were backup singers Adrian Morris, Jamal Wyley and India Latimore.
Gregory’s set list for the ninety plus minute show without intermission included many of Wilson’s most familiar hits. Interspersed throughout was narration from Gregory as Wilson to the audience in which he detailed the singer’s thoughts and feelings regarding experiences from his tragedy-ridden life, such as the betrayal of his managers who he was taking to court to recovery money that he claimed they stole from him. What made “Eve of Jackie” so unique was Gregory’s ingenious script, which merged Wilson’s music with facts from his life—making for an ideal tribute and a terrific foundation for the aforementioned potential biopic screenplay.
Gregory often ventured out into the audience, again as Wilson, who loved flirting with women; Gregory charmed the females in the Cabaret audience, causing them to react as if the fabled entertainer himself was dancing with them. At one time he even brought some up onto the stage to dance with him and it was clear from their response to him that they had completely bought into the illusion he created that he was, indeed, Mr. Excitement in the flesh.
“I’m Coming on Back to You,” “The Way I Am” and “Think Twice” were some Wilson hits performed by Gregory. Some of Wilson’s strongest lyrics were powerfully interpreted in “No Pity (In the Naked City),” his commentary on the price of fame. Also striking was Gregory’s rendition of “To Be Loved,” a song that Wilson dedicated to those who had supported him during his quest to become clean and sober. Moving throughout the audience during “You Got Me Walking,” Gregory thoroughly engaged the audience in a manner that only master showman Wilson could. And by the time he sang “Lonely Teardrops,” one of Wilson’s biggest hits, he had the crowd in a frenzy.
Near the end of the show, Gregory broke character to thank the audience. By then he was covered in sweat but was not one iota less energetic than he was when he began. He closed the show with another of Wilson's greatest hits, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Ultimately Gregory’s performance was not only a splendid homage to Wilson but it also revealed that he is a first-rate entertainer in his own right.
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