He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to Alma Grace Peoples Wilson, a seamstress, and Olly Woodrow Wilson, Sr., an insurance salesman and butler.
Wilson graduated with a B.M. degree from Washington University in 1959, and earned an M.M. degree in music composition in 1960 from the University of Illinois. His composition instructors included Robert Wykes, Robert Kelley, and Philip Bezanson. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1964.
Wilson has taught at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (1965-1970). He is currently an emeritus professor of music at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught since 1970, retiring in 2002. He also served as the chairman of that university's music department between 1993 and 1997. His notable students include Neil Rolnick, Dwight Banks, Robert Greenberg, and Frank La Rocca.
In 1971, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to live in West Africa, where he studied African music and languages.
Wilson is married and lives in Berkeley, California.