At the corner of Rutledge Avenue and Race Street sits a small two-story structure. It looks no different than any other building in the surrounding area, except for its distinct sign. On a white background, the pink silhouettes of two dancers stand under an ornate name. The sign reads, “The New Moulin Rouge.”
Before it was defunct, the site was a soul and jazz club that acted as a proving ground for local musicians and a hip dance club for music fans. Owned by Bill Wilson, who also acted as the frontman of house band the Secrets, Moulin Rouge was where many local music heroes got their start.
To say that the venue and its history are a monument to Wilson’s legacy assumes that the singer and saxophonist’s life began with Moulin Rouge. On the contrary, Wilson considers Moulin Rouge to be his rebirth. Prior to the club opening its doors, he had already become an important asset to Moses Dillard and the Tex Town Display, and the Cleve Nickerson Trio, and had several satisfying careers outside of music entirely.
Wilson has lived an adventure. He floated from trade to trade and location to location, sometimes not unlike a drifter. But, in every city and career, music was the constant.
And with the release of his first LP Stand Up!, Wilson’s mark on local music will expand to show that the 76-year-old still has plenty of soul to give. The album is an archive of the life that Wilson has experienced so far. And the life that led up to this point all started with a kid on Rutledge Avenue.
The Greatest Gift
The first page of Wilson’s story begins on the day he was born: Christmas Day, 1941. “My mother said that was the biggest present she had in her life because she wanted to get rid of that load,” Wilson laughs. “She said ‘You’re not a problem. You’ve always been a gift, a package, something special.'”
Although his mom loved him dearly, poverty forced her to send her son to live with his aunt during the school week. “At age four, I was given to my aunt, who lived across town on Hanover Street. That’s where the rest of me grew up at,” he recounts.
The nascent music lover found his inspiration in two opposing settings. Wilson’s mother worked in his uncle’s bar on the weekends and the young Wilson’s aunt was a devout church-goer. “Growing up in a restaurant bar, I used to hear things on the jukebox all the time,” says Wilson. “But, in the house, mostly what you heard was spirituals. My aunt loved spirituals, and on Sunday, that’s all you heard.”
The Little Richard songs Wilson heard in the bar made him want to dance and the gospel music he listened to in the home, like Mahalia Jackson and the Soul Stirrers, left footprints in his mind that sent him down the path toward music.
“Sometimes you find yourself humming those things, even in younger years, and along the way, somebody heard me humming,” he comments. “They started pushing me to sing here and sing there. I didn’t think I was all that about singing; I just liked doing it.”
In addition to his regular performances in the choir, Wilson joined a vocal group composed of other kids in his church called the Silver Links. The act proved to be popular enough that the youths sang in other churches in the Charleston area. “They took us everywhere,” says Wilson. “Out of that, I guess my musical life just kind of budded.”
As Wilson grew older, his passions and aptitude for hard work bloomed. In his early teenage years, he adopted a paper route. “That’s how I got my first horn,” he says.
Thanks to the musical childhood that Wilson lived, the saxophone, and jazz, was just another element added to the sound he had begun to develop. “[Louis Jordan] was one of the early saxophonists I listened to,” Wilson remembers. “He had a show band and he sang also. You knew it when it was Louis Jordan. I saw him in a movie a couple times, but he was kind of inspirational in getting me cranked up with that horn because he did so much with it. Then I got into the jazz scene with people like Gene Ammons, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt.”
While Wilson’s ardor for music never subsided, his career in the field was a stop-and-start affair.
Upon exiting high school at the age of 18, the singer entered the Air Force, where he worked in the transportation squadron in Korea. Over the course of his eight-year tenure in the military, Wilson was in aircraft maintenance and spent time as an instructor.
It wasn’t until a chance encounter with funk and soul artist Cleve Nickerson that Wilson scored his first full-time job as a musician. After watching the first half of the Cleve Nickerson Trio’s set at a performance in Amarillo, Tex., Wilson asked if he could jam on a few songs with them. “Music was always with me, so I kept my horn in the car at the time,” he says. “I went up and sat in with these guys. After I did the first song, I said, ‘Thank you, man,’ and I started to pack my stuff up. [Nickerson] goes, ‘Where you going, where you going? Play a couple more.'”
The band leader was so impressed with Wilson’s saxophone and singing capabilities that he asked Wilson to finish out the set, then go on tour with them.
The next few months proved to be monetarily fruitful while Wilson performed with Nickerson, but a bitter break from the band happened after Wilson decided to skip shows booked around Christmastime in favor of seeing his family in Charleston. “I said, ‘Listen, man. You were doing it without me when I met you. You can do it without me for this time,'” he remembers telling Nickerson.
While the events of the ensuing confrontation are unverified, Wilson claims that he had to fall back on his martial arts training on Nickerson after the latter party pulled a gun on him. The abridged version of the story ends with Wilson going home for Christmas and leaving Cleve Nickerson’s band as a trio, once again. “He called me a couple times after and wanted to know when I was coming back,” Wilson laughs.
Although he sees himself as “one to forgive and forget,” the musician decided the smartest move was to not rejoin the band.
But leaving the Cleve Nickerson Trio was a blessing in disguise for Wilson because it freed him up to join Moses Dillard and the Tex Town Display, a project that took him to an international stage. And it began the same way his last music gig started — attending a show and asking a question. “I went out there and these guys were jamming,” he says. “Moses played guitar, he had a brother on trombone, and he had another guy on saxophone at the time. One of the songs they were doing — I knew the song. So, I went up just before they took a break and said, ‘Hey, can I sit in with you?'”
As Wilson remembers it, all the ladies in the audience moved to the stage when he started singing an Al Green tune. Just like last time, he was offered a job on the spot.
Moses Dillard and bandmate Peabo Bryson were already accomplished R&B musicians, and at the time the Tex Town Display was being courted by several major labels, including Atlantic Records. And thanks to the hit single “I’ve Got to Find a Way (to Hide My Hurt),” the band would go on several large tours that Wilson was a part of.
“We toured Haiti and we also toured Vietnam with Miss Black America of 1969,” says Wilson. The band was put on a USO tour with Gloria O. Smith, the 1969 Miss Black America winner. They were also the opening band at Madison Square Garden for Smith’s crowning. The USO tour and the surrounding performances earned the band spots in Ebony magazine’s spread on Smith.
“Looking back, I can say we traveled some good roads,” Wilson says, thinking about his run with the Tex Town Display. “The crossroads were always there in life, and it’s always going to be there. The ones you choose, either it’s a good one, a bad one, or it’s maybe in the middle. If it’s wrong you come back the way you begun and start all over again. If it’s wrong, you don’t just stop there. You got to keep looking for the right way.”
Some of those roads Wilson traveled with Moses Dillard & the Tex Town Display in the late ’60s and early ’70s include creating the album Now!, off CurTom Records — Curtis Mayfield’s own label. Though based in Greenville, the band recorded Now! at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio. The principle arranger for CurTom at the time was Donny Hathaway, who, in 1970, Rolling Stone called a major new force in soul music. (Oh, and you know the song “This Christmas”? Hathaway co-wrote that — the single has been called the premier holiday track written by an African American. It is now the 30th most performed holiday song of all time.) That Hathaway, turns out, arranged the strings, horns, and backup vocals for Now!, an album that sold for $2,500 in October on auction web site, Popsike, with the seller calling it “one of the last attainable ‘grail’ Northern Soul records,” while many other copies of Now! have sold for between $1,000 and $2,300. Luckily, Wilson still has his own copy, and for him, it’s a priceless reminder of some of his most well-traveled roads.
As Wilson’s career continued to show, the right way for him wasn’t always as straightforward as most other working musicians’ paths. He had to step out of the spotlight one last time before he would step back in and command its attention.
Up until this point, Wilson’s story could be characterized as a flirtation with music. Even when he was performing with Moses Dillard’s crew, he didn’t leave his civilian jobs. “While I was in Greenville and doing the trek with the band, I once again changed my career field on the side,” he recounts. This time, he became a respiratory therapist and moved to one of America’s most historically rich jazz capitals: New Orleans.
“While I was doing that, music was on the backburner,” he says. “I used to just play at home, pretty much. Occasionally, I would go sit in with somebody.”
The singer was doing a lot of writing, but says that it was all for himself. “You Can Count on Me” from Stand Up! was composed during this time period.
Without a doubt, Wilson was a talented musician, but he wasn’t canonized in the Charleston scene mythos until he returned to the city in the mid-’90s and founded that iconic soul and jazz club, the New Moulin Rouge. “The place itself was a legend that everybody knew around town, as one of the top night spots,” Wilson recalls about the club’s heyday. “It grew into even more of a legend because that place started jumping. People would come in and have a good time and then we started having a high flow of college students.”
But the Rutledge Avenue club was more than a beacon of good music and a good time. It was Wilson’s rebirth as a musician, where he finally chose to embrace the fire that music had always sparked in him.
“Coming back into Charleston, my musical world reflowered,” he added. “After going into Moulin Rouge, I had a place where I could do what I wanted to do.”
With his newly acquired backing band the Secrets, Wilson had a place to explore his passion for performing. “It had a great awakening for me, after all the things that I had done,” says Wilson. “So, the Moulin Rouge came through and re-enlightened me to the world of music.”
Stand Up! co-producer Brian Compton believes that it was a reawakening for the city, as well. “That was where people cut their teeth, man,” he says.
“I can remember when I opened it, a lot of my colleagues that I grew up with, they were telling me, ‘I’m going to go up there and give you support.’ Then they came up and they saw that the place was not just limited to blacks,” Wilson remembers. “I opened my doors to people and it started to grow.”
“I’m running a place for everyone,” he adds. “When you’re still feeling that way, then you’re still living in the past. I don’t live in the past.”
On the topic of the New Moulin Rouge and its universal influence on the city, Compton put it the best. “Bill’s been a torchbearer for the music community here for a couple decades. He’s gotten so many people gigs,” he states. “He’s been a godfather for the community.”
In his 76 years, Wilson came close to that intangible concept of “making it” in the music world several times and founded a Holy City jazz institution. So how do you make the long-awaited first album for someone of that stature?
Compton was the first person to toss around the idea of a Bill Wilson album. The two became acquainted through their wedding band the Distinguished Gentlemen, and after jamming on Wilson’s original song “Smile,” Compton saw something special. “It’s like a four-chord, real easy song, but we started playing the four chords and he started singing,” says Compton. “We were just like, ‘We’ve got to capture this.’
“There’s an undeniable sound and it’s really authentic,” he adds. “In this day and age of everything being manufactured, that’s just such an authentic vibe.”
“Bill’s a total rock star,” says co-producer Matt Zutell. “Brian was like, ‘Bill’s got this amazing voice and these amazing songs and all this soul, and he’s never had his own album before.’ Brian was basically like, ‘I’m going to make this happen this year.'”
The first step was to put together the band that Bill deserved. Guitarist Thomas Kenney and keyboardist Jonathan Lovett from hip-hop influenced soul jammers Terraphonics were among the first to be recruited for the project. Drummer J.T. Rollerson, bassist Tony Cobin, keyboardist Ross Bogan, and vocalists Kanika Moore, Aisha Kenyetta, and Jenny Lee Ford are also featured on the album.
“Everyone stepped up and they killed it,” Zutell says about the recording process. “And Bill was just on fire. All of his vocals from the recording sessions are completely live. We didn’t overdub anything on his voice. Everything you hear on drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals, the whole band is totally live.”
Some effects were added in post-production by the producer in an effort to give it a hint of modern psychedelia. The female backing vocals were also added in after the fact, but for a different reason. “I basically had all three of them stand around one microphone and sing harmonies together, like they did back in the day,” Zutell says.
The initial goal was to record four songs and the final product is 11 tunes. “A few songs on the album were just made up in the studio, on the spot,” Zutell notes. “It was kind of one of those things where we just let the tape roll, so to speak, and let these guys do their thing. They’re all so good and I think they all respect Bill so much that they were all really into it.”
Stand Up! was spearheaded by Zutell’s Coast Records, but was co-produced by Wolfgang Zimmerman and recorded at his studio, Rialto Row. According to Zimmerman, the creative process was alive in the recording booth. “Every time we would finish between a take, [the band] would just start playing something else, and Bill would just be flowing on the mic,” he says. “He had a book of lyrics on him. Anytime they would play some music, he’d be sorting through his notebook, like, ‘Oh, this is going to work for this.’ And the next thing you know, a song would pop out in front of our eyes.”
In only two days, Wilson, Compton, Zutell, and the slew of talented musicians at Rialto Row recorded the album that will be considered an official documentation of Wilson’s capabilities as an artist.
Putting Stand Up! into words is like attempting to put Bill Wilson’s life onto a few pages. It can be done, but at the cost of beautiful details that will be missed by everyone that didn’t experience it firsthand.
Stand Up! is the culmination of a musician’s 76 years of life. “I’m concentrating on letting everything that’s inside of me come out,” says Wilson “And, hopefully it comes out in a manner that people appreciate, that’s not offensive, but moreso enlightening, heartwarming, and spiritual.”
The near eight decades that precede this release are woven into it from seam to seam. The LP is a modernist reflection of the past, a revitalization of the influences that formed it, and a reevaluation of the music that created Bill Wilson.
Each song represents a shade of that joyous remembrance of Wilson’s life so far.
Opening number “Magical Ride” has one tapping foot in the past and one in the present, openly reminiscing and optimistically looking forward. “We’re one step from the moon,” Wilson croons with confidence. “Two steps from the stars/ There’s Jupiter, and there’s Mars.”
Echoes decorate the vocals and instruments, as a proficient piano leads the charge. A funky bass fluctuates with the beat and the guitar glitters in the background. “I love this magical ride,” Wilson sings, explosively.
“Take Me to the Sky” shows the originality that Wilson and the entire band have found in their influences. Rhythm and lead meld together for menacingly cool jazz. Stalwart musicianship is on display in the vibe, exclusively. Wilson dusts off the saxophone and uses it as an instrument of texture, instead of a place for blistering solos.
The singer rearranges his own past with “You Can Count on Me.” The melodic and smooth R&B from the time period it was written in lives through it. The lightning fast and soulful keyboard solos from both Jonathan Lovett and Ross Bogan come close to stealing the show from Wilson’s impassioned lyrical delivery.
“Should you ever feel in need/ To have a friend to tell your troubles to/ Baby, just call me/ And I’ll come running to you,” he sings.
In many ways, it’s the watershed song for the backing band. Wilson meets his match in Kanika Moore, Aisha Kenyetta, and Jenny Lee Ford’s gorgeous (and well placed) supporting vocals. Thomas Kenney continues to mount his case as the most versatile guitarist in Charleston, and he carries himself like he knows it.
It’s a shame that, with each member of the studio ensemble having their own projects to keep them busy, this band may not get too many chances to perform together again.
The sounds that Wilson loved as a child are a steady breathing factor on Stand Up! Gospel, jazz, and a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll attitude all get their day in the sun.
If record store geeks were to spot Stand Up! while thumbing through a dusty crate of LPs, they would mistake it for a lost Blue Note vinyl. From the bold lettering of the boisterous title down to the monochrome color that represents the music, the retro styling of the album’s sound is engraved on the cover for the world to see.
“It’s like a modern day, classic-sounding album,” Zutell observes. “When you listen to it, it feels like authentic ’70s soul, like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, and that kind of thing. But, because it was made in 2017, 2018, it’s got that modern flavor to it, as well. So, I think it’s a really cool blend of the old and the new.”
Needless to say, Wilson could not be more elated with the final product. “I’ve been a millionaire maybe two or three times over, but it ain’t about the monetary,” he says. “It’s about what’s in the heart, and I feel like I’ve got a million in love, a trillion in love, and even more so now that my music is spreading out for others to hear.”
No song represents Wilson’s affection for the world around him more than the album’s title track. “This song’s for those who think they can’t do all the great things they have in their mind,” he says at the top of the song’s heel-turn reggae riff.
“You gotta stand up if you believe/ Anything in your mind because I know you can achieve it/ If you stand up, everything comes to mind,” Wilson sings.
“Stand Up” is a melody of hope, a mantra for the down, and the ever-present principle in Wilson’s life that tomorrow will be better than today.
Stand Up! It’s not a request, demand, or instruction. It’s the prediction that everything will work out. Everything will be OK, as long as you heed the warm-hearted message. Stand up.