About Gary Wilson
If there was ever an artist whose career proves that even the most obscure and eccentric artist can eventually find an audience, it's Gary Wilson. A songwriter and musician with a singular creative vision, Wilson crafts intelligent and effective melodies blending pop, funk, rock, and soul that nevertheless show off their quirky angles rather easily. His arrangements are built around synthesizers, samples, and lo-fi production techniques that put his detourned funk into even sharper relief. His lyrics offer a look into the personal and sexual obsessions of a nerdy guy with an abundance of imagination, and the results are both funny and a wee bit disturbing. For decades, a Gary Wilson cult slowly but steadily grew as his self-released 1977 album You Think You Really Know Me was discovered by adventurous music fans (among them Beck, Earl Sweatshirt, Peanut Butter Wolf, and ?uestlove of the Roots). It wasn't until 2002 that Wilson emerged to greet his following, and 2004's Mary Had Brown Hair confirmed that his approach and outlook had changed remarkably little with the passage of time. After 2015's Alone with Gary Wilson, he became surprisingly prolific, issuing eight albums between 2016 and 2020 that showed his relative success had changed him hardly at all.
Born in 1953, Gary Wilson grew up in Endicott, New York with three siblings. His father worked for IBM (one of Endicott's biggest employers at the time), and in the evenings he played bass in a jazz group that held down a four-nights-a-week gig at a local cocktail lounge. Following in his dad's footsteps, Gary taught himself to play bass and joined his school's student orchestra when he was nine years old. At age ten, he added guitar and keyboards to his arsenal and started writing songs. Inspired by teen idols such as Dion, Bobby Rydell, and Fabian, Wilson embraced rock & roll early on, but by the time he was in sixth grade, the Beatles were making their breakthrough in the United States, and he would attend the Fab Four's fabled 1965 performance at Shea Stadium, which converted him to the sounds of the British Invasion. Wilson was in eighth grade when he joined a garage-psych band with his friends called Lord Fuzz; they would release a single and open for the 1910 Fruitgum Company before they split up. When he was 14, Wilson discovered the work of the legendary experimental composer John Cage, and he sent Cage some of his music. Cage responded by inviting Wilson to visit him at his home, and along with discussing his writing, Cage encouraged the youngster to strive to create art that was truly unique.
After working with another rock band, Dr. Zork and the Warts, Wilson built a makeshift recording studio in his parents' home, and in 1974 he made his first album, a self-produced jazz-oriented project titled Another Galaxy. As the first new wave groups began making a name for themselves at the New York club CBGB, Wilson saw a format that would seemingly welcome his more unconventional ideas, so he formed a band, Gary Wilson & the Blind Dates. Their performances mixed new wave pop with the avant-garde, and Wilson, usually wearing his trademark sunglasses, would cover himself up in plastic wrap or duct tape, break records over his head, cavort with mannequins, and roll around on the floor in milk and flour as part of the act. While the Blind Dates would gig often in the New York area (including several shows at CBGB), their work was a tough sell for mainstream rock listeners. Undeterred, Wilson returned to his basement recording space and cut an album, You Think You Really Know Me, that included offbeat gems such as "6.4 = Make Out," "Groovy Girls Make Love at the Beach," and "I Wanna Lose Control" that reflected his eclectic musical vision as well as his troubles with women and his unhappy teen years as a high school oddball. Wilson issued the album in 1977 on his own MCM label, originally pressing 300 copies, many of which he smashed at his own gigs. In 1979, he pressed another 300 copies; the album received little press and scant sales, but a smattering of local radio airplay prompted him to move to California in search of a record deal. While on the West Coast, he released three singles, and he supposedly received a fan letter from the members of the Residents, but a major-label deal and larger gigs failed to materialize.
In the '80s (according to Wilson) he set his work as a solo artist aside in favor of becoming a sideman for a number of blues and jazz acts, including Roy Brown, Percy Mayfield, and Charles Brown. Settling in San Diego, he would play in lounge bands while holding down various day jobs, including a stint working at an adult bookstore. However, enough collectors had heard You Think You Really Know Me that it developed an underground reputation as an outsider classic, without Wilson being fully aware of its reputation. In 1991, Cry Baby Records brought out a limited-edition reissue of the album that spread the word further, but it was indie rock sensation Beck who took Wilson's name to the next level. A fan of his album, Beck took to covering "6.4 = Make Out" on-stage, and on his 1996 album Odelay, he included an endorsement in the tune "Where It's At": "Passing the dutchie from coast to coast/Let the man Gary Wilson rock the most."
Gary Wilson didn't become an overnight star after being namechecked by Beck, but word about him began to spread, and in 2002, You Think You Really Know Me was reissued again by a larger indie label, Motel Records; in order to get his approval for the new edition, the label hired a private detective to track him down. To promote the release, Motel persuaded Wilson to play a few live shows, including a two-night stand in New York that prompted a profile in the New York Times, and documentary filmmaker Michael Wolk began work on a movie about Wilson's life, career, and comeback, You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story. A collection of rarities and unreleased material, Forgotten Lovers, was brought out by Motel in 2003. DJ and producer Peanut Butter Wolf became a fan, and he approached Wilson to record an album for his label Stones Throw Records. 2004's Mary Had Brown Hair revealed that time had not dulled Wilson's unique talents, and after playing occasional club shows (and occasionally gigging with a jazz group), he issued another set of original music, Lisa Wants to Talk to You, in 2008. In a relatively speedy fashion, Wilson dropped Electric Endicott in 2010, and in support he made an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where he was backed by house band the Roots. Despite Wilson's fear of flying, he managed to do a tour of Europe and the U.K. in 2013.
In 2015, Cleopatra Records struck a deal with Wilson, issuing Alone with Gary Wilson. That same year, he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live as part of a performance by rapper Earl Sweatshirt, who had sampled Wilson on his track "Grief." This kicked off a remarkably productive period for the artist and he began putting out records at an impressive rate with a Christmas album (2016's It's Christmas Time with Gary Wilson), experimental collaborations (2017's Broken Mazes with Marq Spekt and Another Lonely Night in Brooklyn with Tredici Bacci), a team-up with fellow cult hero R. Stevie Moore (2019's Fake News Trending), and more solo efforts dedicated to his singular musical worldview like 2017's Let's Go to Outer Space, 2019's The King of Endicott, and 2020's Tormented. ~ Mark Deming