Ryan Johnson, Published October 15 2013
VIDEO: 80-year-old Wild Bill icon of Fargo karaoke scene
The 80-year-old lifelong Fargo resident, born with the name William Boyd Olson, said he started singing about 30 years ago and has kept at it because it makes him feel “young at heart.”
He’s since become an institution at many of the karaoke nights held in bars across Fargo, especially Rooters Bar each Monday and Thursday, Dempsey’s Public House on Tuesdays and Speck’s Bar on Wednesdays.
But the crowds that gather for their five minutes on the microphone are more likely to know Olson as Wild Bill – a nickname he proudly embraces, both as a reference to the Western films of actor Wild Bill Elliott that he loved as a kid and as an ode to Olson’s own wild ways in the past.
Olson had already earned the nickname by the time he checked into rehab, determined to finally kick his drinking and smoking habits that had gotten him into trouble decades ago.
“They were calling me Wild Bill then, you know,” he said, laughing.
Olson said he hasn’t had a drink in more than 30 years. Still, the moniker bar patrons call him today is a good fit for the former sanitation worker for Fargo and Moorhead who went on to work odd jobs, marry twice and raise five kids before his retirement.
An age thing
Frank Collins said he’s known Olson for the past few years through the karaoke nights Collins holds at Rooters and Dempsey’s each week.
“People like it when he sings, and everybody seems to know him,” said Collins, who owns Karaokeman DJ.
Olson is a “great guy” who’s friendly with everybody, and there’s no denying he’s a charmer who can strike up a conversation that will leave just about anyone smiling, Collins said.
But there’s something other than Olson’s outgoing personality that has made him a local “icon,” he said.“For an 80-year-old to be there, they love it,” Collins said of the octogenarian hobnobbing with the mostly college-age crowd that gathers at downtown karaoke nights.
Olson is a creature of habit, known for almost always singing the same small set of songs during his appearances.
He sang two of them last Thursday at Rooters: “All the Way” by Frank Sinatra and “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from the “Oklahoma” soundtrack.
The latter has been one of his favorites ever since a woman at karaoke prodded him into singing the musical classic with her one night, Olson said.
“I said, ‘Well, I haven’t really sang it, but I’d be more than willing to start singing with you,’ ” he said.
His friend stood him up, staying next to him during the performance but not actually singing along. When he asked why she had stayed quiet, she admitted she just wanted to hear him sing it, Olson said.
Olson is known for singing another Frank Sinatra classic, “My Way,” a personally meaningful song after his decision decades ago to enter treatment to quit smoking and drinking.
Collins said Olson also tends to sing one of the most popular country songs of all time, George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” each time he shows up for karaoke night.
“That’s pretty much all he sings – those four songs,” Collins said. “Sometimes when he stays longer, then he’ll come up with a song out of the blue. But that’s rare.”
Olson may stick to the same core group of songs, but he said he still loves singing them as often as he can.
After several close calls that nearly ended his life – especially during his wilder days before rehab – Olson said he figures there must be some reason he’s still around today.
Olson attributes that to the “guardian angels” he said are everywhere in his life, including the workers he’s gotten to know at local restaurants, bars and stores.
Olson said he’ll keep doing karaoke as long as he can. But stage fright – a common ailment among karaoke singers – won’t be a problem for Wild Bill no matter how large the crowd.
“I try to sing my songs all from the heart,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587