Born in 1957 in Athens, Georgia, Cindy Wilson is a vocalist and founding member of the new wave rock group the B-52s, known for their beehive hairdos and dance sound. The B-52s scored hits like "Loveshack" throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and continues to perform today. Wilson's brother Ricky, a fellow founding B-52, died of AIDS in 1985.
Making Music in Athens
Cindy Wilson was born on February 28, 1957, in Athens, Georgia. Wilson and her brother Ricky, four years her elder, were raised by their father, a fireman, and their stepmother, a factory worker. As a child, Wilson was obsessed with music. She especially enjoyed the work of Petula Clark, Nancy Sinatra, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Later, when she reached her teenage years, her tastes turned to Alice Cooper and the Beatles. "I had eclectic tastes," Wilson later recalled. "I still do. I embrace it all." During her high school years, Wilson began singing and displayed incredible natural talent as a vocalist. Her brother Ricky was a virtuoso guitarist, and the two played together frequently during their high school years, often including Ricky's friend Keith Strickland, a drummer, in their jam sessions.
After graduating from high school in 1975, Wilson moved in with her brother, and the two continued to play music with Strickland and two other young aspiring musicians who had recently arrived (separately) in Athens from New Jersey—Kate Pierson, a singer, and Fred Schneider, a keyboardist. In order to help fund their sessions, Cindy Wilson took a job as a lunch waitress at a local restaurant called Kress. "I had to get a job because it was my job to buy a microphone," she recalled. Still, all the fledgling band's members remained incredibly poor. "We couldn't afford to drink except on quarter nights," Wilson remembered. "I was a waitress, and you had to pay the rent."
Birth of B-52's
Despite the presence of the University of Georgia, at this time of the mid-1970s Athens bore little resemblance to the cultural hub it has since become. "Athens was so boring," Schneider lamented. "At the time, it wasn't the music Mecca it is today… Back then, it was one band on the weekend, and it was usually a fraternity band." To fill this musical and cultural void, the five young musicians (Cindy and Ricky Wilson, Strickland, Schneider, and Pierson) decided to form a real band. According to their website, the B-52's officially became a band "on an October night in 1976, following drinks at an Athens Chinese restaurant." As Strickland recalled, "We all pitched in for this giant rum drink at a Chinese restaurant. It had a Sterno can burning under it." Wilson added: "I think of it as the Night of the Flaming Volcano. It was all very ceremonial. Then we went and played."
Naming themselves the B-52's after a Southern slang term for the wild bouffant hairdos sported by Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, the band gave their debut performance at a Valentine's Day party in 1977. "There were only 17 people," Schneider remembered. "We made 17 bucks." Throughout the late 1970s, the B-52's took regular weekend road trips to play such venues as Max's in Kansas City and CBGB in New York City. Sporting go-go boots, elaborate 1950s-style hairdos and outlandish outfits, The B-52's gradually built up a nationwide grassroots following with their upbeat punk sound and their quirky, energetic dancing.
In 1979, the band signed with Warner Bros. Records and released their self-titled debut album, which sold 500,000 copies due to the party rock hits "Rock Lobster" and "52 Girls." Their 1980 follow-up, Wild Planet, was another commercial success and critical darling, spawning hit singles such as "Private Idaho," Give Me Back My Man" and "Strobe Light." Two further hit albums, Mesopotamia (1982) and Whammy! (1983), established The B-52's as one of the favorite bands of the early MTV era.
Just when they appeared to be reaching the apex of their success, Wilson and the B-52's suffered a devastating loss when Ricky Wilson died of AIDS in 1985. "He really had a vision," Wilson said of her older brother. "He was one of the strongest elements of the B-52's from the beginning." Persevering in the aftermath of Ricky 's loss, in 1986 the B-52's released the album they had recorded shortly before his death, Bouncing Off the Satellites, which scored hits with the songs "Summer of Love" and "Wig."
35 Years Later and Counting
After taking several years off, in 1989 The B-52's reemerged as a quartet to release their fifth studio album, Cosmic Thing. Featuring such instant classics as "Love Shack," "Roam" and "Deadbeat Club," Cosmic Thing elevated the B-52's to new heights of national and international stardom. The album remains their most commercially successful record to date, with "Love Shack" especially having gained timeless hit status.
After Cosmic Thing, Cindy Wilson decided she needed to take a break from music and split from her band mates, leaving the B-52's on good terms. "I'd been a B-52 for a long time, and it just felt like time for a change," she explained. Wilson had married an advertising executive named Keith Bennett in 1985, and during her time off from the band she gave birth to the couple's two children. A recharged Wilson rejoined The B-52's in 1998; after a decade of touring and the release of two anthologies, the band released Funplex, its first album of new music in 16 years, in 2008.
Almost four decades after they declared themselves a band at a Chinese restaurant in Georgia, Cindy Wilson and the B-52's are still going strong. Once a revolutionary young band whose retro image and energetic party songs helped usher in rock 'n' roll's new wave era, they now stand among the elder statesman of rock and roll, their music enduring to speak to a new generation of young people.
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