Motown is a legendary record label.
That's not a controversial statement by any stretch of the imagination, the Detroit based music factory changed the way the black musicians could approach the business. With a "for us, by us" business model, Berry Gordy became one of the most successful black music executives ever and launched the careers of some of the most important entertainers of all time.
The roster of producers that graced Motown are giants in their own right. From Holland-Dozier-Holland to Norman Whitfield, the label's legacy with songwriters is just as proud as their connection to pop stars.
But what about black producers who didn't work for labels like Motown, or studios like Stax? Those were places where a producer of color could thrive, but in the 50's (and a decent portion of the 60's), it seemed like jazz was just about the only genre where one could become a "crossover" success.
However, there was an outlier. He was sharp in more ways than one, as free jazz icon Cecil Taylor called him "Ivy League and street smart." His ideas, which could seem outlandish, brought the fringe to the forefront of culture and his list of clients reads like a Hall of Fame induction list.
Imagine Berry Gordy in New York City around 1967, hanging out with Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, on acid.
It sounds implausible, but in the 60’s Tom Wilson was doing just that, what nobody expected of a black record producer. His kaleidoscopic taste, experience and ambition made him one of the most important record producers of all time, who bucked expectations at every turn.
Born in 1931 in Waco, Texas, Wilson was fortunate to grow up in a middle-class black family. His mother was a librarian, while his father sold insurance and directed the church choir. Wilson attended a segregated high school, and after graduation went to Tennessee based HBCU, Fisk University.
After a year at Fisk, he made a life-changing transfer to Harvard University. According to the Harvard Crimson, the school newspaper, in the 50’s the quota of black students was fewer than 12 (people not percent). Wilson was by every stretch of the imagination an exception, but the prestige of Harvard and the lack of fellow black students didn’t seem to faze him.
Wilson was a hyperactive student, involved in many student organizations. He served as president of the Harvard Young Republicans Club (pre-Southern Strategy, mind you) and did more to set himself apart in the music scene.
Heavy participation with the college radio station WHRB led to Wilson creating the Harvard New Jazz Society, acting as president. Under his guidance, the club reached up to 150 members and sponsored nights on the radio station, jazz forums, and scheduled concerts. The HNJS also brought Dave Brubeck, Lee Konitz, and The Modern Jazz Quartet to the school in well-received concerts.
Wilson was building his chops, learning how to work with and around artists, how to make deals. Not only did Wilson survive in this highly competitive environment, he also thrived, graduating cum laude in 1954, with political science and economics degrees.
The lessons he learned while at Harvard started to bear fruit in 1955 when he launched his own label Transition Records. Funded by a $900 loan from a friend, the label was Boston-based. Since he was a recent alumnus, the Crimson ran a story on the launch of the label and Wilson made his intentions clear.
Wilson had become a fan of music that was on the fringe of the national interest. Although a longtime fan of jazz, he’d been turned on to the new sounds emerging in the genre. With a label, Wilson was able to embrace both. He was also able to embrace roles as an executive and a producer, holding down both shifts at the label.
Transition started out with Dixieland and Bebop recordings, most notably releasing Donald Byrd’s first few records. Working with Byrd meant working with Art Blakey, one of jazz's top drummers, and those records helped to raise Transition’s profile as a label. However, the label quickly went into the uncharted territory that Wilson was devoted to.
The next record after Byrd's was astral-traveling orchestra leader Sun Ra’s debut, Jazz by Sun Ra. Wilson doubled down on experimental jazz by releasing Cecil Taylor’s debut, Jazz Advance. Producing and releasing such unorthodox records is bold, especially as such a young man in the business. Regardless, Wilson had unflinching confidence in what was "next", never afraid to accept new sounds. Transition never dominated the charts, but the releases on the label kickstarted some of the most successful careers in jazz in the years that followed the hard bop movement.
As a first attempt in the music business, Transition was perfect for getting Wilson in the game, but it wasn’t financially viable. The label folded after two turbulent years, when Wilson simply ran out of money. Thankfully, running Transition launched Wilson’s career, and money soon wouldn’t be an issue.
Wilson moved down the coast to start working in New York where he was quickly employed by Savoy Records. The Newark-based jazz/R&B label got him working with artists like Booker Ervin and Gene Ammons, continuing Wilson’s industry education. He produced The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra for Savoy, maintaining relationships with his past clients.
Wilson also did dates for Blue Note and United Artists Records, continuing to build his name in the jazz scene. Eventually, people began to notice and respect his work, and he worked with greats like Max Roach, Art Farmer, and John Coltrane. Finally a name on the scene in jazz, something happened in 1963 that would change his life.
Pop-gospel music was starting to rise in popularity, to the point that there was a fairly popular New York-based gospel nightclub called The Sweet Chariot. Columbia Records, one of the biggest labels in the world, decided they needed to capitalize on the movement, and hired Tom Wilson to record the gospel scene, live at the club.
Wilson became the first African-American staff producer to be hired by Columbia, shattering industry standards. He was also the perfect fit for the job, having listened to the church choirs his father directed in his youth, and with his vast experience recording live music from his work in jazz.
He cut a live record featuring various gospel groups and a few gospel albums, but the scene eventually petered out, and Columbia stopped investing time to The Sweet Chariot. Undeterred, Wilson finally had his foot in the door, and he used his new access as a Columbia producer to meet prominent artists.
Within a few months of working at Columbia, Wilson met Bob Dylan, a successful new folk singer on the scene. Although standing in front of a soon-to-be icon, Wilson didn’t have much interest in the folk scene at first.
In 1976, he recounted his introduction to Dylan to music magazine Melody Maker.
Wilson recognized the opportunity, and quickly took action. He got in with Dylan and started producing for him. He cut four tracks on 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, then went on to produce Dylan’s next three albums.
The run of The Times They Are a-Changin', Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home was transformative for Wilson and Dylan. Dylan made the famed transition to electric guitar and folk-rock, and Wilson became the executive producer for immensely successful albums. With Bringing It All Back Home peaking at #6 in the US and hitting #1 in the UK, he was established. If his foot was in the door in ‘63, by ‘65 he was putting plaques on the walls.
Dylan spoke highly of Wilson, calling him one of the producers that “meant the most” to him in 1974, but while the pair had plenty of respect for each other, their relationship wouldn’t last forever. Wilson’s period with Dylan culminated in 1965 when he was lead producer on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Song of All Time, “Like a Rolling Stone”. If there’s any way to end a working relationship, a #2 hit on the charts which is regarded as a #1 in the history books is a good way.
Another legacy-affirming project Wilson took on in ‘65 was retooling an abandoned folk song, overdubbing a rock instrumental onto a track from an album he’d produced the previous year. The artists on the track (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel) had all but given up on careers in music, but Wilson revived their hopes. Wilson’s experimentation delivered their classic #1 hit “The Sound of Silence”, an early work of folk rock.
At this point Wilson was a top dog in the industry, starting to get dates from international acts. In 1966, he started to produce for the "British Invasion" band, The Animals. His time with the group birthed three Top 40 singles in the US and a #4 album in the UK.
He was on a hot streak that paralleled the great producers of the era, but his laid-back style kept him far from becoming a celebrity. It isn’t unfathomable to think that people were also surprised by his race, he was doing things a black man had never done before. He wasn’t the first African American to capture White America’s ears, but he was among the first to do it from behind the boards.
Despite the various successes he had in ‘66, the most important projects he worked on that year were two commercial failures he commissioned after he moved on from Columbia to work at MGM.
First, he discovered and signed The Mothers of Invention and executive produced their debut double album Freak Out!, effectively launching Frank Zappa’s career. If he hadn’t had the chart success with Dylan and The Animals, odds are The Mothers would have never been signed, nevermind being given the opportunity to record one of the first double albums.
According to Zappa, Wilson was on LSD while leading the recording session for the album’s...memorable final song. In 1999, Freak Out! was awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for its influence on progressive rock.
The second dud was the result of an office performance that most A&R men at the time would consider horrendous. Lou Reed and John Cale walked into his office, wielding an electric guitar and electric viola. According to Rolling Stone, Cale says “We plugged in and let him have it.” They played two unrecorded songs, “Heroin” and “The Black Angel’s Death Song”. The tunes were about as far from the jazz, rock and folk that Wilson had built his name on as one could get.
Most executives would’ve ended the meeting pretty quickly, but Wilson wasn’t fazed. When they were done he said, “Wow, love that viola — that's real excitement coming out of that.” Wilson’s vision and trusted track record helped him sign the band to Verve, and he assisted in the recording of The Velvet Underground & Nico.
The debut album of the art rock icons sounded like absolutely nothing on a major label and didn’t do well in the market. Today the project is in the Library of Congress, as a seminal recording in rock history.
Andy Warhol is famously credited as executive producer, but outside of funding the sessions and providing the iconic cover, his involvement with the project was minimal. John Cale says that Wilson produced the majority of the album and that “The band never again had as good a producer as Tom Wilson.” Lou Reed also called Wilson the “real producer” of the album.
With Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, Wilson was the genesis of folk rock. With The Mothers of Invention, he was part of the beginning of prog rock. With The Velvet Underground, he worked with the pillars of art rock. Taking all this into account, while remembering his early association with the avant-garde jazz scene, it’s clear that Wilson was one of the most forward-thinking producers of the 60’s and all time.
Not only could he go to the edge of culture and cultivate the newest sounds, he could also find success with a popular movement like The British Invasion (i.e. his work with The Animals). High profile artists were constantly set up to work with him. Pete Seeger, Hugh Masekela and Soft Machine all also worked with Wilson on various albums and projects.
Given the incredible amount of success, on the charts at least, Wilson had the creative license that was only granted to top producers by ‘68. Many producers at this point in their careers would just raise their rates or push for more recognition. However, Wilson was the same man that launched his first label fresh out of college on a $900 loan, and his entrepreneurial spirit pushed him to do the unexpected.
Wilson would leverage his control and influence to launch three subsidiary labels (Rasputin, Gunga Din, and Lumumba), two music publishing companies, and a talent management firm. Along with all of those business ventures, he hosted a radio show sponsored by MGM called The Music Factory. Finding an alternative route was always a natural instinct to Wilson, and he cast his net as wide as he could.
The Music Factory was an hour-long show which featured interviews with distinguished guests. Lou Reed and John Cale appeared, as well as Richie Havens and presumably his former Savoy coworker, legendary A&R man Teddy Rieg. Wilson’s presence on the mic matches the calm and in control persona that his peers remember him for having.
When it came to the actual musical content of the show, he was liable to play anything from Rock to Jazz to Latin, even Classical. His interest in the fringe had brought him to the big time, and he finally had a show that could wholly encompass his taste.
As for the various companies he started, they all came with bands and acts to work with. By 1968, a New York Times profile said he was working on two albums a month along with various singles. His time was being split in between seven different bands. Not only was Wilson the producer and publisher, he was also the talent manager, earning 15 percent of earnings for public appearances of the groups.
Wilson was doing quite well for himself, earning around $100,000 a year, $600k+ adjusted to inflation. These numbers are astronomical, especially for a black man in the 60’s. However, the many acts that he took on didn’t benefit from his busy schedule, and the 70’s weren't nearly as generous as the previous decade.
Many of the acts he managed didn’t get major label releases, and the ones that were released didn't sell well. The daily recording sessions got a lot of music made, but the albums weren’t the successes that Wilson had become used to. Only one of the bands he managed lasted to make a sophomore album, and MGM/Verve cut ties with him. In ‘68 he produced 13 albums, in ‘69 he cut down to 5, and by 1970 only two.
Wilson was still in the business, but far less active. His companies folded and production credits grew increasingly sparse. His last credit of note was on the Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson album Bridges in 1977. There’s no clear reason for the decline, but Wilson was a family man with a wife and kids, and plenty of money. Maybe he lost the passion, his killer intuition, or his entrepreneurial edge.
Either way his run is as good as any producer in history, and with more range than most. Wilson never saw himself with any limits or glass ceilings for a black man in America. Instead of considering himself lucky, he thought “why not me?”
On the edge of Rock, Jazz, and Folk culture, with no role models to look at who came before him, Wilson shattered every expectation. Not only making it to the top of the charts but making music that would shift culture, Wilson’s approach to music mirrored his views on race. “Why not?”
In 1978 a heart attack ended Tom’s life, still young at 47. To work on multiple projects, and with multiple artists that will stand the test of time, is a testament to one of the true mavericks of the music industry.
Wilson was taste personified, and the breadth of his work speaks to the different worlds he lived in. From pews in Texas to the halls of the Ivy League to hustling through New York’s jazz scene and rock underground, Wilson lived a life worth making music about.