Joe Lee Wilson: Celebrated jazz singer who had his roots in the blues

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Joe Lee Wilson, one of the outstanding vocalists of his generation, was a pioneer of the free jazz movement.

His independent streak, according to his friend and long-time musical collaborator, Kirk Lightsey (who nicknamed Wilson "Old Donkey Head"), almost certainly cost him a place in the Motown Hall of Fame – Berry Gordy planned to sign him to replace the late Marvin Gaye, but changed his mind at the last minute saying, "His music is wonderful, but he's too much of a free spirit."

Born on a farm in Bristow, Oklahoma, Wilson always chose to plough his own furrow. He turned down a request from Miles Davis to join his band and an offer to become one of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Instead, Wilson pursued a long career on his own terms – and if mega success eluded him, he wasn't about to compromise in order to achieve it.

For two years he studied at a conservatoire in Los Angeles before chafing under the restrictions of a conventional operatic training regime.

He left to join LA City College where he found the freedom to develop his three-octave range and a unique jazz voice that, on many recordings, still betrayed a classical hinterland that made him stand out among the many avant garde musicians he went on to associate with on the East Coast.

"I was too jazzy for LA," he told the writer Lionelle Hamaka. But he wasn't too jazzy for Sarah Vaughan, who took a shine to the young singer and let him sit in on her performances.

As a child, Wilson sung in the Baptist church in Bristow but he found that more people flocked to hear him scat in New York and then, in 1959, in Mexico, where he travelled widely and formed a lasting affection for the country. He only returned reluctantly to the US to meet the agent he hoped would help him take his career to the next level.

The move paid off and in 1968 he reached the final of a nationwide talent competition where the top prize was a recording contract with Columbia. Wilson tied for first place with a vibrant bunch calling themselves Sly and the Family Stone.

But while Columbia made international superstars out of Larry Graham and co, the company shelved Wilson's output. Many years later he made musical history by recovering ownership of the master recordings – something that was unheard of in the industry at the time. Quite why Columbia failed to back their man remains unclear; he told Hamaka that "They said they didn't have the words to categorise me," but his English wife, Jill Christopher, believes that it was because "his producer never turned up to any meetings."

Wilson played with many of the greats, including Sonny Rollins and Pharoah Sanders, but his regular band, Joe Lee Wilson Plus 5, was formed in the 1970s when he also ran a jazz loft in the NoHo district called the Ladies Fort.

If he ever got the blues, he didn't show it in public. He was quoted as telling people "I am the blues", but he was talking about his musical soul, not the man who, with Jill, lived for the moment.

Jill's mother vehemently opposed the match between the 6ft African-American and her daughter, who was working as a conference officer when she met Wilson in the Tin Palace club in New York in 1974. He had found his soul mate. The following year he had a huge radio hit with "Jazz Ain't Nothing but Soul".

Wilson played a slew of international dates, including the now defunct Babylon Festival in Baghdad, which first took place in 1987, during the Iran-Iraq war. "They had asked Madonna to go, but she was too scared, so they asked Joe Lee and he was thrilled," recalled Jill.

Joe Lee Wilson, musician and composer: born Oklahoma 22 December 1935; married Jill Christopher (one daughter); died Brighton, England 17 July 2011.

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