Rudi Wilburn has been a professional entertainer for 40 years. Currently living in St. Julien En Genevois, a French suburb of Geneva, Switzerland, Wilburn tours Europe with two of his sons, performing songs by artists from Sinatra to Seal and Redding to Richie, as well as originally composed pieces.
Rewinding to 63 years ago, Wilburn was born and raised in Brownwood, Texas. Singing became his passion, at a very early age. By 13, he was singing lead in the youth choir at Little Zion Baptist Church. At 14, he received his first outside acknowledgement of his talents.
“We were at a sock-hop at Adams Street Community Center, with a band from Houston playing,” Wilburn said, “I asked if I could sing a song with them and they let me. I sang Shotgun by Jr. Walker and the Allstars. When I finished, the lead singer told me, ‘You’re going to be a great singer. Just don’t stop.”
Wilburn didn’t stop, but he did hit pause for a few years, along the way. He lost his mother at age 15 and, he readily admits, lost his way for a while.
“I turned into the worst kid in Brownwood,” he said, “I was going to end up getting in trouble with the law.”
Even through that struggle, Wilburn retained his love for music. Although he doesn’t recall if it was 1965 or 1966, at age 15, Wilburn worked alongside Dave Fair at KEAN radio station, as a DJ.
“I was Doc Soul, on the radio,” Wilburn said, “and Dave was Mr. Rock.”
In high school, Wilburn played the bass drum in the marching band, continued to sing in the choir, and won trophies at all of the talent contests he was able to enter, with his voice. He also performed in a band with his schoolmate, Van Wilks, a guitarist and song writer now based in Austin who is an inductee into the Texas Music Hall of Fame.
His troubled youth resulted in his dropping out of high school at 16. Seeing the writing on the wall, Wilburn joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968, at age 17, and very soon found himself in Vietnam. When he enlisted, the Marines offered an early out, to those who agreed to serve an uninterrupted 18-month tour. He did. Ten of them in Vietnam.
After a brief stop in Okinawa, Japan, Wilburn returned to Brownwood for about six months, pondering what to do next.
“I told myself, I want to be a singer. I am a singer. Where do I have to go to do that?”
While the music scene has now spread around the country, at the time there was only one place.
“My grandmother gave me a hundred dollars and I had a couple of hundred in my pocket,” Wilburn said, “So, I went to Los Angeles, because that’s where the music was.”
Wilburn booked himself into a hotel, for five days, while he began searching for a job. The day before he had to leave the hotel, Wilburn met two girls who picked him up while hitchhiking. One of them told him her boyfriend was from Mississippi and “He’ll like you.”
Wilburn said, “The next day I met him and he said he was going to help me. They let me stay with them and he found me a job in a hospital, washing the walls in the surgery room. That happened the last day that I had a room at the hotel.”
While in L.A. and working at the hospital, Wilburn began going to clubs to watch famous bands perform, learning from them and gaining inspiration as he went. He finally joined a band in Sacramento and sang six days a week, for the next three years.
Wilburn made a move to San Francisco, seeking the fame and fortunes of a music career, and began working as a chauffeur for a large law firm and sang at night. He soon joined the established and locally popular band, Pride and Joy; a move that led him to meet his future wife.
In 1985, after ten years in San Francisco, Wilburn met the famous music producer, Narada Michael Walden, who would become his mentor. Through Walden, he met many famous artists, including Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Steve Winwood, John McGlauphin, Carlos Santana, Warren G., Herbie Hancock, The Doobie Brothers, Anita Baker, Journey, Angela Bofill, Tower of Power, Kool and the Gang, Pia Zadora, and others. From them, he learned the rules of the music industry.
Wilburn and his wife, who is French, had three sons, Ellington, Madisson, and Cassidy. In 1996, when the oldest was seven, they decided to move to the South of France, to raise their children. There, he met Princess Stephanie of Monaco, the daughter of Prince Ranier III and his wife, American actress Grace Kelly. The Princess and her husband helped him with securing a commitment to perform at a famous nightclub in Monaco, where a year later, he had become a star on the music scenes, as well as all along the French Riviera.
Ultimately, the family moved to their current home in St. Julien En Genevois. Wilburn continues to perform, but now shares the stage with Ellington, 25, and Madisson, 23.
Ellington began performing with his father. A quote from his bio reads, “I just love the feeling of seeing people love and enjoy the music we do.” Expanding his musical talents, Ellington also writes, composes, and mixes. In 2011, he formed his own group, 5 STARS HOODZ, with whom he raps.
Madisson made it a trio, when he joined his father and brother in 2007. He’s since also joined Ellington’s group, where he has continued to develop his talents as a writer and vocalist.
The eldest Wilburn has written a book, Crooning My Way, which chronicles his life to 1996, and is writing the second, picking up where the first left off. He returned to Brownwood, in 2013, to performed at the Juneteenth celebration and while here, connected with old friends and visited cousins who still live here.
Where does Wilburn’s career lead to next?
“In about ten years, I want to come back to Brownwood and buy a place on the lake,” he said, “I’d like to live there about six months out of the year.”
Another goal of Wilburn’s is to start a production company, to develop new artists. He hinted at doing so in Brownwood, with the right backing from investors.
Wilburn was asked what advice he gives young musicians, “It is so easy to dream and dreaming is very healthy if they are positive thoughts. As we all know the hard part is to make the dream come true. Reality is, my dream would never have manifested if I had not left home. Ask yourself do you want to be a star or do you want to play banjo on the front porch, it’s your choice but whatever it is be the best. Remember, I love my hometown but it only got me in trouble with the law. So hearing songs like California Girls and If You Go to San Francisco started my dreams and my quest for life. I knew at an early age that I would be a singer, but I learned to become a great singer in time. Now, after 40 years of being in business and working with my children I am living my dream. It’s about what you are doing for your career now that will make you look back in a few years to check your progress. Dreams do come true, if you make them come true.
Follow The Wilburns’ musical successes at the-wilburns.com, where you will find audio recordings and a link to their Youtube channel. Rudi’s book is available on Amazon.com.