So here’s how it went down, more or less.
Brian Compton, playing keys in the party band The Distinguished Gentlemen, jammed during rehearsal on the tune “Smile,” by fellow bandmate Bill Wilson. The tune had an appealing groove that captured Compton’s imagination.
Wilson was a veteran saxophone player and singer who had been playing gigs for years in the Charleston area and was known best as the former operator of The New Moulin Rouge on Rutledge Avenue downtown, a 1990s speakeasy with an in-house band, The Secrets.
Compton was impressed. “Bill,” he said, “do you have other songs?”
He had lots of other songs. Piles of lyrics and melodic ideas.
They jammed some more and it was like mining a rich vein, Compton said. This was retro funk, stuff that had a 1970s vibe, but also a timelessness about it.
That was a few years ago. The keyboardist decided then and there that he would save up his money and get Wilson in the recording studio. Flash forward. It’s late 2017. Compton approaches recording engineer and drummer Matt Zutell of Coast Records with the goal of recording four songs over two days, an EP, and he needs help assembling the band.
Zutell reaches out to guitarist Thomas Kenney of the group Terraphonics, and the two of them start making calls: to drummer JT Rollerson, bassist Tony Cobin, keyboard players Ross Bogan and Jonathan Lovett, guitarist Paul Quattlebaum, and singers Kanika Moore, Aisha Kenyetta and Jenny Lee Ford. Miraculously, it all came together quickly, and everybody was available at the same time, despite multiple projects and busy schedules, Zutell said.
But this was no ordinary recording session. Much of it was improvised on the spot. And the result is a new full-length CD (11 songs), released last week, called “Stand Up!” It’s 76-year-old Bill Wilson’s debut solo album.
To celebrate the achievement, Coast Records has arranged a release party featuring three bands: The Distinguished Gentlemen playing classic songs of the 1960s and ’70s, followed by Sidepiece playing ’70s and ’80s funk and, finally, the musicians who appear on the new record offering some of Wilson’s tunes. Expect improvisatory jamming.
Wilson said he was “ecstatic” about the results of the recording sessions.
“All these guys really blended in the studio,” he said. “It sounded like they’d been doing this for umpteen years. Crazy. Very impressive.”
Kenney and Rollerson were in his line of sight while Wilson was isolated in an adjacent booth to record the vocals, he said. They took cues from one another, attentive to body language and quick glances, helping to imbue a sense of spontaneity in the music.
Wilson wrote all the lyrics and came up with some of the melodies and rhythmic ideas. Compton helped arrange the music. Rollerson and the other players created riffs and grooves that formed the basis of the songs.
“It was all done impromptu, capturing the moment,” Wilson said. There was no rehearsal. “I’m going to let it flow and see where it takes me, try to be prepared for anything that’s going to be good,” he thought to himself at the time.
The songs were mixed by Zutell in February and mastered by Matthew Garber in March.
Rollerson said the organic process in the studio was inspiring.
“The vibe was special,” he said. “We just had charts. It was a matter of taking a lot of this music that Bill had written over the years and bringing it to light. Really cool.”
The old-school funk style came naturally to Rollerson and many of the other musicians, he said.
“It’s one of my favorite genres to play,” he said. “We had a lot of freedom to just be ourselves.”
And Wilson’s response to what was unfolding in the studio — his energy and excitement, his freestyle vocals — motivated everyone, Rollerson said.
Zutell said he had hours of material to mix, much of it created on the spot with no real preparation. The track “I Wonder” started with Bogan on keys creating a groove and everyone else joining in. It only took one take. “Take Me to the Sky” and “Improvisation” also were impromptu jam tunes.
“The band was so good,” Zutell said.
Some of the jams lasted for 20 minutes or so, and Zutell, with Compton’s input, honed in on just a portion of the take to craft the final song, he said. Little was overdubbed, only background vocals, some light percussion and organ.
Zutell created an old-style Marvin Gaye-type sound using modern digital production methods, he said.
Wilson was born on Christmas Day 1941 and grew up on Hanover Street in Charleston’s East Side neighborhood. As a kid, he developed a fondness for music, especially the rhythm and blues of the era. He liked to sing; he played saxophone in his high school band. After graduating, he joined the Air Force, where he remained for eight years, working as an airplane technician.
Soon after, Wilson found his way into the world of professional music, joining Moses Dillard and the Tex-Town Display. Dillard was a Greenville native, and his band included Peabo Bryson, an R&B singer, also from Greenville, who went on enjoy broad success.
Dillard’s group became the house band for Gloria O. Smith, the second winner of the Miss Black America Pageant in 1969 and a singer. Smith and the band performed for troops during a three-week USO tour in Vietnam the following year.
Back in Greenville, Wilson became a pulmonary therapist, earning certification at Greenville Technical College and landing positions at area hospitals. He was 30 years in the health care industry, eventually becoming a shift supervisor in Spartanburg, then in New Orleans.
“I was making a little music here and there, writing some stuff, occasionally sitting in with local bands,” he said. But mostly he was pursuing his hospital career.
In 1996, he returned to Charleston to open The New Moulin Rouge and to continue as a registered therapist at the Medical University Hospital.
“I worked on staff there for seven years,” he said. “I retired in 2005, then I went back part-time till 2010.”
But in Charleston, music came to the fore. In 1997, The Secrets were formed to be the club’s house band, drawing an appreciative crowd to Rutledge Avenue and winning many local fans. The band kept on until 2009, playing several venues and many private events, Wilson said.
“It was the wedding band of Charleston before there were wedding bands all over Charleston,” Compton said.
For the last several years, he has been an integral member of The Distinguished Gentlemen, a cover band that also includes Compton on keys.
Recently, the two musicians started an informal funk project called Sidepiece, also slated to play Dec. 13 at the Commodore.
Wilson is tireless, Compton, Zutell and others said. He performs late into the night, then continues to have fun after the gig. He pops in at places such as Harold’s Cabin to improvise a set. He outlasts many a musician half his age.
And now he’s got his debut disc.
“The point of making this is so Bill’s legacy is caught on tape,” Zutell said. “I really think we got lightning in a bottle.”