Charlie Wilson has been in the trenches, fighting his own wars for many years, firstly as lead singer of the Gap Band against the ruthless measures of his former record label in the '80's and now against his toughest adversary, prostate cancer.
"I'm overjoyed" enthuses Charlie Wilson, before bursting into Stevie Wonder's song of the same name. The reason for such jubilation is the success of his latest solo offering, "Uncle Charlie" which enjoyed a healthy run at the top of the US R&B charts. Produced by younger faces such as The Underdogs and featuring the likes of T- Pain & Jamie Foxx, the album worked commercially, in part due to Wilson's ability to mesh seamlessly the old with the new. The single "There Goes My Baby" is a feel good, old school mid-tempo/ballad featuring a very down to earth video with Snoop Dogg and his wife Shante along with their family. Also adding fuel to the fire is Wilson's timeless gritty R&B vocal style and the apparent lack of competition from current R&B male vocal singers.
Wilson's current day success makes it hard to believe that the Tulsa, Oklahoma native first came to the public consciousness in the late '70's with The Gap Band, the group he lead with his two brothers, Ronnie & Robert. Despite The critical and commercial acclaim through classic hits such as "Burn Rubber", "Party Train", "Outstanding" and "You Dropped A Bomb", it marked a fraught, troubled period for the preacher's son as he battled ruthless business practices and drug addiction. He credits his current wife, Mahin, his former drug addiction counsellor in the early '90's for much of his success and is happy to discuss the career and life turn around he's experiences over the last decade.
Jeff Lorez: Firstly congratulations on the success of the new album. What do you credit it to?
Charlie Wilson: Basically I was out there doing a lot of recording until I figured I was out there by my self and I figured I should executive produce this. I got some flack on it. I just kept on going. The direction was to do great records that felt good. Every song was vibed out. Michael Perrin my manager said I should do a version of “Baby Come Back” ( hit for Player in 1978) which ended up as “Shawty Come Back”.
JL: And it showcases your melodic side as opposed to he harder riffing style may more familiarize you with.
CW: I wanted to show them that. A lot of people can’t do that.
JL: Obviously your style and Stevie Wonder's which is similar have influenced a lot of current vocalists. What music influenced you growing up?
CW: Oh, Sonny Stitt, old Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Temptations, Otis Redding, Sly & The Family Stone, Sam Cook. Those were a lot of the songs I loved growing up. I also loved James Taylor before the Gap Band made it big. I loved him. The chord progressions, the way he sand across the melody.
JL: I remember seeing you in the '80's and you put so much energy into the first 10 minutes of he show I thought you'd burn yourself out and wouldn't be able to finish! How does the Charlie Wilson of 2009 differ from the Charlie Wilson of 1989?
CW: I still have so much energy left in me. When I hit the stage I try to give all I have every moment I have on the stage. I should pace myself a little better but I really don't know how.
JL: How did being diagnosed with prostate cancer affect your outlook on life?
CW: When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer I grabbed it by the horns. When I saw how it is grabbing 1 in 3 of African American men. It just attacks and consumes you. It’s a terrible tragedy. That’s why I’ve gone public on this. People have to get checked and get their PSA count. I thought I was in great shape. I work out every morning, two or three hours, on the treadmill, lifting weights, eating the right stuff – fish, chicken, fruits & vegetables and I found out I had this disease. When I saw my doctor he said, “I’ve got some good news and bad news”. I said “What’s the bad news first”? He said “You have prostate cancer”. My mouth was on the floor! About five seconds later my wife said “What’s the good news?”. He said, “This is early stage cancer and we can take care of it and you’ll be okay.” That gave me life right there, that I knew this was early stage. Early diagnosis is the key. That’s why people need to get checked out.
JL: As if battling prostrate cancer wasn’t enough I heard you were in another battle field recently - Iraq, performing for the troops. How was it?
CW: It was the most incredible journey. When I got to Iraq, I landed with all this body armor on and the helmet and the back pack. Just walking out of Shinook’s and the C17’s. It was amazing, walking in a single file line with other soldiers. We went and saw Sadaam Hussein’s palaces Then at times we would here the sound of guns going off, the rata-tat-tat through the night. I’ve learned to have a new respect for the men and women of all forces.
The shows were incredible. I played for 90 minutes and was signing autographs for three and a half hours. It was one of the best experiences of my life. To see the way the music lifted their spirits was incredible. I just got back a month ago.
JL: Do you still live in the Caribbean?
CW: I still have a place there but I also have a place just outside of LA.
JL: What’s an average day in the life of Charlie Wilson?
CW: The first thing to go in my body is some fish soup. My wife prepares that for me with all the vegetables, lemongrass, white fish. For lunch I have some fruit, a light tuna sandwich. For dinner it's baked fish or chicken.
JL: People who are familiar with your career know you’ve lived a pretty colorful life with a lot of ups and downs. What was your lowest point?
CW: The fall when I ended up with nothin', the homeless part. In the late '80's. The record label (the now defunct Total Experience Records) took everything. They lied, cheated and stole.
JL: How did your brothers make out through all of this?
CW: My brothers are fine. We had to deal with all of that but fortunately a lot of money was made after that so we're fine, basically. You just have to watch your spendage. Money don't fall from the sky! Back in the day whatever you could get your hands on you'd spend it because you might be able to get some more tomorrow. We didn’t know that despite selling all those records and booking up tours we wouldn’t wind up with nothin’. Now I have a great team and a great crew. I wish I would have had this family back in the '80's.
JL A lot has been written about your drug problems in the ’80’s and early ’90’s and I heard rumors about your previous record label being involved in that world. Do you feel that drugs were made readily available to you by people in the industry you were dealing with at that time?
CW: Of course it was purposefully done. When you're not making any money and the drugs are available, you say, "Hell, we might as well get high, man. There's no money coming in with all these dates booked!” There was all this gun pulling. There was a lot of drugs. People said we were drugged out but there was another part people just don't know about. It was a crazy scene. I thank God we lived through it. A lot of people died in the era. People I knew really well.
They pulled guns on our attorney in '86 - "we know where you wife works, where your kids go to school. If they sign this contract you know what's gonna happen to your wife and children”. It doesn't matter who we go as an attorney there were always guns behind that.
After that we went to court, beat them (Total Experience Records and it’s label head, Lonnie Simmons) in court anyway and they still went over to Capitol Records and threatened the president - "You got my group. I'm gonna sue you for $100 million."
JL: So how did you rebound from that?
CW:It took a minute. Even going on the road, the promoters would get threatened so we ended up with promoters that couldn't book the shows that well so we ended up out of the circle. It haunted us for many years. When my current manager came aboard there was still a lot of bad blood. We looked like the bad characters and we weren't.
JL: Now how do you control your life financially?
CW: First of all with the money that comes in I don't touch it at all. My wife is very smart. Every dime is accounted for. Same with my manager. I don't believe in living extravagantly because I've lived every which way that you can live.
About the Writer
Jeff Lorez has enjoyed a long and varied career in the music business. As a journalist he has written for a slew of publications and web sites including, Blues & Soul, Billboard, Yahoo.com and the Daily Telegraph and as a music publisher he has been involved in recent chart topping hits by Alexis Jordan and Cher Lloyd.