Robert Wilson has served his time – both in the military and in jail. Now, his service is to God.
A night-shift janitor in Lee Hills Hall at MU, Wilson recently released his first single as a gospel singer.
The title of the single, “He Turned Me Around,” captures the story of Wilson’s life.
“That title came from the things I used to do,” he said. “Living my life not according to what Christ wanted me to do. Doing drugs, doing alcohol, ending up in jail – things like that.”
Wilson grew up in Wardell, a town three hours south of St. Louis that he describes as “so small it’s not even on the map.” The town now goes by the name of Homestown City.
After graduating from high school, Wilson had the opportunity to work on his family’s farm, but he had bigger plans. When he was 18, he moved to Chicago with his brother.
“My mother didn’t want me to go, but I was ready," Wilson said. "She sent me out in the world and said, ‘No matter what you do, keep Jesus first.' Well, I kind of put him on the back burner for a second and did my thing.”
“Doing his thing” meant staying in Chicago for 11 years. He left the city with “battle scars” – one time, he was shot.
“I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
He also went to jail for drug charges. When that happened, “the fog cleared,” and he realized it was time to go back to his religious roots.
“I ain’t come from a family like that,” he said. “Growing up there were two things preached in my home: Christ and discipline.”
While in Chicago, he joined the Army. That was during the Vietnam War. “I had to go," he said. "I wanted to see it, and oh boy, I just hate I did."
Adjusting to military life was difficult for Wilson because of his own “hard-headedness.” He said he was always in trouble with his superiors, even losing rank several times before he “straightened up.”
“I finally said, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, you’ve got to join ‘em,’” he said. “And that is one place you can’t beat ‘em, because Uncle Sam don’t play that game – he’ll kick you to the curb and make you miserable.”
After 12 years in the military, Wilson retired as a staff sergeant.
He moved to Columbia to reunite with Tanisha Wilson, his daughter from his first marriage.
Tanisha Wilson said though she and her dad were separated for a long time, he is now a huge part of her life – and the life of her children. She said the family fully supports his musical endeavors, especially the message his music conveys.
“The songs are saying you can do anything, you can be who you want to be and do what you want to do if put your heart and mind into it and pray about it,” she said. “Obstacles come in your life here and there, but if you just continue to believe, you can achieve anything.”
Robert Wilson writes the lyrics to his songs, and his longtime friend and keyboardist Bill Thompson adds the melody. Thompson said that both lyrically and technically, Wilson is a great artist.
“Robert is a dynamic singer," he said. "He has a nice baritone voice, an extended range and a passion for his music. A lot of his musical emotion comes from his personal experiences of being given the opportunity to renew his life.”
Wilson said his mother held strong Christian beliefs of the “spare the rod and spoil the child” variety. Those moral lessons stuck with him even as he strayed from religion, and they ultimately brought him back to his faith.
“When your mother done whoop your behind every time you do something wrong, you feel like she’s always there,” he said. “I felt like my mother was behind me with that switch yelling, ‘Boy, you better not do that!’ And I didn’t want to disappoint her.”
Although his mother died before Wilson got his life back on track, his daughter now says he’s an inspiration – not just in his music, but in his life.
“He has taught me that you’re never too old to get what you want out of life and pursue your dreams,” Tanisha Wilson said. “He’s had a rough life, and I have, too, but I’m very proud of my dad because all the things he has overcome to be the person he is today.”
Robert said he’s glad his journey led him back to family and faith.
“I describe my life as this: I came to a fork in the road,” he said. “You’ve got right, left, or you can go back where you came from. I didn’t want to go back where I came from then, so I took the scenic route in life. But I came back to God.”
Kari Paul is a journalism student at MU. She is currently a reporter for the Columbia Missourian, but she wrote this story for a class during the summer, and ColumbiaFAVS picked it up.