Harmonica player, singer, songwriter
Blues harmonica player, singer, and songwriter Kim Wilson is most often associated in the minds of critics and music fans as the lead singer, harpist, and principal songwriter of the Austin, Texas, blues-rock band the Fabulous Thunderbirds. A founding member of that band along with guitarist Jimmy Vaughan, Wilson is the one constant member after the departure of Vaughan and the band's other founders, drummer Mike Buck and bassist Keith Ferguson. After fronting different lineups of the band for nearly two decades, Wilson embarked on a dual career as a solo performer. As a solo artist, Wilson has been lauded by critics and audiences as a diligent archivist of undeservedly obscure blues songs by such songwriters as Tampa Red, Roosevelt Sykes, and Lonnie Johnson. This reputation is in stark contrast to his role as leader of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, which has served as a vehicle for Wilson's blues-rock songwriting talent. Both careers have featured Wilson's distinctive singing and harmonica playing.
Born on January 6, 1951, in Detroit, Michigan, Wilson moved to Los Angeles in 1960 with his family. His father, an executive with General Motors, later moved the family to Goleta, in northern California. Both of his parents also sang songs on the radio. As a high school student, Wilson studied trombone and guitar, but abandoned both after discovering the blues in his senior year. For a time he flirted with the idea of becoming a professional football player, but abandoned the notion when he found his love for performing. Wilson dropped out of college in 1970 and relocated to the San Francisco area. Billing himself as "Goleta Slim," he added to his early blues harmonica education by playing with George "Harmonica" Smith, Charlie Musselwhite, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Jimmy Reed. "I turned off my radio in 1972 and withdrew into my closet to play every kind of low-down thing," he told Phil Sutcliffe of Sounds.
Wilson later moved to Minnesota, where he played in a group named the Aces of Straights and Shuffles. The band's reputation was enhanced by its manager, blues legend and Chess Records' producer and songwriter Willie Dixon, who had penned and performed such blues classics as "Wang Dang Doodle," "Back Door Man," and "Spoonful." The band's burgeoning success took them to the Texas musical mecca of Austin in the mid-1970s, where Wilson sat in on a jam session with guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan's older brother, Jimmie, heard Wilson's performance and invited Wilson to join a band he was forming. This band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, earned accolades from critics as well as blues and rock fans, with a series of albums that spotlighted Wilson's growing talent as a songwriter, blues harmonica player, and singer.
Wilson's tenure in the Fabulous Thunderbirds gave him the opportunity to play with some of his blues heroes, including Muddy Waters. The band earned a reputation as a dynamic live act, which resulted in an invitation from performer Eric Clapton to support him on his 1981 tour. Although Clapton's tour was cancelled due to the guitarist's perforated ulcer, the Thunderbirds were able to open for Clapton the following year. Alongside Clapton and second lead guitarist Albert Lee, keyboardist Gary Brooker from Procol Harem, Joe Cocker sideman Chris Stainton, and Booker T and the M.G.s and Stax house bass player Duck Dunn, the Fabulous Thunder-birds acquitted themselves nicely.
Wilson's constant touring with the Thunderbirds increased his visibility as well as his musical abilities. He was invited to guest as a vocalist or harmonica player on albums by artists as diverse as Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, and Albert Collins. In 1990 the Thunder-birds took a break from recording and touring. Wilson took advantage of the hiatus to join Dave Edmunds' Rock & Roll Revue with Graham Parker, Steve Cropper, and Dion DiMucci. "Wilson saw the Revue as a good opportunity to get his own name out," wrote Scott Isler in Musician. "We were kinda layin' low until we had a record out," Wilson explained to Isler. "People really don't know who I am, just as the singer from the Thunderbirds. And it just sounded like a lot of fun." The tour was modeled after the Dick Clark and Winter Dance Party road shows that were popular in the 1950s and featured such acts as Dion and the Belmonts, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Richie Valens and Buddy Holly. Wilson's affiliation with Edmunds had derived from the latter's producing the Fabulous Thunderbirds' breakthrough album and single of the mid-1980s, Tuff Enuff. Edmunds had formerly been in the band Rockpile, which featured Nick Lowe, the man responsible for producing early Fabulous Thunderbirds' material. Wilson had also played harmonica on Lowe's album Pinker and Prouder than Previous.
Wilson's solo recording career commenced in 1993 with the album Tigerman. He followed with That's Life in 1994. In 2001 he released Smokin' Joint, which was nominated for a Grammy Award and several W.C. Handy Awards. Smokin' Joint featured bassist Larry Taylor, an original member of the blues-rock band Canned Heat, along with drummer Richard Innes as the core group, which had played behind such guest musicians as guitarist Rusty Zinn, Billy Flynn, Kirk Fletcher, Troy Gonyea, and keyboardist Mark Stevens. Music journalist George D. Graham wrote on his website: "There's something about a live blues performance, especially with a sympathetic band, that can sometimes transcend even the best studio recordings. Smokin' Joint captures a live ambience well, with little touches like the inclusion of the sound of the band getting ready to play each tune. With both personnel lineups in excellent form, that liveness definitely makes the CD a highlight of Wilson's recording career."
For the Record …
Born on January 6, 1951, in Detroit, MI.
Formed Fabulous Thunderbirds with Jimmie Vaughan in Austin, TX, 1970s; sang lead vocal on Santana version of Chuck Berry son "Havana Moon," 1983; toured as solo artist on road tour with Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker, Dion, and Steve Cropper, 1990; released debut solo album, Tigerman, 1993; released second solo al bum, That's Life, 1994; released award-winning album, Smokin' Joint, 2001; performed "New Baby Train" and "Bigger" on Woody Guthrie tribute album Daddy-O Daddy! Rare Family Songs of Woody Guthrie, 2001; released Lookin' for Trouble, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— M.C. Records, P.O. Box 1788, Huntington Station, New York, NY 11746; Booking— Keith Sarkisian, William Morris Agency, One William Morris Pl., Beverly Hills, CA 90212, phone: 310-859-4000.
Wilson's harmonica prowess has made him a highly sought-after guest musician. Besides playing on Carlos Santana's Havana Moon and Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints, Wilson also appeared on Daddy-O Daddy! Rare Family Songs of Woody Guthrie. According to School Library Journal critic Beverly Bixler, "Kim Wilson gives outstanding, vigorous renditions to 'New Baby Train' and 'Bigger.'" A critic for Sing Out! declared, "Kim Wilson's harmonica playing successfully evokes the railroad on a very long 'New Baby Train,' while his blues band's full-tilt treatment of 'Bigger' supports the song's sense of strength and confidence." In 2003 M.C. Records released an earlier recording Wilson made with guitarist Big Jack Johnson in 2000, titled The Memphis Barbecue Sessions, which also included a guest appearance by blues pianist Pinetop Perkins. In the same year the label also released Lookin' for Trouble, featuring nine songs written or co-written by Wilson, and five cover songs by such blues masters as Snooky Pryor, L.C. McKinley, and Willie Dixon.
Although his playing is sometimes compared to that of Chicago blues legend Little Walter, Wilson insists that he has been more influenced by guitarist Muddy Waters. "I think that you have so many influences and you steal so much stuff that finally it just gets mixed up into you," he explained in a National Public Radio interview. Wilson added that it would be impossible to imitate other great harmonica players because "the notes you're playing only happen once."
Tigerman, Discovery, 1993.
That's Life, Discovery, 1994.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Black Magic, 1997.
My Blues, Blue Collar, 1997.
Smokin' Joint, M.C., 2001.
Daddy-O Daddy! Rare Family Songs of Woody Guthrie, Rounder, 2002.
Big Jack Johnson with Kim Wilson: The Memphis Barbecue Sessions, M.C., 2003.
Lookin' for Trouble, M.C., 2003.
Musician, August 1990, pp. 52-58.
School Library Journal, February 2002.
Sing Out!, Winter 2002.
Sounds, March 15, 1980.
Fabulous Thunderbirds Official Website, http://www.fabulousthunderbirds.com/ (March 1, 2004).
"Kim Wilson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 4, 2004).
"Kim Wilson Signed," M.C. Records, http://www.mc-records.com/html/kim_wilson_signed.html (March 1, 2004).
National Public Radio (NPR) Weekend Edition Interview: "The Fabulous Kim Wilson," June 21, 2003, reviewed on NPR Website, http://www/npr.org/display_pages/features/feature_1305432.html (March 1, 2004).
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