Joe Lee Wilson, the dynamic jazz singer whose big, soulful sound provided a stimulus to the art of jazz and blues vocals, died on July 17 in his London home, where he resided with his wife. Jill. Wilson was 75.
In 2010, Wilson returned home to be inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. He was born on Dec. 22, 1935, on a Bristow, Okla., farm to parents of Black and Native American ancestry. After listening to many hours of jazz on the radio, he left the farm at age 15 to embark upon a music career.
Arriving in Los Angeles, he studied voice, piano and composition at Los Angeles City College before touring the West Coast and working in Mexico. In 1962, he relocated to New York City.
While performing in New York, Wilson’s big sound caught the attention of writer and poet Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), as well as saxophonist Archie Shepp and drummer Sunny Murray, with whom he later collaborated and released some of his most noted recordings.
“Joe Lee Wilson, one of the great singers of our age. Still almost completely obscure to even a lot of people who think they know the music,” stated Baraka.
During the 1960s, Wilson worked with Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Pharoah Sanders, Jackie McLean and Jimmy Lovelace. It’s not ironic that his song “Jazz Ain’t Nothing But Soul” (1975) became a hit. He personified soul with his booming baritone voice, and jazz was his swinging vehicle.
What set Wilson apart from other jazz singers was his soul and originality. Regardless of the song, he branded it with his own signature such as “So Many Stars,” “Don’t Blame Me,” “I Remember April” and John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” Wilson noted in one of his live performances (1976) that Coltrane was one of his idols. He recorded “Shout for Trane” (Whynot Records) and, in 2008, “Ballads for Trane” (Philology).
He and Archie Shepp recorded the civil rights-charged “Things Have Got to Change” in 1971 and “Attica Blues” in 1972. That same year they released a live album, which they recorded at Columbia University’s WKCR-FM, entitled “Livin’ High Off Nickels & Dimes” (Oblivion Records).
During 1973 to 1978, Wilson opened Ladies Fort, a jazz performance loft in the Village (2 Bond St.). It became the regular spot for jazz fans and musicians. He was one of the innovators of the Jazz Loft Movement, allowing many of the great jazz musicians an opportunity to play when they couldn’t at the regular jazz clubs in the city.
In 1973, Wilson appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and won the Downbeat Critics poll as “talent deserving wider recognition.”
Wilson wasn’t a traditional jazz singer, as he reflected a rich, swinging combination of jazz, soul and blues, following in the tradition of Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine and Eddie Jefferson, a frequent collaborator.
“Joe Lee’s voice was a culture shock to me. He was proud of his Creek Indian heritage,” stated close friend and singer Okaru Lovelace. “He is a very soulful singer. He really inspired me to write the lyrics on ‘Cherokee’ and rename it ‘Sweet Indian,’ subtitled ‘Song for Joe Lee Wilson.’ His powerful voice will never die.”
During the late 1970s and ’80s, Wilson was based in Paris, Tokyo and the United Kingdom and recorded regularly with pianist Kirk Lightsey. In 1977, he married his partner, Jill Christopher, and moved to London the following year.
“Joe Lee was one of the greatest male vocalists who ever lived, and had the world been a bit different, he and Mark Murphy would have been at the same level of fame as Tony Bennett,” said Wendy Oxenhorn of the Jazz Foundation of America. “But aren’t we lucky to have known and heard this amazing man and his music?”
A special tribute was held for Wilson last week at the Singers Connection Open Mic and Jam at University of the Streets in the East Village.
Wilson is survived by his wife and their daughter, Naima. He was cremated in London on July 20.