Wilson was born in Austin, Texas, on November 24, 1912. He studied piano and violin at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. After working in Speed Webb's band, with Louis Armstrong, and also understudying Earl Hines in Hines's Grand Terrace Cafe Orchestra, Wilson joined Benny Carter's Chocolate Dandies in 1933. In 1935, he joined the Benny Goodman Trio (which consisted of Goodman, Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa, later expanded to the Benny Goodman Quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton). The trio performed during the big band's intermissions. By joining the trio, Wilson became one of the first black musicians to perform prominently in a racially integrated group.
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