Ronnie Wilson: Musician who brought groove to many funk hits

·3-min read
Wilson (pictured in 1980) contributed piano, keyboard, trumpet, backing vocals and flugelhorn on the band’s eponymous breakthrough 1979 album  (Getty)
Wilson (pictured in 1980) contributed piano, keyboard, trumpet, backing vocals and flugelhorn on the band’s eponymous breakthrough 1979 album (Getty)

A multi-instrumentalist and co-founder of The Gap Band, Ronnie Wilson, who has died aged 73, provided the musical backbone to many of the grooviest funk-soul hits of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Alongside his brothers Charlie and Robert, Ronnie forged an enduring legacy that extended beyond the boundaries of the band’s discography – their songs were frequently sampled by artists such as NWA, Mary J Blige, and Tyler, the Creator.

The eldest of the three brothers, Ronne was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Oscar and Irma Wilma. Oscar, in his role as a minister, would preface his sermons with his young sons’ performances, with their mother accompanying on piano. Despite their father’s strict forbidding of secular music, Ronnie and his brothers nonetheless devoured a wide array of R&B influences: James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and whoever else they could successfully smuggle into the household.

From these clandestine listening sessions would eventually emerge The Gap Band; or, as it was originally known, “The Greenwood, Archer, Pine Band”, in reference to the three streets that comprised Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” district.

The band’s name was also a call to remembrance, marking the history of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, when a white mob set ablaze some 35 blocks of the predominantly black district and murdered an estimated 300 residents. The band would repeatedly call attention to this once-obscure tragedy throughout their touring in the 1980s, and it has been long speculated that the band’s hit song “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” was inspired by the massacre.

The Gap Band released their debut album Magicians Holiday in 1974, on which Ronnie contributed backing vocals and trumpet. The album was recorded entirely in the Church Studio: a former Methodist church bought by Leon Russell in 1972, as a home for his newly founded Shelter Records.

Family affair: Ronnie (right) with brothers Robert (left) and Charlie in 1980 (Getty)
Family affair: Ronnie (right) with brothers Robert (left) and Charlie in 1980 (Getty)

Russell, an accomplished musician who frequently collaborated with the likes of George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, had scouted the brothers at one of their local shows, and invited the band to play in the recording sessions for his album Stop All That Jazz (1974).

Ronnie added keyboard to his repertoire for the band’s follow-up album The Gap Band (1977), which produced the band’s first chart hits “Out of the Blue (Can You Feel It)” and “Little Bit of Love”. However, it was their third album (also named The Gap Band) that brought them fame, with Ronnie serving as co-writer on half of its eight tracks.

Their first major label release, The Gap Band (1979) saw the band break the US R&B top 10 with “Shake”. It was also testament to Ronnie’s calibre as a multi-instrumentalist, contributing piano, keyboard, trumpet, backing vocals and flugelhorn to the album’s sound.

The Gap Band performing at the 2005 BMI Urban Music Awards in Miami Beach (AP)
The Gap Band performing at the 2005 BMI Urban Music Awards in Miami Beach (AP)

The band would continue to enjoy chart success throughout the late Seventies and early Eighties, with Ronnie providing the backbone of their soul-funk sound. This period also saw the band frequently sharing a stage with many household names, such as The Rolling Stones and Kool & the Gang.

However, the early Nineties would see Charlie, who had fronted the band throughout the brothers’ careers, leave to embark on a solo career. The band limped on without him for a series of largely forgettable albums, before closing the decade – and Ronnie’s own career – with Y2K: Funkin’ Till 2000 Comz.

Ronnie devoted much of his later years to music ministry in San Antonio. His brother Robert, the group’s bassist, died of a heart attack in 2010, aged 53. In 2015, relations between him and Charlie publicly turned sour when Ronnie launched a lawsuit against his brother for allegedly blocking a comeback tour arranged by Ronnie.

The musician died peacefully, with wife Linda Boulware-Wilson holding his hand, at his home in Tulsa. In a Facebook post announcing his death, she described her husband as “a genius with creating, producing, and playing the flugelhorn, trumpet, keyboards, and singing music, from childhood to his early seventies”.

Ronnie Wilson, multi-instrumentalist, born 7 April 1948, died 2 November 2021

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