Entertainer Bobby Brooks Wilson enjoying ride of his life

Tahoe Onstage

Bobby Brooks Wilson is spending the summer at Lake Tahoe as the lead in Solid Gold Soul.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Larry Sabo

As he entered an elevator, Bobby Brooks was thrilled to be headed to a special meeting. He had taken a new career path as an entertainer that led him to Atlantic City for a six-week run of shows. The legendary Four Tops were playing in the same Bally’s casino and had seen Brooks’ show. They were so intrigued they wanted to meet him.

“I came up there all excited saying, ‘I am going to get to meet the Four Tops!’ ” said Brooks, who was unaware of the motive of the two original Four Tops members.

That elevator led to the ride of a lifetime.

Brooks did not intend to become a singer — he planned a career in the Navy. His early childhood was brutal. His mother gave him up as an infant. Suffering from rickets, intestinal problems and breathing issues, he spent most of his first 10 years in and out of hospitals. Health and life improved as a teenager, and Brooks was raised by a terrific foster mother. He enlisted in the Navy. That’s when his birth mother contacted him.

“My mom had a really tough life,” Brooks said. “She had been given up by her mother. She just followed suit. I am just grateful for being put into foster homes. I probably would have died if my mom hadn’t given me up, to be honest. I am thankful it worked out the way it worked out. The woman who raised me was great. My mother, I don’t hold anything against her. She did what she had to do for her life. It was just the way the apple fell.”

Stationed in Hawaii, Special Weapons Petty Officer E-6 Brooks served in the Navy for 10 years and his goal was to remain for another 20 years. Just before shipping out to Rhode Island for officer training, Brooks passed a kidney stone, then another a few weeks later. Doctors called for a medical discharge.

“I was devastated,” Brooks said. “At the time, I was going through a divorce with my first wife. It felt like my whole world fell apart.”

Bureaucracy left Brooks in limbo at Pearl Harbor. He waited a year and a half for the discharge paperwork to clear. He spent Friday nights singing karaoke at the officers’ club. The owner took notice.

“He said, ‘Hey, since you are coming here every week, why don’t I show you how to do this and let me pay you?’ So I made $50 a night hosting karaoke and singing songs I’d never heard of. I didn’t think I had any talent.”

Brooks has an unusual pronunciation for popular singalong activity: “Car-ee-okey.” His evaluation of his talent was different from others, too. He not only has a voice with tremendous range, he has the charisma of a seasoned entertainer. Where did that talent come from?

One night, he was approached by a man named Peter Hernandez Jr., who said, “I have a doo-wop band, the Love Notes, and I’d like you to be in it.”

“No, I just do this for fun,” Brooks replied.

“I know talent when I see it,” Hernandez said. “Perhaps you know of my son, Bruno (Mars), the world’s youngest Elvis impersonator. He’s been in two movies and has been on everything: Arsenio Hall, Jay Leno, David Letterman.”

“Nope, never heard of your son,” Brooks replied.

Brooks was finally discharged but he remained in Hawaii and finally did join the Love Notes, a band he played with until 1993. He was among the more than a dozen backup players to young Bruno, who also portrayed Michael Jackson. Eventually, he was given the chance to come out front and lead.

“I was with the group two weeks when I got my first check and realized this was a job,” Brooks said. “It was three times what I was making in the Navy. I became devoted. I got serious and had to grow out my hair and lose weight.”

He learned guitar, hired a vocals coach and studied music theory.

“People shouted at the stage that I looked like Jackie Wilson,” Brooks said. “That’s when it began.”

Jackie Wilson was a revolutionary R&B and soul singer who had more than 50 hit singles in the 1950s and ‘60s. Anointed “Mr. Entertainment,” Wilson influenced James Brown, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, who

Jackie Wilson in 1961

reportedly once called himself “the white Jackie Wilson.” At the age of 39, Wilson was singing his hit “Lonely Teardrops” when he suffered a massive heart attack. He was in a comatose condition for almost 10 years before dying in 1984. That year, Michael Jackson dedicated his Grammy for the album “Thriller” to Jackie Wilson.

Michael St. John was among the audience members reminded of Jackie Wilson when he saw Brooks onstage.

St. John portrays John Belushi’s character, Joliet Jake, in a Blues Brothers tribute. He was in Hawaii working on a cruise ship. Before seeing a Love Notes show, he’d spent a night listening to Jackie Wilson songs along with fellow musicians. The music was fresh in his mind the next day.

“Dang, he looks like Jackie Wilson,” St. John said.”And every time they did a Jackie Wilson song, somebody else was doing it. After the show I asked him why he wasn’t doing the Jackie Wilson stuff. I said, ‘Dude, you look just like him.’ ”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.”

St. John told Paul Revere, famous for his band Paul Revere and the Raiders, about Brooks. Revere was producing a show, The Legends In Concert, which featured impersonators of artists such as Elvis, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Marilyn Monroe.

After watching Brooks with the Love Notes, Revere repeated the question: “Why are you looking like Jackie Wilson but not doing Jackie Wilson?”

“Well, I’m not an impersonator, I’m an artist,” Brooks said. “And Paul laughed at me. He said, ‘Come over and see my show. I want you to do Jackie Wilson for my show.’ I said again, ‘I am not an impersonator I am an artist. I am looking for a record deal.’ ” Revere laughed again.

Tahoe Onstage

“The third time he came and said, ‘Aren’t you going to come to my show?’ And he dragged me by my ear. I saw the show. I was blown away. I didn’t know they really got into the characters like they did. These guys looked so much like the originals, it blew my socks off.”

Brooks told Revere he was new to the business and that he had no idea how to portray Jackie Wilson. But six months later, he auditioned for the role and was hired to emulate Mr. Entertainment.

“I started developing my Jackie Wilson and it started going over like gangbusters,” he said “The reaction people were giving me was unbelievable. It was getting standing ovations for the first time in my life. I didn’t really understand why because there was no video for me to see what Jackie looked like.”

Brooks and the band members were finally shown an image of Jackie Wilson.

“No one in the group really knew what he looked like,” Brooks said. “When we saw the picture, you should have seen how everybody’s face broke. My hair was the exact same length because I was growing out the pompadour.

“They went, ‘Holy crap!’ When you grow up in a foster home, nobody looked like me, talked or acted like me or sounded like me. I grew up in the foster home my whole life. That’s all I knew, other foster kids. To be 30 years old and for the first time in my life see somebody who looked like me really blew me away. I was flabbergasted. It looked like me with my expression and the same cockiness. It was amazing.”

Because Jackie Wilson had often played in Atlantic City, Revere sent Brooks there for a six-week engagement. He ended up staying two years.

Brooks performed in Bally’s smaller venue when the Four Tops were in the large showroom. That’s when founding members Levi Stubbs and Lawrence Payton summoned him to an upstairs room.

Like Jackie Wilson’s song “Higher and Higher,” Bobby Brooks excitement grew as he rode the elevator to meet the soul-singing heroes. Stubbs and his cousin Jackie Wilson had played together with a group called the Falcons in the early 1950s, before Wilson went solo. Stubbs and Payton, also a cousin of Wilson’s, formed the Four Tops.

Upon meeting Stubbs and Payton, “They asked me, ‘Are you being Bobby right now or are you being Jackie?’ ” Brooks said.

“I said, ‘I’m being Bobby. I wouldn’t know what Jackie would be like off stage.’ And they all laughed. They said, ‘You don’t even know you are being Jackie right now? You’re talking, walking, smiling, laughing Jackie Wilson.’ That’s when Lawrence took me aside and asked if I knew my mother. I said, ‘Yes, I met her when I was in the Navy. He asked her name.”

“He said, ‘I know your mother.’ He went to Levi and said, ‘Guess who his mother is?’ Apparently, (Jackie Wilson) had my mother around all the time when he came to South Carolina and Georgia.”

That’s when Bobby Brooks found out he was Jackie Wilson’s son.

“We knew you were family,” Stubbs said.

Later, Brooks, was introduced to another Jackie Wilson cousin, Roquel “Billy” Davis, who along with Motown founder Berry Gordy wrote dozens for songs for the star.

“Billy was my dad’s first cousin,” said Brooks, who now goes by Bobby Brooks Wilson. “He’s the one who really connected the dots, connected me to the family. (Billy Davis) did the blood work … and I’ve been carrying the torch for Jackie Wilson ever since.”

Tahoe Onstage

Bobby Brooks Wilson is featured in a summerlong residency at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Solid Gold Soul. In that production, he enters the show from the rafters, soaring down onstage as Jackie Wilson, singing “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” a song that was No. 1 for 14 weeks in 1967.

Then he sings “Lonely Teardrops,” before completing eight costume changes and portraying artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder. Along with improvisational humor, he offers history lessons about the R&B greats and their songs. The special weapons officer has transformed to a musicologist, as well as a sensational entertainer.

“This show is to do the music the way it is supposed to be done,” he said. “Play it and present it the way it was presented when it was released. By doing that, it takes people down memory lane. … For the most part, people leave our show feeling excited, healed and happy. That’s my goal.”

As a recording artist, Brooks Wilson has had four hit songs on adult contemporary radio and will release a new one this month.

“Bobby did all the yeoman’s work,” said St. John, the Blues Brother character who saw him in Hawaii. “He worked his rear end off. I am proud of where he’s at now. He’s a character. You see him on that stage doing the stuff he does and, believe me, I’ve seen him do it in the dressing room over the years. He’s just a funny guy. He says things and he’ll pronounce things funny. His takes are funny. He’s just a good guy and I like him. I am really happy for him that all the hard work that he does has paid off.”

When Solid Gold Soul concluded on Sept. 3, Brooks Wilson said he will resume performing as a “weekend warrior” and spending weekdays at his Las Vegas home. That will be followed by more residencies in other towns. For now, staying at Lake Tahoe for a summer is “dream job,” he said.

“I’m from Las Vegas and the desert, so it’s nice to have the beautiful water and mountains. I’ve been bike riding and doing it all since I’ve been here.

“As far as Jackie Wilson was concerned, I don’t think he ever knew my mom was pregnant or had a baby. From what I understand he had a lot of kids. I’ve met a lot of people since this journey began. I’ve had people come out of the woodwork and say, ‘Hey, I’m your cousin.’ I keep it moving. My dad had a lot of kids.

“But as far as I’m concerned, he was the king. He had a king’s life but he also had a tough life. He had to deal with prejudice, with record labels manipulating him. He had a lot to deal with. He had a tough life even though he probably had an enjoyable life. Now I spend my time doing the music and carrying his flag, keeping his music alive, trying to represent him the best way that I can.”

 — Tim Parsons

— Solid Gold Soul is presented at 8 p.m. Thursday through Monday in the South Shore Room at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. TICKETS Hosted by Bobby Brooks Wilson, the son of the great Jackie Wilson, the revue is a celebration of soul, R&B, doo wop and funk presented by a variety of soulful singers, virtuosic musicians and graceful dancers. Hear the music of Jackie Wilson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summers, Sly & The Family Stone and much more. Wilson shares stories and inside anecdotes about the nation’s greatest music.

Related story: Solid Gold Soul more than a trip down memory lane.

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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