Gabi Wilson was 10 when she nailed the national anthem at a Los Angeles Lakers-Golden State Warriors game in Oakland.
Very impressed, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant walked over to the Vallejo kid and shook her hand.
“He congratulated me, saying how talented I was,” Gabi recalled.
The praise — and talent — didn’t stop there. Or, actually, start there. Gabi was 8 when she was performing around the area. And the predictions began.
“She’s going to be a star.” “She’s the next Alicia Keys.” “She could be Beyoncé.”
It never got into Gabi’s head. Not then. Not now.
“I guess it’s because I’ve heard it since I was very young,” Gabi said. “It doesn’t affect me. I’m always critical of myself and pushing myself to be better. I’m always humbling myself, and my parents are humbling me.”
Five months into her 17th year, this gifted daughter of Agnes and Kenny Wilson is primed for the Big Time.
Under contract with Sony/RCA since the age of 14, Gabi’s debut and as-yet-unnamed CD is close to completion. And, with 60 original songs already in the can, the future appears blindingly bright.
Johnny Colla, founding member and sax-player of Huey Lewis & The News, witnessed the talent when a then 14-year-old Gabi took the stage with Huey at the Sonoma County Fair.
“I can see a ‘deer in the headlights’ a mile away, and Gabi doesn’t have it,” Colla said. “She’s mature beyond her years.”
The young Wilson not only sings, she plays five instruments — guitar, piano, bass, drums, and, recently added to the repertoire, ukulele.
Jeff Robinson, founder of Gabi’s management company, MBK Entertainment, practically drooled in the press release that announced her signing, believing Wilson is “an absolute all-around and most talented young artist. I look forward to helping her build a legendary career. Gabi isn’t just talented, she is the next superstar on the rise.”
Wilson’s credits are eye-popping:
- Appearance at the Apollo Theatre in New York City at age 9
- Showcase performance for RCA in New York City, with her face on a four-story marquee
- Appearance on the 2010 BET Awards
- Appearances on The View, The Today Show, The Maury Povich Show, and Good Morning America
- Appearances in Nick Cannon’s films School Gyrls and School Gyrls 2
- At age 12, hung out with Alicia Keys at the Grammy Awards
- At age 12, performed two songs at the ASCAP Awards
- Also at age 12, she was the Top 3 national vote-getter for Radio Disney’s Next Big Thing
- At 16, performed for 1,000 fans at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City
- Profiled on The Disney Channel
Gabi’s dad, Kenny Wilson, is a veteran musician himself and realizes the shining star he and wife Agnes created.
“A woman who produced for Michael Jackson worked with Gabi a few days and said she’s a talent that comes along maybe once every 20 years,” Kenny said. “They look at Gabi like an Alicia Keyes, or like Beyoncé.”
This is not going to be a spin-dry, spit out a few records, and a vanishing act type of performer.
“They want her to do this until she’s as old as Aretha Franklin,” Gabi’s dad said. “They’re spending the money to make this go. Not too many artists get that chance.”
Here’s a teen grounded far beyond her age.
“I still want to do normal teenage things,” Gabi said. “It’s finding the balance. I’m grateful I have parents supporting me. I’m making sure I have a real childhood.”
During a recent week’s break from finishing her record, Gabi returned home. While her little sister Alex played with a friend out front, Gabi sat strumming an acoustic guitar on the couch. A few days with family, and it’s back to New York City, where she’s also preparing a band for a possible tour and special gigs. She worked with the musicians in the band since she was 11.
As a teaser, the single “Something to Prove” is already getting airplay nationally; it can be found on iTunes. The original tune and homage to old-school R&B “is doing really well,” said Gabi. Another single is expected to be released before the new year.
“My schedule is crazy-busy,” she said, eagerly awaiting a return East to finish off her record. “I love New York. It seems like I’m there all the time. The vibe is different than L.A. It’s just a different atmosphere.”
Gabi has a firm grip on this career thing and said she has been shielded from “the darker side” of the music industry.
“It’s about who you trust. That’s the big warning,” she said. “Keep a small circle and solid group around you because there are people who like to get into your head and take advantage of you.”
It definitely helps that her dad has always been a musician. “He taught me pretty much everything,” Gabi said. “And he’s my dad. He pushes me to be better.”
Yes, she noted, there were things her father did that she didn’t understand at the time, but now she does.
“That came with growing,” she said. “I understand why he would do the things he did.”
And she sees herself maturing. If not every day, then every year. Or every half-year.
“Gabi today is different than Gabi six months ago,” she said. “I laugh at the videos of me at 8 or 9. It’s crazy how far I’ve come. When people thought I was really talented, in my eyes, I thought I should have done better. I am a completely different person every year. I am excited about the future. I’m forever growing as an artist and as a person.”
Gabi is fully aware of former teen stars who crashed along the way. “I try and look at the people they’re around and the influences,” she said. “Hopefully, that won’t happen to me.”
Not a chance, said Russell Hands, a full-time doctor and part-time drummer, who has backed Gabi at several informal gigs.
“I can’t believe how much she’s grown and matured,” Hands said. “Pretty soon we’re all going to need a lot of money to buy tickets to see her.”
Gabi just smiles when the compliments come. It’s a career and a job, and she’s in it for the long haul. Even if she doesn’t know what’s happening six months from now.
“I try not to ask,” she said, smiling. “It’s just going with the flow and doing what you do, rather than expecting something.”
Because she is a minor, her parents get the paperwork. And, because of the Jackie Coogan Law for performing minors, most of the money she earns is held in a trust until Gabi is 18.
The cash is the least of her concerns.
“Money messes up a lot of people when you have money as a motivator,” she said. “You should be doing it because you love to do it.”
It is frustrating when a trunk-load of her original songs have to sit and simmer. But timing, she acknowledged, is everything.
“You have no idea how it’s very frustrating,” she said. “That’s definitely what I feel a lot. But I know they’ve planned a lot for me. I don’t like to think about it. I understand developing an artist takes time. A lot don’t get that time. I want to be a career artist and last a long time.”
A high school senior, Gabi has a home-school tutor. No surprise: she’s an “A” student.
“My last year,” she grinned. “I’m good.”
Although Gabi’s already done her share of nonprofit work, she sees it growing as her star rises.
“I want to establish my own charity that helps underprivileged kids,” she said.
Yes, it’s almost unbelievable. Obviously, she’s enjoying her place.
“I’m very happy with Gabi,” she said. “I think it’s important to be happy with yourself in this industry and have have emotional stability.”
Again, she doesn’t forget her age. Even between recording sessions.
“They always let me do fun stuff. I’ll go get ice cream or explore Brooklyn and see the sights,” Gabi said. “I’m always doing fun stuff away from work.”
All photos by Mike Jory.