Steven Ivory

*I kid you not: late Sunday afternoon, August 15, I was at home in front of my computer trying to decide what music to play, when I had the sudden urge to hear “Shake” by the Gap Band.

It’s not like I’d have to  search for the track to hear it. Though it was the Gap’s breakthrough hit way back in 1979,  that funky party groove is among some 300   songs spanning pop music’s gamut that I’ve had in heavy rotation for the past year.  I play “Shake” like it came out yesterday.  

I ended up not listening to the song Sunday evening.  But the urge to do so came, I learned the next day, about the same time Gap’s Robert Wilson, fifty-three, suffered a massive heart attack at his Palmdale, California home.  I figure my urge to hear the “Shake” was simply the sonic boom of Robert leaving the planet. I know. But I believe in stuff like that.  

For many of you, Robert’s name may not ring a bell. Even if you’ve heard such Gap Band hits as “I Don’t Believe You Want To Get Up and Dance (Oops, Upside Your Head),”  “Burn Rubber On Me,” “Humpin,'” “Yearning For Your Love,” “Early In The Morning,” “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” “Outstanding” and “Party Train,”  you don’t have to know Robert. But Bass players and lovers of funk bass do, because on bass guitar, Robert Wilson was a monster.

Robert Wilson

Robert’s style, like only every other “popping,” “slapping” and “thumping” bassist to play the instrument from the ’70s on, was heavily influenced by the legendary Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone and later Graham Central Station.  The two had more than bass in common.  Just as a young  Graham  developed  his iconic thumping style in church –accompanying  his mother on piano, he thumped and slapped the strings to  make up for there being no drummer–Robert also honed his funkiness  in the house of the Lord, holding down the bottom every Sunday for his piano -playing  mother and brothers Charlie and Ronnie at their Pentecostal minister father’s  church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It was locally based country rocker Leon Russell who “discovered” the Wilson Brothers and band playing top 40 covers in a Tulsa bar.  Russell (who as a songwriter, had penned such future pop classics as “Superstar,” “A Song For You” and “This Masquerade”) told them he was looking for a backing band to take out on tour.

Russell gave the Wilsons all his albums and checked off the songs they’d need to learn if they were interested in auditioning for him. During his talk, the band remembered Russell saying the most important part of a song’s live performance is a strong beginning and  ending.  “So, those are the only parts of his songs we learned,” Gap vocalist Charlie Wilson told me recently, laughing.  “When we auditioned, our performance of the songs themselves were rough, but our intros and endings were tight as hell, so he hired us.”

In addition to working as Russell’s live band, Gap  (the initials are for Greenwood, Archer and Pine, the three intersecting streets in Tulsa’s historically black Greenwood area)  recorded one obscure album for the rocker’s Shelter label and another for Tattoo Records  before  joining  Los Angeles entrepreneur Lonnie Simmons’ Total Experience Productions.  Simmons landed the Wilson trio a deal with Mercury in 1978.

It was during the final minute-plus  of  “Shake”–whose action-packed arrangement  pinched from  Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 cover of the Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life”–that Robert officially put the funk world on notice. Channeling the Ohio Players’ Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner by singing along with his blistering solo,  Robert made those bass strings moan.  

But then,  the soft-spoken Robert usually communicated more through his bass than with words.  In all the times I interviewed the Gap Band, I don’t think Robert ever said more than a couple sentences.  Throughout the ’80s, the youngest Wilson brother struggled with drug and alcohol addiction.

He reunited periodically with  Charlie, who launched a solo career several years ago,  to do Gap  dates (Ronnie left the fold to become a bishop). At the time of his death, Robert was working on an album to be released this fall, co-produced by fellow Oklahoma bass man Wayman Tisdale, who died of cancer in 2009.  Tisdale referred to Robert as one of his first mentors.  Now they’re both gone.  

I’m writing about Robert Wilson because he deserves the honor.  It is heartbreaking  enough that modern black music continues to lose some of its greatest artists. But recent untimely passings such as Parliament/Funkadelic vocalist/guitarist  Gary Shider and guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins, who, with his younger bassist brother Bootsy Collins, augmented one of James Brown’s mightiest  bands and played with Parliament/funkadelic before ultimately launching Bootsy’s Rubber Band, represent the loss of a certain kind  of musician.   

These  guys didn’t read music; they created from  a crevice deep within their souls. Music courses can teach technique, but just try learning from a book the spirit, passion and emotion with which these guys played.  They’re not being replaced by younger musicians.

Which is why I wish there existed  a  machine you could hook humans up to–much in the way you attach an external hard drive to a computer–and extract from them their various gifts.  That way, when certain people pass on, their incredible talents would remain,  to be used and appreciated.

It’s a silly, selfish thought,  I suppose.  But for Robert Wilson to leave here and take all those chops with him is a doggone shame.

Steven Ivory is a journalist/author who has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years.  Respond to him via [email protected]

Listen and groove to Robert Wilson (on bass) and The Gap Band’s “Shake”: