Reet Petite (1957)

Jackie Wilson

Written by Berry Gordy Jr. and Tyran Carlo
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Reet Petite MainThe lineage of Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” is long and dense with genetic markers. It fairly drips with the DNA of Rock-N-Roll. The writers are a good place to start untangling the strands.

Writer Gordy founded Motown Records’ forerunner, Tamla, on the strength of the notices that the Wilson record brought (along with $800 he borrowed from family). Gordy would go on to become a giant in the music industry. He co-wrote six more songs for Wilson in the following 28 months, including one of Jackie’s other classics, “Lonely Teardrops.”

Tyran Carlo was the pen name of Billy Davis, Gordy’s fellow Detroiter. He dated Gordy’s sister Gwen and was a cousin to Jackie Wilson. Davis enjoyed much songwriting success, penning “Rescue Me” for Fontella Bass, and co-writing, with Gordy, “You Got What It Takes” for Marv Johnson and “All I Could Do Was Cry” for Etta James.

So fi-yi-yi-yi-fine, Reet Petite

In 1968, mega New York advertising agency McCann-Erickson “discovered” Davis. He would go on to write virtually every famous Coke jingle for the next quarter century. He gets credit for “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke,” which later become a chart hit under the name “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing.” He also wrote “Things Go Better With Coke”; “It’s The Real Thing”; “Have A Coke And A Smile” and “Coke Is It.”

The rockin’ roots of “Reet Petite” can be found in Louis Jordan’s 1947 hit, “Reet, Petite And Gone,” a number that can be categorized as Jump Blues, late Swing, Boogie-Woogie or very early Rock-N-Roll. Jordan’s producer was Milt Gabler who went on to produce Bill Haley’s landmark “Rock Around The Clock.” Jordan’s singing incorporated all styles of music, from scat to yodel, from baritone Blues to nonsense syllable usage.

Verbal play informed his lyric-writing, giving us such titles as “The Chicks I Pick Are Slender, Tender And Fine” and “Petootie Pie.” (The word “reet” is taken as a shortening of “all right,” much the same way as in the late 20th and early 21st centuries “all right” is clipped to “aight.”)

Reet petite Jackie wilson on stageWilson was known as Mr. Excitement on theater marquees. (Check photo at right.) One listen to this recording and you’ll be a believer. “Reet Petite” is a wild journey through vocal styles pioneered by Jordan and draws heavily on Jump Blues. Wilson sounds as if he has the entire hydroelectric output of the Hoover Dam running through his body. So exciting was Jackie Wilson that he inspired both James Brown and Michael Jackson with his dance moves. So big was Wilson that in early 1963 the Beatles opened for him.

“Reet Petite” at its core is a tribute to a beautiful, sexy girl and the driving up-tempo beat is not so much sensual as it is a toe-tapping expression of pent up sexual tension. Listen to the opening, which is nothing more than the words, “look here,” repeated with a bit of a hiccough on the end of the word “look,” the same kind of vocal tick Buddy Holly used to such good effect. It comes out sounding like “looky here.”

The song becomes quite entertaining as it wears on. Crazy observations, humor, and general good will indicate just how happy the singer is about his love:

Reet Petitie single coverWell, have you ever seen a girl
for whom your soul you’d give
For who you’d fight for, die for
pray to God to live?

‘Cause she’s so fine, she’s so fine
She’s really sweet, the finest girl
you ever wanna meet 

Well, she really fills her clothes
from head to toe

I want the world to know
I love her, love her so

She’s all right, she’s all right
She’s all right, she loves me day and night

Reet petite, the finest girl
You ever wanna meet, ohhhhh

Reet Petite Jackie Wilson stand upWilson trills and chirps, using his voice as an instrument that plays against a bold, brassy horn section, talking back and forth to each other. He sings with a high-pitched, choked-back fluidity that would be difficult to even approximate today. (The “choking” is something Wilson said he learned from Clyde McPhatter, whom Wilson replaced in The Dominoes. McPhatter is best known as a founding member of The Drifters and for his solo hit, “A Lover’s Question.”)

What we hear most in Mr. Excitement’s performance is unadulterated joy, similar to moments in Gospel music when Jesus is embraced by choir and congregation alike.

Man, is this guy happy! And why wouldn’t he be?

Well, she’s like honey from a bee
like peaches from a tree
I love her, need her
she means so much to me 


She’s my cutie, my tutti-frutti
My heart, my love, my bathing beauty
She’s all right, she’s got just what it takes
She’s got what it takes
and with me she really rates

All it takes is 2 minutes and 45 seconds – heart throbbing, horn bopping, bass banging, vocal skyrocketing, joint jumping, rocking and rolling.

In 1972, Van Morrison issued “Jackie Wilson Said It Was Reet Petite (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)” from his Saint Dominic’s Preview album. It is a glorification of the celebratory Wilson song “Reet Petite,” one of the most elation-coated homages in Rock-N-Roll history.

Let it all hang out

Reet Petite Jackie wilson said st dominicsAnd when you walk
Across the room
You make my heart go
Let it all hang out
Baby, let it all hang out
And ev’ry time
You look that way
Honey chile, you make my day

Van’s “Jackie Wilson Said,” hinging on Mr. Excitement’s superb execution of “Reet Petite,” deepens with gladness after each listen, extolling as it does, one of the rarest flowers in the garden of Rock music: the unrestrained happiness that only good, good lovin’ can bring.

  • Wilson’s respect for all sorts of fine music, no matter the source, shines through in this comment about The King: “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.” Let it all hang out. 
  • In 1986, “Reet Petite” was re-released in the UK and blasted to #1 after Brits saw a Miller Beer commercial featuring a claymation Jackie Wilson singing this song.