After four decades, Charlie Wilson is still in it to win it
Charlie Wilson tells his own story, briefly, in the title track to his new album, “In It to Win It” — from singing in his father’s Tulsa church to early confrontations with racism and, eventually, a stint living on the streets. For Wilson, homelessness came after huge success with his brothers in the Gap Band, whose 1980s hits included “Burn Rubber on Me” and “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.” He kicked the addiction that sent him to the streets at a rehab clinic where he met his future wife, a social worker.
Determined to return to stardom, Wilson did so with a smooth soul voice, a series of No. 1 singles on the Urban Adult Contemporary chart and a raft of appearances on hiphop tracks — 10 with Kanye West and a dozen with Snoop Dogg, who dubbed him “Uncle Charlie.”
Wilson, 64, headlines a show at Verizon Center on Sunday with Fantasia and Johnny Gill. We spoke with him during a break from rehearsals in Detroit.
Q: Not many from your era have a headlining arena tour, a hit on the charts and a new album. What made all that happen for you? A: I work hard. I work more than most people do. It’s almost like a James Brown work ethic. I still have the passion. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve had my obstacles, my hurdles, and jumped through all of them. I just busted them up. Stopping for me is not an option. While people was looking at me funny and trying to figure me out, I was working hard in the basement. And when I came out the basement, I was ready to go. Q: You’ve received a lot of support from younger performers. A: I don’t expect anything different. I’m telling you, man, I’m the bridge — the bridge between hip-hop and R&B, R&B and pop. These people I’ve known for a long time, and some of them have known about me for a very long time, and they’ve been waiting to get on with me. So, like, if I reach out, nobody’s ever told me no. That’s a blessing. I’m happy that another generation knows my genre of music and they come when I ask. Q: Did you ever doubt, living in the streets, you’d ever return to have hits, BET salutes and Grammy nominations? A: No. It’s like, in spite of what I gone through, I never stopped believing in God. And as I was hurting mentally inside and somewhat physical on the streets, I just prayed a lot. Yes, I was an addict, and a pretty bad one at that. A lot of people don’t know that I was a crackhead. I started sleeping in some pretty crazy places. I just never gave up on God. I just asked God if he’d give me one more chance at life, and at music. Just one more chance. I promise, I told him, I’ll shout him out, I’ll give him praise every night when I got on the stage.
It took a minute, but hey, I got up and I started in. Then, of course, some people in the industry were looking at me like I was crazy. Like, “Dude, we love you, but you need to retire.” And I was like, “That is the farthest thing from my mind.” I said, “You’ll see. You just watch me.” It was hard for me, and people were sort of sniggling and laughing at me, especially when the first record came out. They were like, “That's kind of cute. That’s cool.” Then the second one comes out, and they’re still squirming. And the third one came out, and they kind of shut up.
I started late in the game, way late. That’s why people were laughing at me. They’re not laughing now, though. No, they’re not laughing now.
Q: You’ve got a track titled “New Addiction” on your album. Are you far enough away from your own experience that you can use that in a song? A: Yes. It’s like, there are still so many people who smoke cigarettes, or are still addicted to something. And so that song is definitely me. I used to be up all night and singing the same old song, you know, older than the stones. I was watching daylight coming up all the time. I just needed love. I needed more, more love. And God granted me that. He sent me my beautiful wife and sent me to the place where my wife was and everything.
So that addiction song is for people who are still struggling with it. I hope it’s a message of hope for some people.
Q: Your new album starts and ends with gospel, but there’s some partying in between. A: Oh, for sure. Let me tell you something. It took God to get me off the streets and out from under the bridges and sleeping under cars and trucks, so I’m always talking about how good God has been to me. In my show, I play all of the hits, I play all of the Gap Band hits, I play all of the Charlie Wilson hits. I do testify in there, now, don’t get me wrong. But we’re not doing a gospel show up in there, no. We’re funkin’.
Q: I understand your first big break came from a fellow Oklahoman, Leon Russell, who died last year. A: It was Leon Russell, who came into a small club one night and was looking at us play. We met Leon, he was a very, very nice dude, we had so much fun, and ended up being his backup band. At the time, we were in clubs playing to anywhere from 50 to 75 people. When we got in his band, we were playing 30,000 to 50,000 people. It just devastated me, the first time I walked out there, seeing all those people. I would have liked to faint.
We had a few years with him. I learned a lot — the way I approached records. All the earlier Gap Band hits were from the way he showed us how to approach records. We used those things and been working all these years, man. I hate that he passed on, but we all got to go sooner or later. But I had a lot of fun with him, man. He will be missed. He taught us a lot.
ABOVE: Singersongwriter Charlie Wilson, the former Gap Band member and solo star behind hits such as “Burn Rubber on Me” and “There Goes My Baby,” will headline a show Sunday at Verizon Center with Fantasia and Johnny Gill in support of his latest album, “In It to Win It.” BELOW: Leon Russell performs March 14, 2011, in New York. Russell gave Wilson and the Gap Band their first big break when the band supported him on tour in the mid-1970s.