(I’m posting this piece [originally
here] while on
the campus of the University of California in Irvine, where later today my novel
Meet Me Under the Ceiba will receive the 33rd Annual
Chicano/Latino Literary Prize. The posting
has nothing to do with my being here.
Instead, I’d like to pay tribute to one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard:
BJ Wilson. Normally, I don’t pay much
attention to drummers, as most of them, I believe, are not much more than
glorified timekeepers. But BJ Wilson is an
exception. His playing is often
unpredictable, yet it fits a song’s time-signature beautifully.
Moreover, the way in which BJ leaves gaps, or fills them, helps make the
work of Procol Harum adventurous to listen to, even today.
His death, at the early age of forty-three, went largely unnoticed.
But for those of us who loved his drumming, the loss is irreplaceable).
I like to be rude when I play the drums
B J Wilson
I'd never seen a drummer sit so low. The seat of his stool stood only a few inches above the ground. Because of this, he had to extend his arms upward to reach his arsenal of percussive instruments, making him look like a little boy at play. Yet, BJ Wilson, on the last performance in which I saw him and the rest of Procol Harum on stage, was entirely in command as he kept his bandmates and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra moving forward at a steady pace during their 1973 Hollywood Bowl appearance.The image engraved in my mind is of B J Wilson often smiling – he was obviously having a terrific time playing for the packed audience.
(The irony is that another drummer played on the studio version of A Whiter Shade of Pale, which had been recorded prior to BJ joining Procol Harum.)
Cordell followed the sage counsel and contacted BJ who, fortunately, was free the next day. Then Cordell called Jimmy Page – who at the time was about to put together a group that would go on to become Led Zeppelin – to play guitar. The following day, after a handful of practice runs, Cordell turned on the tape machine and, after only a couple of takes, had the foundation of what would go on to become a classic recording – made possible, in large part, by BJ Wilson’s drumming.
When listening to Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ song,
one needs to pay close attention to the gradual crescendo of the drums during
the introduction; then to the great open space BJ makes available for Joe’s
magnificent vocals to grasp the listener’s attention fully; and then revel in
the orchestrated grand style that BJ’s drumming provides for the remainder of
Not bad for a day’s work.
The second anecdote is a tribute to the high esteem in which one highly regarded musician held BJ’s talent. When Jimmy Page began to assemble Led Zeppelin, he had only one person in mind to sit behind the drums: BJ Wilson. Several times the now legendary guitarist invited BJ to join the new venture, perhaps promising that he could play as rudely as he wished, but well aware that Procol Harum’s drummer would give the music of Page’s nascent group the feeling of grandeur he was after.
But BJ, loyal until the end to the music of Procol Harum, turned down the opportunity of a lifetime. And Led Zeppelin, instead of becoming a progressive, largely cerebral group, became hard-driving thanks to the relentless beat of John Bonham’s drumming.
A question, then, that shall always remain without answer is: what would have Led Zeppelin sounded like if BJ Wilson had been sitting behind the drum kit? The smallest of hints can be found in Cocker’s With a Little Help from My Friends.
But BJ turned down certain fame and fortune to remain with a group he believed in. And BJ was certainly responsible for much of Procol Harum’s sound. His majestic, off-beat punctuations; his percussive flourishes; his rolling reversals of rhythm; and his frequent use of the cowbell – a trademark of BJ's that drummers seldom, if ever, use today – still sound wonderful nearly forty years after they were recorded.
Barrie James Wilson was the combination of power and passion – with an element of surprise around every corner. His drumming has been called “literary.” I like this term, for BJ’s work often provides a song with the ebb and flow of a well-constructed narrative. What’s more, in the stories BJ recorded with Procol Harum from 1967 through 1977, his drumming is responsible, in large part, for making the band’s music timeless, as well as magical.
Silvio Sirias is a U.S. Latino writer living in Latin America: check out his novels Bernardo and the Virgin, the award-winning Meet Me under the Ceiba and the essay collection Love Made Visible: Reflections on Writing, Teaching, and Other Distractions
BJ's page at BtP