March 19, 1953– Ricky Wilson
What do they put in the water in Athens, Georgia?
Each member of The B-52s deserves the Born This Day treatment, but together as a band they remain true Gay Icons. From their start in the late 1970s through their continued touring today, The B-52s have brought LGBTQ people an unapologetically campy, queer awareness to main stream Pop Culture.
It’s not just the tunes that insist that we dance, or the nutty big beehive hairdos and fun thrift-shop clothes; they made gay audiences fall in love with them because proved that in spite of the discrimination and the terror of the plague, we could still dance this mess around, plus four of the five founding members were part of our big LGBTQ family.
Ricky Helton Wilson died way too young. He was a super-talented cutie-pie. Wilson was the original guitarist in the great party band The B-52s, which he helped to form in 1976.
He was born in Athens, Georgia, the brother of fellow band member Cindy Wilson. The Wilson siblings, along with Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland and Fred Schneider shared a tropical Flaming Volcano cocktail at a Chinese restaurant in Athens and after an impromptu music session at the home of a friend, they played for the first time at a Valentine’s Day party for a group of acquaintances from the University Of Georgia. They chose their name from the beehive hairdo that resembled the nose of an airplane with the same name. Their first single Rock Lobster was an underground success and soon got them signed to a contract with Warner Brothers Records. During the late 1970s and early 1980s they churned out a string of hits like Planet Claire and Private Idaho.
It makes sense that Wilson’s musical inspirations were children’s music, The Mamas & The Papas, and Esquerita.
At first The B-52s did not have a bass player, so Wilson invented his own tunings on a guitar, grouping the strings into a bass course. It was quite an original sound. It was a sound that I still continue to really dig. I had some major fun on the dance floor in the late 1970s-early 1980s courtesy of the B-52s. I still love that surf punk party sound.
While the band was recording their third album Whammy!, Wilson became mysteriously ill. When the band was recording Bouncing Off The Satellites, Wilson’s illness became more severe; both Strickland and Pierson have stated that despite this, he kept his illness hidden. Wilson left this world in October 1985. He was just 32-years-old when he was taken by HIV/AIDS. In an interview, Pierson stated that Wilson had kept his illness secret from his fellow band members because he “did not want anyone to worry about him or fuss over him”.
Following his passing, fellow The B-52s’ member Strickland, originally the drummer for The B-52s, learned how to play the guitar in a similar fashion to Wilson.
The B-52s effectively disappeared for a couple of years following the loss, unable to continue without their friend and band-mate, and in Cindy Wilson’s case, brother, but they eventually put the band together again and went on to achieve mainstream worldwide commercial success. The B52s remain musically active and continue to tour.
A friend of mine who lives there, tells me that Wilson’s resting place in Athens is a lovely and serene spot, tucked away in a rolling old Southern cemetery. He wrote this when I asked him about Wilson, who was his friend:
“It’s private enough for someone to actually contemplate and reflect there. This is marvelous in and of itself, but doubly so, given an unfortunate twist his funeral service took. Though it built so slowly that you allowed yourself to stay in denial as long as you could, it soon became evident that the fundamentalist minister (of his parent’s church) was using Ricky’s eulogy to say ‘this is what happens to homosexuals’. You could see friends subtly exchanging looks of disbelief during the service. It was quite surreal. As supremely sweet a person as Ricky did not ever deserve this.”