“I LIVE ON TYBEE now,” Eddie Wilson says, “and my Tybee community knows that they’re going to have to take me out of there in a box.”
It only took a few years to turn Wilson, a native of the Great American Midwest, into a do–or–die Southerner. A professional musician and composer who’s written for the Pope and run the touring band for Tony Orlando, Wilson – who moved here with wife Christy in 2003 – has experienced enough of the Big Time, thank you very much.
For him, it’s all about community now. Wilson takes enormous pride in the musical work he does for Savannah’s annual Picnic in the Park, in which somewhere around 20,000 people converge on Forsyth to lay out elaborately–themed picnics, competing for prizes.
Of course, some just bring a blanket and a couple of sandwiches.
Still others attend Picnic in the Park to listen to the Strings of the South, Eddie Wilson’s hand–picked band. There are 10 string players, a harp, three keyboards (one played by Wilson himself) and, in accordance with the 2011 theme (“Rock and Run”), electric guitar, bass and drums.
Wilson, an acclaimed jazz pianist and singer who composed corporate and commercial jingles “in an earlier life,” has written a song especially for the event, “Savannah Takes Her Own Sweet Time.”
The rest of this Sunday’s program consists of his arrangements of well–known pop, rock, Broadway and rhythm ‘n’ blues tunes – with everything connected in some way to the theme, which is itself a nod to the upcoming Rock ‘n Roll Marathon.
“I was looking for the precise theme, Rock and Run, mixed with the legacy of Picnic in the Park,” Wilson explains. “And all the songs that I’ve picked, I’ve tried to honor orchestral tradition, but also pick rockin’ songs.
“Towards the end of the program, I’m really focused on songs that people are running to, the songs people are training to. That’s why you’ll hear ‘Edge of Glory’ from Lady Gaga. Runners love this song, because the pace is right for running, and it’s on everybody’s iPod that’s doing long runs.”
Violins and cellos covering Lady Gaga (and Bruce Springsteen, and Coldplay)? Wilson’s got you covered — remember, there’s a full rock band in there with the strings – and the vocalists also cover a wide ground of shapes, styles and attitudes.
Among the singers: Jazz chanteuse Louise Spencer (a regular at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head), Savannah Theatre tenor F. Michael Zaller, R&B balladeer William Kirkland, country singer Bobby Ryder and actor/singer Christopher Blair, known for his performances in the Savannah productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Rocky Horror Show.
Professional trainer Jane Ogle, who’s working with several runners in preparation for the Nov. 5 marathon, will also sing.
It’s an almost entirely different crop of featured players from the 2010 Picnic.
“I contacted everybody who did it last year and I asked them if it would be OK if new people came in,” explains Wilson. “Because the more of these I do for the City, I think the best thing that I can do is give great talent that hasn’t been heard by everybody, a chance to be heard.”
Wilson, who also directs the music for the City of Savannah’s annual Johnny Mercer tribute, says singing and playing in front of 20,000 people – and making it work – takes a special quality.
“The players have to be real good, because everything they play is really loud,” he says. “And the bad notes – if there are any – are just as loud as the good ones!
“As an entertainer, it becomes more important to be honest with yourself, and who you are. Because the truth is that when the audience is that size, there are fewer distractions for the audience. If you’re a member of that audience, it’s like being on an ocean all by yourself. And the stage becomes the setting sun. You’re just sitting there staring at it.
“The performers on that stage are very small. But you can tell if it’s honest, if it’s real. And that’s what I’m always shooting for when I get the people that I get. If I have an entertainer that’s awesome and true to themselves, then performing in front of 20,000 people is the easiest thing in the world.”
Although he “grew up on heavy metal and blues,” Wilson feels most at home writing arrangements for strings and keyboards.
“I really do want to serve the orchestral legacy of Picnic in the Park,” he stresses. “I don’t want to turn it into a rock show. That’s never been my intention. My honest hope is that this will be one rock ‘n’ roll show in a long line of orchestral shows for Picnic in the Park.”
Picnic in the Park
Where: Forsyth Park, Drayton Street and Park Ave.
When: Sunday, Oct. 2
3–5 p.m.: Healthy Savannah Picnic contest registration
5 p.m.: Picnic contest judging
6:15 p.m.: Esther F. Garrison School of Visual & Performing Arts,
Middle School Choir
7:15 p.m.: Strings of the South