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Exploring the legacy of Chris Wilson

Rugged and calculated breathing produces a deep pulsation through a harmonica, riling up an expectant crowd. Intoxicating, deep vocalisations follow, the alternation between the mouth organ and a naturally boisterous tone simply sublime. 

Chris Wilson is on stage at Broadbeach Sofitel in 2005, and this enigmatic performance is being witnessed as a YouTube keepsake. It’s just one of many hundreds of tribute videos of similar performances to surface since the passing of the legendary Australian blues singer last week, aged 62, from pancreatic cancer.

Videos like this are joining the countless pre-existing glimpses into the talent and impressions made by a much-beloved Melbourne icon. Comments and tributes pour in beneath these online videos, many saying “I was there – I still am”, while tributes and recollections of Wilson’s shows plaster the walls of his social media accounts. 

Many, in recalling the memory of witnessing Wilson at one point or another across his 40-year career, are swept away to a shared moment where the songwriter’s idyllic and unique interpretations of the blues touched and inspired the hearts and lives of so many.

Best known as the frontman of Crown of Thorns and largely regarded as “the gentleman of Australian blues”, Wilson occasionally stepped off that path and onto the roads of other genres across his tenure, like country, rock and folk. 

In a career spanning four decades, the singer shared the stage with some of the greatest names in music, like Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello. With six solo studio albums under his belt, most recently Chris Wilson in 2018 and his 1994 release Live At The Continental being one of the most revered albums ever released in this country, Wilson’s catalogue of work received as much critical acclaim as his live renditions.

Wilson’s name is synonymous with a particular branch of the Melbourne music scene, but music wasn’t how Wilson began. He studied to be a teacher, a path he wandered later in life teaching English in high schools across the city, but discovered his passion for music when he joined the Sole Twisters in the mid-‘80s. After this, Wilson got his first big taste of blues rock when he was recruited into Harem Scarem. 

This was his first major band and it was only onward and upward from there – he would feature on albums from Hunters and Collectors, Merril Bainbridge and X, then he’d join ties with one of Australia’s greatest – the singer, songwriter, guitarist, saxophonist and harmonica player performing with Paul Kelly.

Yet it was with his own band, Crown of Thorns, that Wilson whittled out a distinctive groove and received recognition for his wonderfully distinctive voice and charismatic song stylings.

Studio albums came in the form of Carnival in 1989 with Barry Palmer and Chris Rodgers at his side, while Babylon arrived in 1990 with Ashley Davies [White Cross] joining the three on drums.

When his cancer diagnosis was made public in July of last year, a benefit concert took place at The Corner Hotel, raising thousands of dollars to aid in the singer’s treatment costs. Similarly, a GoFundMe campaign raised $100,000 in two days. 

A seminal and cherished career if ever there was one, but a seminal and cherished man first and foremost.

Cherry Bar owner James Young, who gave Wilson weekly live sessions for a period of three years, told the Sydney Morning Herald that “his contribution to the local musical landscape was immeasurable.”

“Chris Wilson was so polite, friendly and sweet … a storyteller with a voice like a velvet hammer. Chris’ passing has broken Melbourne’s heart because he touched so many people over so many years in so many ways.”

Blues Train founder Hugo T Armstrong who formed a strong bond with Wilson while working with him “on so many different music festivals” told the Herald Sun that Wilson was selfless and always gave his attention to others before himself.

“He was always there for everyone in the music industry and he was a believer in the underdog, he performed at so many charity events,” Armstrong said. “He was an avid music listener and an avid reader. He was the most humble and private man I’ve ever met.”

Chris Wilson was a man who could bend the seven notes of the scale to produce tales and vocalisations of heartbreak and sorrow, elation and excitement, and generate in those who witnessed his sublime talent, a sense of wonderment, excitement, and sheer disbelief. Chris Wilson was a talented man, there’s no doubt about that, but he was also a humble man.

Wilson could holler and howl; he would recite poetry through every syllable he sang; he could be jaw-droppingly staggering, Chris Wilson was unique, brilliant, and will be sorely missed.