Af­ter four decades, Charlie Wil­son is still in it to win it

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ROGER CATLIN style@wash­post.com Charlie Wil­son With Fantasia and Johnny Gill at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter, 601 F St. NW. Tick­ets: _ $48-$103. 202-628-3200. ver­i­zon­cen­ter.mon­u­men­tal­sport­snet­work.com.

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.

KWAKU AL­STON

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.

EVAN AGOSTINI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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