Music producers generally work behind the scenes garnering little public recognition. Some, like Phil Spector and Quincy Jones, earned acclaim outside the industry; however, others faded into obscurity. Tom Wilson, one of these overlooked figures and a contemporary of Spector and Jones, matched them in influence. A musical alchemist who coaxed new sounds out of legendary musicians, Wilson spearheaded innovative directions for jazz and rock and roll in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
Church music and education undergirded the Wacoan family into which Tom Wilson Jr. was born on March 25, 1931. His father served as the choir director at New Hope Baptist Church, where his grandfather, a college professor, was a founding member. Though he only played the trombone, choir participation and family jam sessions nurtured in the young Wilson a love of music. These musical mash-ups often occurred at his educator grandfather’s rug laundry, where Wilson also learned to work hard. It was this family belief in achievement that propelled Wilson from Fisk University to Harvard where he graduated in 1954 with a degree in economics.
While in Boston, Wilson dove into its jazz scene. He deejayed for Harvard’s radio station, WHRB, where jam sessions and his involvement in the Harvard New Jazz Society helped cultivate a love for the experimental genre. Working at WHRB, Wilson later stated, was the job that most greatly influenced his later success. Jazz was undergoing an evolution, and Wilson wanted to capture it. So after graduating, he started the aptly named Transition Records. Wilson possessed an ear for pioneering sounds, locating unknown artists like Sun Ra who pushed the boundaries of jazz. Over four years at Transition Records, Wilson recorded over twenty albums with musicians like John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor. Wilson’s involvement in all aspects of album production and positive reviews didn’t, however, translate into financial success, so he sold the label in 1957.
He worked for several labels in artists and repertoire before landing at Columbia in the early 1960s. It was at Columbia that Wilson left an indelible mark on the music industry. Though a novel practice at the time, Wilson took the initiative to locate new talent. This practice led him to a struggling folk duo by the name of Simon and Garfunkel. They recorded with Wilson but broke up until the producer’s surreptitious addition of electric instruments on “The Sound of Silence” brought them massive success and contributed to the development of folk-rock. Wilson also worked with iconic troubadour Bob Dylan on several of his albums, notably Bringing It All Back Home. On that record, Wilson encouraged a more electric sound, and with songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” helped launch Dylan into a new phase of his career. The legendary track “Like a Rolling Stone” was also a Dylan and Wilson collaboration. Wilson then rode this wave of success into a job at Verve/MGM in Los Angeles.
In his new position, Wilson continued to experiment. His initial signing was the eclectic sound of Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention. To his collection of artists Wilson also added the Velvet Underground. The band’s psychedelic tone and graphic lyrics meshed well with Wilson’s penchant for testing musical limits. Wilson went out on his own in 1968, launching a production company which accompanied his short-lived radio program “Music Factory” and two publishing companies: Terrible Tunes and Maudlin Melodies. Such a move made sense for a man at the forefront of the 1960s music scene.
Tom Wilson embodied the 1960s. A 1968 New York Times feature on Wilson described his clothing and interior design as encompassing the smoothly audacious style emblematic of the period. Wilson managed to be “far out” with his artists and productions, but kept his personal life and habits more private. His wife and children, while spending some time around the studios, remained a distinct entity, apart from his work. Music, he told his son, creates a “respite” from the demands of life. Journalists described Wilson, a study of contrasts, as “enigmatic” and a “master dissembler.” He was a man who had his finger on America’s musical pulse but also seemed to hover above it.
By the 1970s, however, Wilson produced less. The music he did develop didn’t sell as well, so he turned his attention to creating music for movies. Earlier Wilson had produced a jazz version of the West Side Story soundtrack (Bossa Nova) and Dylan song on the soundtrack for Easy Rider. Wilson remained in the music industry but pursued this new direction. He died at age forty-seven of a heart attack, a complication of his Marfan syndrome, on September 6, 1978. Only in death did Wilson return to Waco where he rests in the Doris Miller Memorial Park. Wilson was shrouded by his brief career and notable contemporaries, but current efforts like Producer Tom Wilson and Invisible Icon seek to posthumously recognize Wilson for his musical impact.