Charleston saxophonist and soul singer Bill Wilson performs Jan. 13 at the Pour House, sharing the Friday spotlight with local percussionist Gino Castillo and his jazz-heavy Cuban Cowboys.
As an octogenarian, Wilson is rightly considered a legendary figure in the Lowcountry’s music scene, which is why his personal and professional history has gradually seeped into local lore.
Wilson told the City Paper that he first arrived in this world, and in this town, on Christmas Day 1941. With most waking hours spent in the care of his extended family members, Wilson quickly learned to appreciate both the sacred and profane aspects of life in this southern port city.
“I grew up on the East Side of Charleston in an atmosphere full of secular music that was always playing in my uncle’s restaurant and bar,” Wilson said. Of particular importance to him was the bar’s jukebox, loaded up with Little Richard 45s and other similarly raucous records of the day.
On the flip side, his time spent in the Greater St. Luke AME Church choir in his primary school years shaped his musical character.
“My influence was also enhanced spiritually by Mrs. Geneva Haynes, who was the choir director at my church,” Wilson said. “She saw something special in my singing and kept me seeking perfection through her continued guidance.”
Once he acquired his first horn as a teenager with the money he earned from his newspaper delivery route, Wilson was armed for a life of adventure.
Before long, he had arrived at a distinctive style of his own — a haunting patchwork of blues, jazz, soul, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, honky tonk and funk. Wilson’s emerging brand identity was modeled, in part, upon a number of other popular artists that he admired in his youth, including: Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Louis Jordan, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson.
Like all these great guides, Wilson soon found that he, too, was capable of a smooth, effortless delivery when it came to musical expression. Wilson set off in all directions musically and geographically — living and performing in a variety of settings all over the world.
While still managing to hold down a day job in the medical sector for much of his life, Wilson also frequently found work as a touring member of several notable R&B acts. He gained notoriety in Charleston as the proprietor of the Holy City’s seminal jazz club and speakeasy the New Moulin Rouge from 1997-2010 where he fronted the house band known as The Secrets.
Although he had been keeping track of his original song lyrics and chord progressions for decades, remarkably, Wilson only got around to recording and releasing his debut solo album in the last few years. Not surprisingly, the resulting LP, Stand Up!, and the follow-up holiday record, Soul of Christmas, have both been well received.
At this juncture, Wilson is perfectly content with his slow and steady approach to his craft, and he admits that he is still growing as an artist.
“Having appeared in places like Haiti, Vietnam and all over the U.S. with some truly great musicians such as [Grammy Award-winner] Peabo Bryson, and having shared the stage with other greats — Gladys Knight, the Staple Singers, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes — and having opened for legends like James Brown, [these] are all experiences that I feel have enhanced my development. And I’m still developing. There are things that I’ve not yet accomplished,” Wilson said.
Wilson also told the City Paper that he loves participating in studio collaborations and “watching how all the musicians put their talents together to create such beautiful masterpieces.” He said that it is even more gratifying for him to watch an audience enjoying a live performance and appreciating all of the work that was put into it.
Wilson doesn’t let his age stop him from looking for interesting gigs — which explains why he’s joining forces with Castillo, the area’s premier Afro-Cuban jazz percussionist, singer and bandleader. After his opening set Jan. 13, Wilson will sit in with the Cowboys to finish the show. And he couldn’t be happier about where it will all go down.
“The PoHo has definitely become the place to listen to and truly watch all the elements of the scene coming together,” he said. “It is by far one of the venues I most enjoy playing.”
Bill Wilson & Gino Castillo & The Cuban Cowboys play the main stage of the Charleston Pour House 9 p.m. Jan. 13. Tickets are $13-$15 available through charlestonpourhouse.com.
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