Born St. Louis, Missouri, in 1937, Olly Wilson's early musical training was in jazz piano and classical double bass, as well as composition with Robert Wykes, Robert Kelley, and Phillip Bezanson. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1964. He taught at Oberlin Conservatory of Music from 1965-70. During 1971-72 he lived in West Africa, studying West African music, and has published many scholarly articles on African and African American musics. He is the Jerry and Evelyn Hemmings Chambers Professor of Music at University of California at Berkeley, where he is also Chairman of the Music Department.
Olly Wilson's compositions include works for chamber ensembles and electronic media, but he is primarily known and celebrated as a composer of orchestral music. His works have been performed by most major orchestras of the United States, as well as several European orchestras. Commissions include those from the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Koussevitzky Foundation, Lila Wallace-Readers Digest, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1995 Olly Wilson was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.