Reuben Wilson Interview
by Bob Putignano
Boxer, Actor, Rap artist? Yes, Reuben Wilson a professional in all three categories. Wilson is best known for is his thirty plus years as a soul-jazz-funk B3 player who played with the best of them: Grant Green, Willis Gator-Tail Jackson, Melvin Sparks, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Lee Morgan, Idris Mohammad, George Coleman, and many more. Reuben also recorded as a leader with Brunswick, Columbia, Blue Note, Cannonball, Groove Merchant, Jazzateria, and now in 2005 with Highnote/Savant.
Reuben's first professional gig was that of a boxer, where he won eleven of his thirteen bouts, eight by knockouts! It was actor Kirk Douglas who purchased Reuben's boxing contract, and through Douglas's affiliation Reuben went on to act (as a boxer) in the movie "Carmen Jones" which featured Harry Bellafonte, Pearl Baily, and Dianne Carroll. In fact when Reuben went to audition for the part, it was Otto Preminger who picked Reuben for his acting debut.
I had the opportunity to sit with Reuben Wilson and Melvin Sparks together at my home. High Note/Savant asked me to compile a bio which will be used as part of the liner notes for Reuben's "Fun House," produced by Melvin Sparks, which was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's.
BobP: You've had a very interesting career, when did you become interested in the B3?
Reuben: Music was around me growing up and there was a piano to play, I dug boogie-woogie and began playing the piano at a young age. Years later in my mid teens at a music store I saw an organ, I played around with it and got a good feeling, seven or eight years later I heard Jimmy Smith who just floored me. Soon thereafter, I got a gig- where the owner asked me if I could play the organ. I practiced for two weeks, and he said I was ready, at first I was nervous, but eventually I got in the groove.
BobP: You mentioned Jimmy Smith, who else influenced you at this young age?
Reuben: I used to go see Groove Holmes all the time in and around L.A. and one night he shows up my gig and sits right in front of me, and just stares at me. I am thinking to myself- oh my God its Groove Holmes, and I'm shaking. After the gig Groove wants to talk to me, "hey, I didn't know you could play, and you are stealing my stuff!" But we became great friends, and Groove started showing me all his licks.
BobP: You mentioned that you had a relationship with Columbia records, but I don't recall any releases?
Reuben: I was playing around NYC, when John Hammond Sr. after hearing me, signed me. We recorded, but the record was never released. But it was cool to me to have been selected by John Hammond and to have the opportunity at Columbia.
BobP: You and Melvin Sparks go way back, when did you guys meet?
Reuben: I met Melvin in the late 60's and heard him playing in NYC, I wasn't looking for a guitar player, but there was this skinny nineteen-year old kid playing his butt off, and I said- I have to get to know this guy. It's been over thirty years, and Melvin and I continue to cross paths, he was on a couple of my Blue Note and Cannonball recordings, we always kept in touch, and played in various bands over the years. Hey Melvin, remember those days with Willis "Gator-Tail" Jackson? (Laughs.) .
Melvin Sparks: Yes they were great. You know the first time I was in the UK everyone kept asking me, do you know Reuben Wilson? I said know him? Sure I was at his house last night and Francis Wolfe was there, you know the founder of Blue Note Records!
Reuben: Yeah, Wolfe and I hung out, unfortunately it was just before he passed.
Re: the UK, I got popular there- from my days with the Fatback Band. Did you know that I got a gold record with them?
BobP: Tell me more about Jimmy Smith?
Reuber: Actually I went to see him in NYC around 1969, between sets they were asking if anyone wanted to play the B3, so I said what the heck. Afterwards Jimmy says, "you sound real good, lets go out and catch Don Patterson with Sonny Stitt." So I am in Jimmy's Mercedes driving around NYC. We get to the club, of course everyone notices Jimmy, Patterson invites Jimmy to play with Stitt. Not taking anything away from Patterson, but Jimmy stole the show, it was like he had fifteen fingers-that is what it sounded like with all the sounds he got out of the B3. You know thinking back to when I heard "The Sermon" I used to think, I can't play like that. But I learned from Jimmy that night, seeing him perform taught me that I can do that, if I practice real hard (laughs.)
BobP: I really think that guys like yourself, Lou Donaldson, Melvin Sparks, and Idris Mohammad really invented Soul/Jazz/Funk music, what are your thoughts?
Reuben: I have been told that my recording "Love Bug" was the benchmark of funk music, and I think it was. We were probably some of the first musicians who reworked the songs of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and guys like Sly Stone, not many cats around the late 60's did that, and it became popular.
BobP: It's been a very unique career, not many musicians can say they have done all you have done, what is next?
Reuben: Well I just finished "Fun House," and Water Records just re-released "A Groovy Situation." I've been called to do more acting, (not as a boxer, laughs) but for commercials, so things are going well. Did I ever tell you about recording with Debbie Harry, and Elvis Costello?
BobP: Next time Reuben, (laughs). I guess have to plan another interview.
Reuben: Anytime, it's been a pleaure!
BobP: Yes it has, thanks Reuben!
Bob Putignano www.SoundsofBlue.com
Radio Host WFDU's "Sounds of Blue"
President of the NY Blues and Jazz Society