Charlie Wilson is a survivor in many ways: the former lead singer and co-founder of The Gap Band has been through music biz rip-offs, a drug and alcohol addiction that left him virtually homeless and a bout with prostate cancer. That he’s survived is a testament to the human spirit and to his own personal resilience; that he’s triumphed and is a Grammy nominee with three best-selling solo albums to his credit is amazing. With his latest set, “Just Charlie” now out, David Nathan catches up with him for the first time since his Gap Band days…
DN: I want to welcome to the Soul Music.com community a man who has an amazing longevity in the music industry—and that alone would qualify him for us talking to him—but of course the fact is that he has a brand-new album out. He’s someone whose voice has influenced and impacted at least one generation of singers; his music’s been sampled; he has managed to do something that many of his peers, from when he first started, have not been able to do, which is to remain contemporary; and that’s also a major accomplishment. So it’s really a pleasure to welcome today to Soul Music.com Mr. Charlie Wilson.
CW: Thank you so much.
DN: Well, I guess the first and most obvious place to start is, you have a brand-new album that’s out. So why don’t you share with our Soul Music.com listeners a little bit about what they can expect from this album?
CW: Well… [coughs] excuse me if I start coughing; I have my cold, so…
CW: This album is called Just Charlie, and the reason why I entitled it that was that the first album that I came back with was actually a solo album, it was Bridging the Gap. That was in the year 2000. And then 2004 was Charlie, Last Name Wilson, which was produced by R. Kelly and was reintroducing me to the fans and to the world. And then the album after that was Uncle Charlie. And I just thought that everybody calls me Uncle Charlie, and it would be a good time for everybody to just continue to call me Uncle Charlie [laughs]. This time around it was Just Charlie. And the reason that it’s just… I was just doing me.
CW: I love soul music; I love music—R&B music. And I just took my time and executive-produced a record that I think all my fans and fans-to-be will like. It’s very mid-tempo-ish; really nice beats to it. The stories are mainly about the woman. These records are incredible, ’cause I just think we need—as men, we need to quit lying to women and tell them the truth and learn how to talk to them, basically. I mean, they’re not hood rats, they’re not the B word; and I notice that a lot of the younger generation of males, they use the B word all the time—
DN: Yes, yes.
CW: —referring to a woman. And so we need to cut that out [laughs].
CW: And so this album is really, really showing a lot of love and respect to the woman from the man’s perspective.
DN: And how long did it take you to actually complete the record? Has it taken the best part of a year, would you say?
CW: Yeah, because I never come off of touring [laughs].
CW: I’m always on the road. So to take a bit of time out just to cut some vocals here and there, it had taken a while. So I finally got a chance to finish it, and it took about… I don’t know, three or four months. Four months, maybe…four or five months, the whole time. But when I got into the studio for a week at a time, then I was really finishing a lot of records; when I could just knock down a week or two consecutively.
DN: Yes, yes.
CW: But man, I had a great time recording this record. [coughs] Excuse me. A great time. The writers were all in-house and we all had a good time doing it. And my wife, she has been such an inspiration to me, that most of the records came from me talking to her and listening to her—
CW: Yes, yes. That’s where a lot of the records came from. I have a song called “My Girl Is a Dime”—from one to ten, she’s a ten—we call it a dime around here.
DN: Of course, yeah.
CW: So “My Girl Is a Dime” means that she… it’s not because she’s beautiful the way she’s shaped; it’s from her inner beauty. So these kind of songs are [from] there. And of course, “You are the reason that I live, that I love/God sent me an angel/you are the best in the world, a wonderful girl/knowing you’re by my side brings tears to my eyes/you are the reason that I love.” These songs are just like I said: my wife really inspired most of the lyrics [laughs].
DN: Wow, wow.
CW: Because she’s around me, like, twenty-four hours a day. Some of the pains are there, and then of course, all of the happiness is there, so you can be able to write it.
DN: Well, let me ask you a couple of questions that come out of what you just said: first, how long have you been married?
CW: We’re going on sixteen years now.
DN: Wow, wow.
CW: I didn’t ever think I’d [be with] her for sixteen years without any failure, that’s not bad.
DN: Yes. And did she know that she was inspiring you in doing this album? Did you tell her that?
CW: Yes. And you know, being the kind of woman she is, then she automatically starts trying to write with you [laughs].
CW: “No, don’t say that word.” I’m like, “Jeez! Can we write the song? I want my credit.” [laughs]
DN: [Laughs] That’s great.
CW: Then she gets in and starts putting a verse, and lending us a hand with the hooks and hook lines; so she’s incredible, man.
DN: I love it.
CW: She’s an incredible person, yeah.
DN: And the other thing is, you mentioned that the album is essentially dedicated to women—that is really the focus of the subject matter. Did you start out with that as the concept, or did it just emerge as you were working on it?
CW: Actually, we started writing songs… I have some of my writers, and I said, “I want to talk about what it would feel like to be without this woman.” And we started writing songs like that. And then I changed my mind. I said, “I want to be a go-getter…” [laughs] I started going crazy a little bit there. And so everybody was kind of reeling me in, like, “Uh-uh, you do not want to sing like it’s like that.” [laughs] So I kind of toned it down a bit and—
CW: [Laughs] Yeah, because we can all go there and I never get a chance to go into the grey areas.
CW: And that’s okay, because there’s not that many. Maybe the next time I’ll start writing about in those greyer areas. But these were happy, happy times; and me, I sort of got sidetracked there a lot of times, and no, I didn’t really go after from the woman’s perspective at all—except for I wanted to touch on a few things, and then it just started songs. And every song that came in I was, “No, I don’t want to sing about that. I just wanna sing about how beautiful it is to be with this woman and how…” ’Cause I know a lot of guys have a good woman, or a woman has a good man, and you want to tell everybody—you really want to tell everybody that this person is beautiful. I mean, after fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years… sometimes we have a spouse or a boyfriend or girlfriend that you spend a lot of years with. And then all of a sudden, something happens and then you lose that person; or this person runs off with an older guy, or this girl runs off with a younger guy—whatever.
DN: Yes, yes.
CW: So to be able to hold it down and stay with this person you love, and it’s just continuously going, day in and day out—I think that’s a beautiful thing. And so to write about it is really beautiful.
DN: Wow. Well it sounds great… I’m sure that just for that alone, there’s gonna be a lot of people who are going to want to check it out.
DN: But let me ask you: I, of course, have been following your career, and I have to say that probably the last ten years have been pretty amazing for you. I mean, I know that there’ve been some hard times, and of course we are aware that you had to deal with some health challenges.
DN: But from a career standpoint, it has been pretty amazing. So I’d just like you to take us back a little bit to just before 2000, when this really started to—when your career started to reignite, one could say. What was life like just prior to that? Were you wondering if you’d ever come back?
CW: Well, I was trying to get a record contract or a distribution deal for the Gap Band, and we were trying hard, really trying to get that, ’cause we just felt—[coughs] excuse me—we just felt that we hadn’t done enough. And you just feel incomplete. It’s like, I still haven’t done anything to be patted on the back or anything. So we were like, okay, let’s get back in the swing of things, and let’s try to get these records back up, and let’s try to find us another [sings] “Oops upside your head”—
CW: Let’s try to find some more of these good records that has good feel to ’em. And we knocked on every door for ten years after I got sober and nobody, absolutely nobody would… everybody turned me down. Everybody. It was like, yeah, we get in there and we record things, and you put a few things up. But we didn’t have the capabilities of reaching worldwide things. And we just didn’t have the capabilities—we didn’t know. So now—things are a lot different now.
DN: Of course.
CW: We didn’t know: we didn’t have the capabilities. But anyway, it was very, very upsetting that everybody turned a deaf ear. So we just continued to try to do some touring things. We stayed on the road, tried to do some shows, and they were okay. The shows, of course, were high energy, of course.
DN: Of course.
CW: But when you don’t have enough people there to see, it’s heartbreaking. So we just did that until we caught back on; we caught back on fire with the touring part, in America. So we just did that. And one day, of course, R. Kelly came, and he was like, “I want to produce you.” And I was like, “Okay, let’s try this.” And everybody that turned me down, even for my solo project, it was like: oh, that would never happen [laughs].
CW: That would never, ever happen. First of all, you’re past the limit—that’s was basically what really kind of got me, was... I said, “I think I can still sing a little bit”—
CW: No, it was in my heart. I was really, really saying I think I can sing a little bit. And for people to tell me that I couldn’t… that was the most aggravating part of it of all.
CW: And so I just never gave up. And just prior to that we released this record, Bridging The Gap, in 2000 there, was my [first] solo… and I still was planning, right after that, to do the Gap Band record, but I just couldn’t get nobody to bite.
DN: Right, right.
CW: Nobody would bite. Even after the number-one records that I had with the record called “Without You”—
CW: Yeah, I mean, it went to number one. And I was just trying to do it to [get to] people, and they just wouldn’t bite. And I was trying to stay musically correct: keeping it calm and making a ballad, you know [laughs]. I wasn’t trying to do the up-tempo things; just try to keep it calm and easy for the first single. And I just couldn’t get anybody to bite. It was so heartbreaking. So I waited a couple of more years after that and then I said, “Let’s go with this thing.”
DN: Okay. So would you say that the kind of arrival, in a sense, of R. Kelly into your life really made a difference?
CW: Yeah. I mean besides him there was Snoop Dogg. Before that he was the one who had me performing on his records, and everybody around the studio was just keeping me available for hip-hop lovers and that whole genre.
CW: The hip-hop community was knowing who Uncle Charlie was, ’cause he was the first one that started calling me Uncle Charlie.
CW: And then after that, of course R. Kelly came... I said, “You promised me you were gonna do a record on me, and this was years ago, Robert.” And I said, “You’re doing Ron Isley or Mr. Biggs or something”—
DN: Right. of course, yeah, yeah.
CW: And I said, “You promised me.” And we was laughing about it—I wasn’t really serious about it. He was like, “No, I just need to see you.” I didn’t know what he meant by that. But anyway, I started doing these plays in the theatres—these gospel plays. And I ended up in Chicago. Long story short, I went to see him, and he wanted to come see the play that I was starring in. And he came, and he said he had never been to a play and enjoyed it. And he said, “Man, I’ve been working on this idea. Why don’t you come to the studio with me?” And we went to the studio, and of course everything started rolling from there.
CW: So it’s just been crazy, man.
DN: Well, I imagine that after having people turn you down, to now find yourself in a situation where you’re being nominated for Grammys; you had tremendous success with “There Goes My Baby”; and here you are with this brand-new album—you must feel a certain sense of validation from the fact that you didn’t give up even though people said no. ’Cause of course, as we both know, if you say no to someone long enough, for some people that’s it. They just cave in and say, “Well, there’s no point. Maybe I should go do something else.” So what is it that kept you, even in the face of all the no’s, what kept you going?
CW: I just don’t like the word no.
CW: I don’t like the word no, and I don’t think that people—I call some of them gatekeepers—I don’t believe that… So the gatekeepers: I don’t think you can tell me that I don’t belong in this business or I’m not worthy of being here or I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t fathom that. So I don’t believe the word no, and I definitely don’t like people telling me what I can and cannot do. That I just don’t like. Now, when I decide to give up and decide to put it down, then that’s when I’m gonna do it. But until then, I believe that I’m capable of doing it. I asked Michael Jordan one time, I said, “Michael”—he always invited me to come play for his functions, so when I go and play, we always sit and talk a little while. And I was like, “If you could play again…” He said, “If I had the knees, I would play.” Because he said, “If I thought I could compete, I would play. It’s a level that I’m used to competing at.” Because he hardly ever lost, you know, and he was just that good, Michael Jordan—he was just that good. So if I could compete at the level that I’m competing in, I don’t care how old I get; and if I’m using a cane to walk—if I can use my voice [laughs] and if I got a step or two, then you’re gonna always see me.
CW: And that’s it—that’s it. If I can put it on the record, I’m gonna do it. And then when I decide to stop… David, that’s when I’m gonna stop. But I just don’t like the word no—
DN: Right. I love it.
CW: —and I don’t believe people should tell you no. And like you said, if I would have listened to it long enough? If I’d of been somebody else? I think I would have probably given up too, like other people have—
CW: —just like that would never work. ’Cause they told me that I was washed up and it would never work. I mean, everybody. You know what the whole thing about it is, is that everybody that told me no—most of the people that told me no—I’ve outlived them. I mean for this business. They’re not in this business no more.
DN: That’s amazing.
CW: And so the ones that I do see now, they now tell me that they always believed that I was gonna make it.
DN: Sure, sure [laughs].
CW: I just wanted to throw up when I heard that from them.
CW: But I know you didn’t mean that—I know you didn’t mean that, ’cause I know if you wanted a job right now in this music business, and if you could tell somebody that nah, he blown that, don’t let him in the door, it would be that. So…
DN: Well, I gotta ask you something related to that [but] firstly, I want to thank you so much for sharing this with people, because I think that, in life, regardless of whether you’re in the music industry or whatever you do in life, it’s so easy to give up.
DN: So anytime you hear someone speaking the way you are, and talking about the importance of hanging in there and not listening to people say no, I think it’s really important. So first, I want to thank you for sharing that with us during this interview. But the other question I have for you, related to that—and then we’re going to move on to some other things—is: it would be really easy in the face of having probably some very prominent people in the music industry telling you no—it would be very easy to become, I would say, vengeful or become bitter and say, “You know what?”—I won’t use any expletives in this phone call, but there’s things that you could turn round to people and say when you see them now, the people who said no; it would be really easy to look at them and say, well, you know… whatever. “Blank you.”
DN: “You said no to me now, so don’t even come near me. Get out of my face; I don’t wanna talk to you.” It would be easy to be like that and it’s kind of a human reaction. But I’m guessing you’re not that kind of person.
CW: No. I’ve seen so many people, you just don’t understand… [laughs] the people that I see right now who come and hug me and I hug them, and then when they walk off, I tell me wife, “See that guy right there? That guy right there is the first guy that told me no and told me I was wa—” he didn’t say washed up in my face, but I heard him talking about it—I got good ears; when I walked away he said: “Naw, he’s washed up.” But I said, I don’t hold no kind of grudges to people like that, because I’m having just a little bit of success now. It’s just that I know who were the ones, the gatekeepers. Because back in the eighties and the nineties, you gotta understand, it’s a lot different now than it was then. Then it was like, if somebody at the top [told you] no, then that no just trickled all the way down to everybody, and you couldn’t get in no door. It’s like if you was getting ready to go to this club, and the owner of the club told the bouncers, “Don’t let him in,” then you’re not getting in.
CW: You just didn’t get in. The line would be long and the VIP line is there and there’s two or three different kinds of bouncers, but everybody told the bouncers not to let you in, so you ain’t gettin’ in. So it was sort of like that. I know all the people that I tried to get a deal with; or when I was having my problems with alcohol and drugs or whatever; and now that I have been sober so long… and then when I tried to come back to these people and just try to show them a demo or two, they just said okay and put it on their desk; and I call them a week later, they’re, “Oh, no, they stepped out,” and I never got an answer. I just knew that they never listened to it. And so that kind of hurt. So no, I wouldn’t not hug these people because I’m not that kind of a person. I’m not that kind of a person.
DN: Wow. Well, it takes a big person to be that way, because like I say, I think human nature is that it would be much easier to tell them to, you know—disappear [laughs].
CW: No, I’m not that kind of guy. My mother said, if you can’t say a kind word, don’t say anything.
CW: So I just don’t say anything. I just stand there and look at them, and listen to them—
CW: —give them a hug and just keep right on popping [laughs].
DN: I love it.
CW: Because it’s like, hey, let them get their little part out and let them say what they’re gonna say; and I know different and I just never bring it up, and… keep on; it’s all good.
DN: Just keep it moving.
CW: Keep it moving, yeah.
DN: Yes. Well, I have to ask you: obviously we know you’ve had a long and distinguished career in the music industry and you’ve made some amazing music. Did you ever think when you first started that you’d still be doing this now?
CW: No. No. Well, I knew that I would love to do it. I mean, to love to do it: it’s like a kid when he goes outside and he plays basketball. I used to love to play basketball, just to play and love to have fun. I’m still a kid in this thing, so I have the kid in me in it, keeping me going. That’s what keeps me going, is the kid in me. The euphemism of that kid-ness, that’s what’s keeping me going; and that’s what I still have, the knees—like Michael said, “If I had the knees I would do it”. I still have my knees because of the kid in me that makes me jump high and makes me sing high and makes me move my voice around. It makes me play around with it, or things like that. And I try real hard. And so no, I didn’t believe that I would be here now because I didn’t ever think I was that good [laughs].
DN: Wow. Really?
CW: No, I mean the hoopla came a long time ago, like you were this generation’s singer and you inspired people, but… I knew I could sing a little, but I thought I could sing better when I was a little boy than now. When I was a little boy it was more innocent, and ’cause I was more bashful to sing. Any[time] where you get a little bit cocky, it’s like, “He might be putting a little too much on it.” [laughs]. So you know, that’s part of it all [laughs]. That’s the beauty of it all, and of all of that. And so when you get a little bit older you can laugh at certain things.
DN: So this is still like an adventure for you, right?
CW: Oh, for sure, man. You know, we used to be on the road with Leon Russell.
CW: And Leon Russell used to tell us, when we were his band, he used to say, “As long as it’s fun, you do it. But when it becomes a job, then get out.” I’m having a lot of fun—I’m having a lot of fun right now.
DN: Well, would you say you’re having the best time of your life?
CW: Man, you just don’t understand that it’s so amazingly… so much fun right now for me. It is. It’s like I get a chance to relive it all over again, but this time with a clearer head and a clearer mind—
CW: —and with somebody you love and share and can care for you. And the business is handled this time. You see?
CW: Whereas before, yes, I was a lot younger and I was having a lot of fun, and that fun turned into a tragic train wreck. And so yeah, I might have some wrecks along the way, but I’m just like everybody else: you’re waiting for the police to come and get the ticket or whatever; keep on popping. But to have a train wreck and you can’t find nobody or what’s going on with it, that’s a different kind of a wreck. You have sideswipes and all of this now, is what I have—I don’t say wrecks, I shouldn’t say wrecks; I have maybe sideswipes or fender bumpers or things like that. But you can just get right on back in the car and just keep right on going.
DN: Yes, yes.
CW: Yeah. So I’m having a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful time.
DN: And when rappers, people from the hip-hop world; when other male singers from the current generation come to you and tell you what an influence you’ve had on them vocally and in terms of your music, has that been a surprise to you? Or how have you responded to that kind of acknowledgement?
CW: Wow. I’ve been listening to that for quite a while, and I still smile about it and try to continue to give them something that they can listen to. And so it definitely sort of sends me through the roof [laughs] to be looked at that way: I mean, now, still now. I try really, really hard to put it on the record the way… just to try to be correct with the vocal, so other generations can have something else to listen to and say, “Wow, man. Listen to those licks,” or whatever. So it’s amazing for somebody to still come to tell me that they’re listening to me and I’ve inspired them to go forward. And so if I’m just gonna be this inspiration—this big, huge inspiration—then man, if that’s what I’m supposed to be, then so be it.
DN: Yes, yes.
CW: That would probably be better than any Grammys or any platinum or double-platinum records, if I’m the inspiration. If I’m gonna be that, and if I’m doing that really well, then so be it.
DN: Well, I was thinking… it’s interesting, during our conversation you mentioned R. Kelly working with Ron Isley. And I was thinking, there are very few voices—I mean voices—when I say voices, I mean voices that are the ones that people remember; that are distinctive; that don’t sound like anybody else. There are few voices in R&B, as we used to call it, and soul music, as it also is called, that are still around. And I was thinking of you, I was thinking of Ron Isley, and I couldn’t think of too many others [laughs]. I mean, there are a few others: there’s Stevie Wonder. But it’s very, very few—it’s very, very few. There’s probably maybe just a handful of guys from your generation, from Ron Isley’s generation, that are still making music and that still have that same distinctive sound. I mean, you don’t sound different—I know all these years have gone by, but when I listen to Charlie Wilson today, I know that’s Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band.
DN: I mean, it isn’t like I think this is a different singer. And it’s just really quite amazing. I mean, does it amaze you?
CW: Thank you, first of all. You know, I just try to truck along and do what I normally do. Like I said, it’s the kid in me. Long as I keep this kid-ness in me that has this vibrant, this outpour[ing] of love—the love of music and the love of people, that loves to share with people, then I think that that sound will probably remain the same. I just love people. I love people, man; I love to be around and I love to perform for people—that’s my main thing, is just to have fun: to be onstage having fun and to sing some of these songs… and hoping you’re picking the right ones to sing for people [laughs].
DN: Yeah, yeah.
CW: Somebody’s gonna go out there and say, “Well, you didn’t sing so-and-so.” It’s like, you try to sing the songs you think people are gonna love, and you hope that you can get them all in there. There’s so much you can only do in ninety minutes—you just try to get them in. And by the time I get so loose and having so much fun and time just went by so fast, then I’m like, “Oh, did I sing this one?” You’ve got a list and you try to stick with the list [laughs]—and then, you know, the spirit runs high in the building… and you know, man. I just try to continue to sing like I do, man, and I hope that the people… it amazes me sometimes that it still sounds like that, I guess. Yeah.
DN: And I guess my last question is just kind of a follow-up to what I just asked you: do you ever talk to some of your peers? The people who were around back in the day? People like a Ron Isley or a Stevie Wonder. Do you ever have an opportunity to catch up with any of them?
CW: Oh, yeah, I speak to a lot of them: Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder; of course I see Ronald from time to time—I see Smokey Rob[inson]—I see a lot of great singers a lot sometimes. And they’re always telling me, “Wow, man. We’re so proud of you out here. You’re the only one that’s selling these records now. You’re the one that’s going to number one and having these number-one records, and you’re the one that’s actually the only one that’s getting to number one. What does it feel like?” And I’m like, I’m looking at the person that’s saying it to me… I was like, wow. I said, “Well, I’m just having fun.” I don’t know what else to say. I’m looking at an idol of mine, you know what I’m saying? It’s kind of a weird deal. But you know—I’m having fun. I see my good friends from time to time, some of the ones we all love and still love; they’re still all of our idols and the great singers... and man, it’s wonderful to be here. That’s the main thing.
DN: Wow. Well you know, I couldn’t have ended this interview any better than you just did, by saying it’s just wonderful to be here [laughs].
CW: Yeah. I would love to come to London—I want to come to London so bad, but I don’t know nobody to bring me. I want to come to London so bad and perform for London. I really do. I would like to go, come over there and just stay for a week [laughs]—I wish I could just stay for a week.
DN: All right, well—
CW: I don’t know nobody that would bring me, you know what I’m saying? I would just love to come and play some of the old stuff, sing some of my new stuff and just bring my whole band, everybody, and just stay over there. I don’t know where I could do it or how I would do it. But David, I want you to tell the people of London that I love their country and I would love to come and play. I just don’t know why I haven’t been there so much, but I do—when I tell you I really, really want to come and play for you guys, I really do.
DN: Well, you just took the first step towards making sure it happens by doing it in the interview, ’cause you know that our interview goes on the website, Soul Music.com. But a lot of our visitors and a lot of the people that check out Soul Music.com are right here in Britain—of course, in the United States too and throughout the world. But certainly, by saying what you just said, you began the process pretty well. So I’m sure somebody who’s gonna hear this is gonna say, “Oh, yeah. Charlie Wilson hasn’t been here.”: So you just took the first step towards making sure that happens.
CW: Oh, that’s wonderful.
DN: Well, I just really want to thank you. This has been a really wonderful conversation, and I just want to thank you for being so open and really, sharing with us what I would say is a pretty amazing, amazing… I don’t like the word comeback, so I’ll say rejuvenation. A rejuvenation. And congratulations on a great new album. And certainly, everybody who’s listening to this interview: check it out.
CW: Thank you.
DN: Thank you, Charlie Wilson—it’s a pleasure speaking to you. Thank you.
CW: You’re welcome, David. God bless you, man.
DN: Take care. Bye-bye now.
CW: All right, bye.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.