One of the least-known names in music history is a Waco, Texas native named Tom Wilson. Tom Wilson was a black Harvard graduate, a DJ and producer who was described as a “Do-It-Yourself” man, who designed album covers, took photographs, and provided liners. In 1954, he started his own record label, Transition Records. One of the first musicians he signed was trumpeter Donald Byrd. By the time his label folded, he had produced 22 albums. Wilson was picked up first as a jazz A&R representative at United Artists then by Columbia Records in 1963 as their first black staff producer.
Tom Wilson was born in Waco, Texas in 1931. He was raised in a musical family that sang in the church choir. Wilson attended classes at Fisk University before transferring to Harvard to complete his education. He studied jazz, which would be the focus of his years in music. It was there that he proclaimed his political party of Republican. Wilson graduated cum laude from Harvard University.
At Columbia, Wilson was assigned to a new artist named Bob Dylan. He added electric guitars and basses to Dylan’s music, creating his signature sound. Wilson produced Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” which was voted the number one rock song of all time by Rolling Stone. When Dylan recorded “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” he kept Wilson’s voice in the recording saying “Wait a minute now. Okay, take two.”
When he was introduced to his new group named Simon & Garfunkel, they had already released a slow selling album named “Wednesday Morning 3 AM.” The artists had gone back to their lives in different countries. Once Wilson heard their music, he envisioned a stronger sound. He brought in some musicians to do overdubs and re-released the music through Columbia. The song climbed to number one on the charts and a new version of Simon & Garfunkel was born. The rest is history. Wilson became one of the highest paid producers in the country.
Then in 1966, Wilson joined Verve/MGM Records to work with Frank Zappa’s group, The Mothers of Invention. Under Wilson. the group released “Freak Out!” and Wilson was paid $21,000 for the song, at his own insistence.
“Tom Wilson was a great guy. He had a fascinating ability to read The Wall Street Journal, have a blonde sitting on his lap, and tell the engineer to add more compression to the vocal all at the same time. But by the time we started working on our third album, he was not talking to the engineer as much and talking to the blonde a little bit more, and so I said, ‘Well, why don’t you just let me produce this? I know you have other things on your mind.’ “We’re Only In It for the Money” was the first album that I produced. He produced the first two.”— Frank Zappa, MTV interview, 1986
Within two years, Tom Wilson had left Verve and started the Tom Wilson Organization, with two publishing companies under his direction, Terrible Tunes and Maudlin Melodies.
Wilson went on to work with groups like Velvet Underground and Nico – majority artists whose peak was hit in the 1960’s. Wilson’s strongest point of his career was 1955-1968. With the decline in demand for his style of production, Wilson slowly faded from the music scene. He retired for a while to England and later tried working on an opera with producer Larry Fallon. The opera never came to pass. On September 6, 1978, Wilson died of a heart attack in Los Angeles. He was only 47.
Sadly, Wilson’s legacy was not recognized in places like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though he was interviewed over the years by The New York Times and other national publications. His gravestone in Waco, TX was even engraved with the wrong year of death.