Remembering Country Music Hitmaker Norro Wilson

Jun 9, 2017
Originally published on June 12, 2017 2:48 pm

Country music lost one of its most well-known collaborators yesterday. Norris Wilson — whom most just called "Norro" — was a singer, songwriter and producer capable of taking on pretty much any job in the Nashville music scene that needed doing. He died Thursday at age 79.

Sometimes, when you're writing a song, all you really need is a solid lick, or guitar phrase. That's what happened in the first hit song that Wilson co-wrote — "Baby Baby," performed by David Houston in 1969.

"I had this little guitar lick, and it felt good, and we got together and cranked that song up. And hey, it worked," Wilson told the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, for a series focused on major contributors to country music they called "Poets And Prophets."

And if Wilson sounds like he's underselling the difficulty of songwriting in that quote — well, he's humble like that throughout the whole interview, always making sure to give props where props are due.

Wilson was a consummate collaborator — he could work on his own, he simply preferred not to. "I always really, really enjoyed co-writing," he said in the Country Music Hall of Fame interview. "I think I had enough talent to write by myself. I did write a couple of things by myself. I just didn't love doing that, and consequently you try other things."

Norro Wilson was born on April 4, 1938, in Kentucky. His dad was a barber; his mom was a factory worker. He tried a bunch of different things growing up, like playing piano as a kid and singing in a barbershop quartet in high school. In college, he joined a gospel singing group, which influenced his later songwriting.

"I never got tired of singing gospel," Wilson said. "That was just very special, especially as a group. And so harmonies always had a lot to do with my music world."

Some of Wilson's hit singles include Tammy Wynette's "He Loves Me All The Way" and George Jones' "A Picture Of Me (Without You)." In 1975, he won a Grammy for Charlie Rich's "A Very Special Love Song." While the late '60s to mid-'70s were probably Norro Wilson's most fertile period, he was also prolific into the 2000s, working with artists like Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain and Reba McEntire.

And this is just stuff Wilson did that you can hear on the radio. He was also a talent scout, a song plugger, a mentor — an overall steward of country music.

"Norro Wilson was one of the great music men, not just of our time, but all time," Chesney told The Tennessean yesterday. "He taught me so much about soul, and songs, and what it means to touch someone's life with music."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Country music has lost one of its best-known collaborators, Norris - better known as Norro - Wilson. He was a singer, songwriter, producer. He did pretty much any job in the Nashville music scene that needed to be done. Norro Wilson died yesterday at age 79, and NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID HOUSTON SONG, "BABY, BABY - I KNOW YOU'RE A LADY")

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Sometimes when you're writing a song, all you really need is one little phrase, which is what Norro Wilson had for his first hit, David Houston's "Baby, Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORRO WILSON: I had this little guitar lick. It felt good. And we got together and cranked that little song up. And, hey, it worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY, BABY - I KNOW YOU'RE A LADY")

DAVID HOUSTON: (Singing) Hold your lovin' body close to mine.

LIMBONG: In 2011, the Country Music Hall of Fame honored and interviewed Norro Wilson. And if it sounds like he's underselling the difficulty of songwriting there a bit, well, he's modest like that throughout the whole interview, always making sure to give props where props are due.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILSON: I always really, really enjoyed co-writing. I think I had enough talent to write by myself. I did write a couple things by myself. I actually wrote one song called "July 12, 1939" that Charlie Rich put in an album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JULY 12, 1939")

CHARLIE RICH: (Singing) July the 12th sure was a scorcher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILSON: I just - I didn't love doing that. And consequently, you try other things.

LIMBONG: Norro Wilson was born in 1938 in Kentucky. His dad was a barber, his mom a factory worker. And he tried a bunch of different things growing up. He played piano as a kid. He sang in a barbershop quartet. In college, he joined a gospel singing group which influenced his later songwriting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILSON: I never got enough of singing gospel music. That was just something very, very special, if you ever do it, you know, especially a group. And so harmony's always had a lot to do with my music world.

LIMBONG: Which you can hear in his Grammy-winning single, Charlie Rich's "A Very Special Love Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A VERY SPECIAL LOVE SONG")

RICH: (Singing) Especially for you. And all the words are true - a very special love song.

LIMBONG: Some of his other hits include George Jones' "A Picture Of Me Without You" and Tammy Wynette's "He Loves Me All The Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE LOVES ME ALL THE WAY")

TAMMY WYNETTE: (Singing) But when he loves me, he really loves me. There's nothing left for me to say.

LIMBONG: While the late-'60s and mid-'70s were Norro Wilson's most fertile period, he was prolific into the 2000s. He produced Shania Twain's debut album and worked with Kenny Chesney and Reba McEntire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE ALWAYS THERE FOR ME")

REBA MCENTIRE: (Singing) Like an oak in the wind, like an old familiar friend.

LIMBONG: And this is just the stuff he did that you can hear on the radio. He was also a talent scout, a song plugger, a mentor, an overall steward of country music. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE ALWAYS THERE FOR ME")

MCENTIRE: (Singing) Darling, you are always... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.