Had all gone according to plan, I would have spent today interviewing saxophonist Ed Wiley Jr. for a profile scheduled to run in the Oct. 10 Sunday paper. But that story was, alas, overtaken by events. Instead, I had to write an obituary, which will appear in Wednesday's paper. Here it is...
Ed Wiley Jr., a saxophonist who was a key player in the early history of rock 'n' roll, passed away Monday night in Garner. He was 80 years old and died after falling Sunday, striking his head and slipping into a coma.
Wiley moved to Garner in February to be with his son, Ed Wiley III, after living in Philadelphia for many years. He had begun performing around the Triangle recently, including a regular monthly gig at The Mint restaurant in downtown Raleigh.
"There were a lot of good things happening," his son said Tuesday. "He was just very happy. We'd been urging him to move down, away from the ice and traffic. He'd had some health problems associated with being so heavy. But we changed his diet and he'd lost 80 pounds since February. He was doing great."
The elder Wiley's musical history stretches back more than 60 years, to the dawn of the rock era. A native of Houston, he was a contemporary of King Curtis, Illinois Jacquet and other blues musicians who helped r&b and blues evolve into rock 'n' roll.
Wiley had hits of his own, most notably "Cry Baby Cry" (a No. 3 hit in 1950). He also played with everybody from jazz-blues guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown to r&b singer Teddy Pendergrass over the years, remaining much in demand.
"His tenor-sax voice was very distinctive," said Mike Gillispie, a photographer and flutist from the Washington, D.C., area who often played with Wiley. "You could hear it on the jump blues he was recording 60 years ago, and just last week when he was gigging around down there."
For many years, music had to take a backseat to family responsibilities as Wiley worked as a machinist and raised six children. But as his children grew to adulthood, Wiley began to refocus on music again.
In later years, Wiley was playing more jazz and gospel. A 1995 album, "In Remembrance," featured musicians from Dizzy Gillesipe, Wynton Marsalis and Cab Calloway's bands. It drew widespread acclaim, including a write-up in USA Today that called Wiley "jazz's comeback kid."
Up to the very end, Wiley's sound on his instrument remained distinctive and instantly recognizable. Michael Peay, another musician and longtime friend, remembered the last jam session they had as a stellar musical event.
"He was one of the last of his genre of pure, strong-voice sax players with a sound so bluesy, yet soulful," Peay said. "He could interpret the feeling of a tune, the soul and the nucleus of what it was trying to say, with such feeling. Each song was a blank palette, and his duty was to fill that in with some of the most thoughtful, soulful, aesthetic beauty you could imagine."
Funeral services are set for 11 a.m. Friday at Poplar Springs Christian Church in Garner. Burial will follow immediately after.