March 19, 1953– Ricky Wilson
What do they put in the water in Athens, Georgia?
Each member of the great party band The B-52s deserves their own #BornThisDay 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 they 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 for 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. The B-52’s were 1970s punk, but campy punks, whose sensibilities came from the thrift stores and garage sales of Athens: colorful clothes, toy pianos, tall wigs and vintage LPs.
They were inspired by spy movie soundtracks, exotica, surf music, long forgotten dances and garage rock, plus obsessions with Yoko Ono and the Velvet Underground.
With Schneider’s sing-shout poetry, Cindy Wilson and Pierson’s alien girl-group harmonies, Ricky Wilson’s tricky guitar riffs and Strickland’s funky drums, they were strikingly different from the New Wave sound of the era by being 40% female, 60% Southern, 80% queer, and 100% fabulous fun.
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.
Listen and 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 bandmate, and in Cindy Wilson’s case, brother, but they eventually put the band together again and went on to achieve mainstream worldwide commercial success.
As a period of mourning, working together on vocal melodies, lyrics and arrangements for the new tracks, the remaining members re-emerged with the Don Was/Nile Rodgers co-produced Cosmic Thing (1989). The album proved to be the greatest commercial achievement for the group, and its success propelled the band to international superstars.
Cosmic Thing went to the top of the Billboard Album chart, sold five million copies and gave the band their first-ever Top 10 hits: Love Shack and Roam. They played to sold-out audiences on a world tour that would last more than 18 months, including an Earth Day concert for 750,000 people in New York City’s Central Park.
In January 2013, Strickland announced that he had made a decision to stop touring with the band. He announced:
“I will continue to be in The B-52s – I will just not tour. My barnstorming days have come to an end, but I wholeheartedly support Cindy, Fred and Kate’s decision to continue.”
The B-52s remain musically active and continue to tour. If there is still a world then, they are scheduled to do two concerts at Hollywood Bowl in late August.
Although Wilson passed before the band’s biggest commercial success, his guitar style and unusual tunings helped make the B-52s one of the most distinctive bands in New Wave history.
A friend of mine who lives there, tells me that Wilson’s resting place at the Oconee Hill Cemetery 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 ‘’his 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.“