By its very nature, the music industry has always proven to be fertile ground for many incredible stories. Yet nothing in real life or even press agent created fiction has even come close to equaling the amazing but true saga of Bobby Wilson.
Who is Bobby Wilson?
He is a talented entertainer who received high critical acclaim for his recreation of the legendary JackieWilson – a stage persona he undertook long before learning that he was the rightful heir to the legacy.
It wasn’t until long after he had begun performing in his own right that Bobby realized the true source of his musical legacy –the talent flowed naturally because he was actually the son of Jackie Wilson.
Although he was born in New York State, as an infant Bobby somehow wound up in the foster system of South Carolina where he was given the name of Bobby Brooks by the state. Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, Bobby survived a childhood that seems to have come straight from a Dickensian nightmare. Young Bobby was stricken with a horrific array of childhood diseases ranging from rickets to bronchitis which resulted in his spending the years between age three and six either in a body cast from his waist to his feet or wearing weighted shoes. The continuing trauma left Bobby unable to enjoy life like other children of his age. Thus he found his only solace in listening to music.
Adding to his blighted childhood was his accidental discovery of his birth certificate which showed that the woman he called Mom was not his birth mother. Bobby’s foster mother did not reveal the secret of his father’s identity nor did young Bobby ask. She had raised 400 foster children through the South Carolina system.
Almost miraculously one day when Bobby was 16, the bronchitis, which had reappeared when he was nine, mysteriously disappeared. Elated to have found new life as a regular teenager, Bobby joined Project Upward Bound and it was through that organization that he eventually met his birth mother and his half‐sisters.
Bobby chose an easy and time‐honored way out of his troubled life – meeting and marrying a young woman who would soon bear their son, Bobby Jr. But the marriage too was rocky.
Trying to pull his life together, Bobby had completed two years of study at the Midlands Technical College in Columbia and was in his first semester at the University of South Carolina in 1979 majoring in electrical engineering, when he made the decision to drop out and join the Navy.
For the next ten years of his life, Bobby proudly served his country in the Navy, rising to the rank of E‐6as a WT1, Weapons Tech 1st Class, before his honorable discharge.
But medical ailments again raised their specter, and this time it was a kidney stone problem that temporarily sidetracked Bobby.
Shortly after his separation from the Navy in 1989 and with $20,000 in hand, Bobby made a spur of the moment decision that would change his life forever. He chose to participate in a talent show by performing “Just Once,” the James Ingram ballad. That led to further public performances at local karaoke bars. It was after one especially impressive performance of the Motown classic “My Girl” that Peter Hernandez, lead singer for the doo wop group Peter and the Love Notes, approached Bobby and invited him to sing with the Hernandez family group.Hernandez’s son, the then‐six year old Peter Jr., was part of the show doing an Elvis imitation. He would soon go on to find fame in his own right as Bruno Mars.
Bobby accepted the invitation and became a back‐up singer for the group playing at various venues in Hawaii such as the Sheraton Waikiki. Bruno’s uncle coached him in vocal impersonations, but balked when it came to Bobby’s including Jackie Wilson in his repertoire despite taking notice of Bobby’s pompadour, natural mannerisms and vocal range. The clues were always there – it just took someone else to notice them.
And that person was Paul Revere of the 1960s vocal group Paul Revere and the Raiders, who came to see a show in Hawaii to check out Bruno Mars. After watching the entire performance one night in 1994,Bobby recalls that Revere grabbed him afterwards and asked him to “Do a Jackie Wilson medley.” Insisting he was a performer and not an impersonator, Bobby declined. But Revere persisted and even showed Bobby photos of a young Jackie Wilson as a member of the iconic Billy Ward’s Dominos vocal group.
Revere excitedly shared his discovery of Bobby with Jon Stuart, creator of the Las Vegas‐based Legends in Concert tribute shows. They hired Bobby to perform, but at first not as an impressionist of Jackie Wilson. That was the start of Bobby’s long professional relationship with Legends in Concert that continues to this day.
Meanwhile, Bobby’s personal life was also undergoing some equally exciting changes. Bobby had long ago confronted his birth mother Willie Mae Benton in his quest to learn the identity of his father. Unfortunately Benton, who had once been a party girl, was now an aging alcoholic with three other children. Repeatedly, she told Bobby she was unsure of who might have been his father. Bobby recalls that matters almost came to a head once when he sent her a photograph of himself as Jackie Wilson and she tore it up. “Why would you send me a photo of him?” she later asked Bobby. “But it isn’t Jackie Wilson, it is me,” replied Bobby. She angrily retorted “Don’t ever send me any pictures of Jackie Wilson.”
Bobby remembers that when he told her about the birth of his oldest son she was drunk and asked him for money. Finally, he once again confronted her and asked about her relationship with Jackie Wilson. “Did you know him?” asked Bobby. This time his mother admitted that she had “hung out” with him. Bobby was encouraged and asked “Could he be my father?” “I don’t know” was her response.Willie Mae Benton was 14 back when she “hung out” with Jackie Wilson, but she already looked as if she was 25. However it was not until Bobby met the legendary songwriter Billy Raquel Davis, co‐writer with Berry Gordy, Jr. of Jackie Wilson’s classic song hits, that he learned the truth. How that meeting came about makes for yet another fascinating chapter in the Bobby Wilson saga.
Bobby was at Bally’s in Atlantic City portraying Jackie Wilson during the three‐week run of a Legends In Concert show when one evening the Four Tops, the iconic Motown vocal group, decided to check out Bobby and the Legends show. Afterward, they asked to meet Bobby in the hotel’s VIP room. Lawrence Payton, one of the group’s members, immediately pointed to the uncanny similarities between Bobby and Jackie Wilson and said he was certain that Bobby had inherited his ability to channel Jackie Wilson naturally. To prove his point, Payton said Bobby even had Jackie’s infectious laugh. Not only that, but Payton told Bobby they both sang in the same register and even talked alike.
Payton’s conclusion was clear. Either Bobby was family or a clone.
Levi Stubbs, another member of the Four Tops and a cousin of Jackie Wilson, was convinced that Bobby and Jackie were “family.” It was Payton and Stubbs who then told Billy Davis to check out Bobby.
Two weeks later, Davis came to see and hear Bobby and judge for himself. When he talked to Bobby, Davis asked about his family. Bobby told him of his South Carolina foster home and also shared his birth mother’s name. Davis was startled when he heard it and said he knew Bobby’s mother. Almost immediately, Davis told Bobby what the Four Tops had suspected, Jackie Wilson was Bobby’s father. Pure and simple, Bobby just could not have so many of Jackie’s traits were he not related to him.
By 2003 Bobby’s star was already beginning to rise as he scored a major success in the production of Serendipity at the Orleans Casino. That show marked the beginning of the transition of Bobby from impersonator to all‐around entertainer. As Bobby recalls, “The president of the casino offered me a four year contract for that show, but the producers shot it down.”
Exactly four years later in 2007, Al Abrams. Motown’s founding publicist, was putting together his plans for Memories of Motown, a musical tribute that would honor the upcoming 50th anniversary of Motown Records in 2009. The groundbreaking infotainment would showcase several original iconic Motown artists along with a mix of top‐notch tribute artists. What would set it apart from run‐of‐the‐mill tribute shows would be an on‐stage historical narrative by Abrams ‐‐ who was the first employee hired by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. in May 1959, and who had often been in the company of Jackie Wilson during those early years.
Abrams’ cousin just happened to be Bea Fogelman, founder and director of the Las Vegas‐based Entertainment Network, the talent agency that promoted the careers of tribute artists. Through her efforts, Abrams hooked up with the award‐winning Berlin‐based show producer Bernhard Kurz of Stars in Concert, then celebrating its tenth anniversary.
As soon as Abrams and Kurz arrived in Las Vegas in 2008 to hold auditions for their show, Bea Fogelman quickly stepped into the picture. She told Abrams, Kurz and the show’s artistic director Paul Langley that there was no better artist to portray Wilson than Bobby. At this point, the stories about Bobby being Wilson’s son were still the subject of rampant speculation.
Bea Fogelman was right. Bobby was indeed a showstopper during the musical’s month‐long run at the Estrel Festival Center in Berlin January 7 through February 1, 2009. Bobby shared the stage with Martha Reeves and Sylvester Potts and the Contours, along with Abrams and his co‐writer, legendary Motown A&R man William “Mickey” Stevenson, as the show received worldwide acclaim for being the only musical show produced anywhere in the world to honor Motown’s 50th birthday. The show was such a global hit that Universal issued a special Memories of Motown CD.
One thing was obvious to those in the cast like Abrams and Stevenson who had known and worked with Jackie Wilson – Bobby was clearly his son – and more than in name only.
Apparently the fans knew it before the rest of the world. One night walking through the Estrel hotel lobby after a performance, a middle‐aged German fan rushed up to Bobby and exclaimed, “Oh My God! I thought you were dead.”
Today, although Bobby has found new audiences to entertain as a regular headliner on cruise ships and as an impressionist with Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder in his repertoire, he has still remained on the threshold of major success.
Thanks to the innate ability of veteran record producer Tony Mantor of Nashville’s Plateau Music to recognize and nurture a star in the making, Bobby Wilson’s day has finally arrived. Musical history is once again going to be made – and rewritten.