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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

A funky tribute to the "Outstanding" Ronnie Wilson

His accomplishments are visible throughout one of the Gap Band's signature and most evergreen songs.


Ronnie Wilson, the oldest of the trio of brothers that made up the Gap Band, died yesterday at age 73.


Ronnie was the kind of musician I would have loved to know. He did anything and everything, from writing and producing to playing the flugelhorn and keyboards. He may not have been the one to grab the spotlight, but he was as much a creative force behind and for the band as the other brothers were. All the same, Ronnie didn't also let the Gap Band entirely define him — in his later life, he rededicated himself to his faith in his later life after a coming-to in a bout of addiction and joined a church's music ministry.


In celebrating his life today, though, I will take a look back into his Gap Band output. Throughout their career, the Gap Band — who named themselves after three streets in their native Tulsa (Greenwood, Archer, and Pine) which were bombed in the 1921 race massacre — were central figures in funk and soul, from the late 70s all the way to the turn of the millennium. Many of their hits showcased Ronnie's talents, and in listening to some of them today I gravitated toward their 1982 track "Outstanding," a calmer jam with plenty of Ronnie's work on keyboards and flugelhorn.

Yes, that's the longer 12" mix, but that should always be the go-to choice if available. Radio edits are great for... well, the radio — commercial settings require assuming a shorter attention span. For the home listener, though, original and extended mixes are always optimal, because they present the track as it was conceptualized and recorded, without any corners cut for time. In the case of "Outstanding," the longer mix allows you to hear how the track builds from its introduction and through the first verse, rather than jumping right in with the chorus. Without the intro on the 12" version, I don't think I would've appreciated the role of the congas anywhere nearly as much as I do now. They're the first instrument to break up the straight backbeat, and they also establish the sixteenth-note swing that helps drive the groove. In addition, being higher-pitched drums mean that they stand out more in a busier context, keeping their prominence throughout the track.


Ronnie's work really begins to take shape when the keys enter. In a more laidback groove, the piano synth is the way to go, and Ronnie utilizes it in full, playing chords in his right hand while doubling the electric bass' line in the left. While the chords ring out and slowly decay, the scalar bass line is crisp but also warm. Said warmth is also present through the plaintive horn sound that plays behind much of the track. To my ear it sounds like a synthesized trumpet or flugelhorn, but I may very well be wrong. Regardless, the tone and the choice of instruments which may sound it lends the line to be another work of Ronnie's, one which provides fullness to the track while also helping sonically separate its different sections.


The aforementioned warmth is appropriate for a song which fully praises the narrator's love interest — particularly her beauty, but also holistically. The subject is "outstanding" for the way she makes the narrator feel around her: complete, "satisfied," and wishing he "could love [her] right / In a special way." Quite the muse indeed. In echoing this inspiration, Charlie Wilson's vocals keep an air of softness around its edges even in its most intense moments, particularly in the breaks in the second half of the song.


The breaks are also sections lost in the radio edit, and that's especially sad for how they serve both to disrupt the form and to let the band truly work their craft. Sure, the radio edit may be considered more succinct, but it also makes major sacrifices for the sake of a more standardized form to market to the masses. The Gap Band achieved widespread popular success, but not by strictly conforming to pop standards. More abridged productions don't display their full musical voice, and it's a shame that the shorter versions ended up being the album cuts for the sake of marketability. Hopefully hearing the extended take allows you to value the group's artistry far more than before.

 

"Outstanding" isn't a song that touches on the subject of mortality in any way, but it's hard for me to not think about the track in such a manner considering the reason behind my writing this post. My conclusions lead me to thinking of the saying that someone still lives in a sense as long as they continue to be remembered. Similarly, while Ronnie Wilson may be gone, his musical output certainly lives on in multiple ways. "Outstanding" itself continues to be a revered Gap Band production, and part of their most commercially successful era. Furthermore, it's a track which has frequently been sampled and interpolated, by a kaleidoscope of artists ranging from Blackstreet ("U Blow My Mind") to Tyler, the Creator ("911 / Mr. Lonely") to Ice Cube ("True to the Game"). As much as playing the original track can be a sign of respect to those who came before, adapting it through sampling may be even more of an appraisal; it demonstrates reverence for the production's craft through serving as inspiration.


I like to think that through sampling, and through people learning about samples, the legacy of the sampled artists becomes even greater as their influence spreads. If so, then Ronnie Wilson's legacy will not only live on, but become even more vibrant in the coming years through the continued spread of his majestic musicianship. Rest easy, Ronnie.

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