Tom Wilson, the Waco-born producer behind pivotal music moments in 1960s American pop and rock, may not be such an invisible icon in the near future.
Pop and rock singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, whose interest in Wilson led him to start a documentary film, told Zach Burke, an executive producer of the Waco podcast series “Invisible Icon: The Tom Wilson Story,” that his film was “in the endgame phase” with a possible Waco trip, even as local efforts to win posthumous attention to Wilson may bear fruit as well.
Crenshaw spoke on a special “Invisible Icon” episode recorded on March 25, Wilson’s birthday, and released Monday on Waco’s roguemedianetwork.com, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcasting channels. The podcast follows Wilson from his Waco childhood to his last years in Los Angeles as the music producer was contemplating a shift into movie production.
Wilson, born to parents Fannie and Thomas Wilson on March 25, 1931, grew up in Waco, but left after graduating from A.J. Moore High School, where his father had served as principal. Wilson attended Fisk University, then transferred to Harvard University, where he finished his studies.
Wilson’s interest in jazz music and recording eventually led to a career as record producer in New York, then Los Angeles, with his influence felt on crucial moments in American pop music history: Bob Dylan’s transition from acoustic folk to electric folk-rock; Simon and Garfunkel’s first hit “The Sound of Silence”; early albums by the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Eric Burdon and the Animals; the discovery of avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra; and nearly a dozen Top 100 albums.
In a time where studio producers were heard, but little seen, Wilson’s influence didn’t create lasting personal fame and his death from a heart attack on Sept. 6, 1978, in Los Angeles, Calif., went largely unnoticed outside of music and recording circles. He’s buried next to his parents in Doris Miller Memorial Park, which is also where Tony Thompson, lead singer of the popular 1990s Waco pop group Hi-Five is buried.
Memories of Wilson’s contributions didn’t totally disappear, however. Stories about Wilson began to pop up in jazz publications and online in the late 2000s and early 2010s. In 2013, Irwin Chusid crafted a website that caught the attention of people like Crenshaw. Texas Monthly’s Michael Hall wrote “The Greatest Music Producer You’ve Never Heard Of” in 2014 and the Washington Post talked with Crenshaw in 2016 about his idea to create a Wilson documentary.
For the 32-year-old Burke, a freelance writer and former radio producer with M&M Broadcasting, and Keep Waco Loud music advocates Katie Selman and Jacob Green, Wilson’s relative invisibility in music history was something that needed to be addressed. Joined by podcast producer Mike Hamilton and his Rogue Media Network, the three created a nine-episode podcast series, “Invisible Icon: The Tom Wilson Story,” hosted by Travvis Scott and with Lindsay Liepman of KXXV-TV as an additional executive producer.
“Our one big goal was we wanted people to know (Wilson’s) name,” Selman said.
The team researched Wilson’s Waco family history to supplement the trail the 6’4” music producer blazed on both coasts, connecting with son Tom Wilson III and grandson Tom Wilson IV. Wilson III now lives in Houston while his son is a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Burke said.
The series debuted last summer and feedback, including some from Wilson’s family and Crenshaw, has been positive, Selman said.
Crenshaw told Burke in the latest “Invisible Icon” episode that he was “dumbstruck” as he learned about Wilson’s influence yet relative anonymity. “There was a hole in history where the story was supposed to be,” he said. “(Wilson) was a game-changing figure in music, in capital letters ... He deserves a really vibrant artistic statement on his behalf.”
Crenshaw said the documentary had been on track for finishing last year, only to be sidetracked by the COVID-19 pandemic. While not offering a target date for its completion, he told Burke that a Waco visit on its behalf was a possibility.
It didn’t end there. Selman and Green have talked to college classes and young Waco musicians about Wilson and his legacy. The podcast crew also has been lobbying city officials, organizations and even the Texas Music Office for ways to recognize the Waco native’s legacy. There’s no official word yet on those efforts, though both Burke and Selman say to stay tuned.
Burke said the “Invisible Icon” team’s work over the last two years to dust off Wilson’s accomplishments for a broader, younger audience has been worth it. “I didn’t think I would feel as satisfied as I feel,” he said.
Tom Wilson's production credits include Bob Dylan's transition from acoustic folk to electric folk-rock; Simon and Garfunkel's first hit "The Sound of Silence"; early albums by the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Eric Burdon and the Animals; the discovery of avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra; and nearly a dozen Top 100 albums.