With four decades of music making and hip shaking, R&B legend Charlie Wilson will receive the 2013 BET Lifetime Achievement Award presented June 30 on this year’s BET Awards. Beginning his career alongside his brothers Robert and Ronnie in the 1970s/’80s sensation the Gap Band (“Outstanding,” “Yearning for Your Love”), to his own solo successes on Jive Records (Charlie, Last Name Wilson, Just Charlie, Love, Charlie), to seminal collaborations with Snoop Dogg, T-Pain and Kanye West—the Oklahoma singer-songwriter has done his thing.
While Charlie Wilson’s influence can be heard in the voices of Anthony Hamilton and R. Kelly, on the pop side, Madonna (“Inside of Me”) and George Michael (“Star People ’97”) have dipped into the Gap canon, sampling their hits “Outstanding” and “Burn Rubber,” respectively.
As a prostate cancer survivor and spokesperson for the Prostate Cancer Foundation since 2008, Wilson’s 40 years of continuous commercial success on both the Billboard charts and concert stages is rare in the soul canon.
“In the beginning I was frightened to death of going solo,” Wilson admits. “Especially when doing live shows, I was so used to my brothers being next to me. It felt like the crowd was just looking at me, waiting for me to either mess up or prove myself.” Without a doubt, brother Charlie was up for the challenge.
“Not many artists leaving a successful group have been able to do what I’ve done,” Wilson continues. “Most people don’t know my journey and challenges. I was in Nothingland when I decided to go solo. But now I’m being nominated for Grammys and have number one records again. I just came back from Paris, from working on tracks for Kanye West’s new album.”
Wilson has worked with West in the past, contributing vocals to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “I think he’s a genius. Kanye likes to laugh and have fun, but he works really hard. There is nothing predictable about the music he makes.”
Hanging out in Paris is a long road from Charlie’s humble beginnings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where big poppa Wilson was a Pentecostal preacher. “Tulsa was the kind of place where you could go to any door and borrow a cup of sugar,” he remembers. “Everybody knew everybody. Truthfully, I don’t even remember dealing with any racism in our town; we all got along.”
The Wilson boys, who included his older brothers Robert and Ronnie, got their early musical education playing for the congregation on Sunday mornings. Each of the Wilson brothers learned to play multiple instruments.
Though their daddy was a minister, he had no problems with the kids’ dream to play secular songs. “My father’s nephew was the blues musician, Lowell Fulson. Every time he came around, he had a pretty car, a beautiful woman and a slick sharkskin suit,” Charlie recollects. “Believe it or not, that’s how I decided I wanted to get into music.”
Sneaking out of his bedroom window to perform at dirty-floor nightspots, young Charlie sang covers of Sam Cooke and Little Stevie Wonder at a venue called Blue Mondays. Laughing, Charlie recalls, “I would be playing for the same people at night that was teaching us at school in the day. We were playing grown folks’ music when we was still kids.”
The Wilson brothers were discovered by blue-eyed soulster Leon Russell, and signed with the musician’s imprint Shelter Records in 1974. Yet it wasn’t until the young men moved further west and hooked up with Total Experience Records in 1978 that they achieved any real success.
Owned by L.A. businessman and producer Lonnie Simmons, the Total Experience label was named after Simmons’s successful nightclub on Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central. Total Experience soon became the home of the Gap Band for its most important recordings, from 1978 to 1989.
With ambitions of constructing another Motown or Philadelphia International, enterprising Lonnie Simmons aligned his upstart label with Mercury Records (for The Gap Band through 1983’s Gap Band V: Jammin’) while also working with the Wilson brothers in the studio. “Total Experience wasn’t really doing much until we got there,” Charlie states.
The group’s rhythmic repertoire would later include many “roof is on fire” jams and cookout anthems, as well as endearing ballads like “Yearning for Your Love.” The Gap Band’s mid-tempo “Outstanding” later became one of the most sampled tracks in hip-hop history. Touring with artists that included Funkadelic, Kool & the Gang, and Maze, the Gap Band was known for its own show-stopping dance steps, especially when performing hi-energy songs like “Humpin’ ” and “Early in the Morning.”
Recalling the heyday of ’70s soul extravaganzas, Wilson says, “In those days, in order to be a successful artist, you had to have a tight show. There was the dancing, but also none of the material was pre-recorded, every instrument was played live. Back then, it was all about showmanship. The Gap Band was young and energetic, and we loved the guys we were touring with as well.”
Adopting the Wild West-meets-soul persona that distinguished it from other costumed Black funk bands of the period, the Gap Band rode into funky town to quite a few stares. “With the Gap Band coming from Oklahoma, other artists would tease us by calling us cowboys,” Charlie said. “We didn’t grow-up on a ranch, but we took that style to the stage. We knew that it was corny, but at least it was ours.”
On the road, Charlie became close friends with funkateers George Clinton and Roger Troutman. “Nobody could make records that grooved the way George Clinton, Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins did. P-Funk were the best. Also, [Roger Troutman’s] Zapp and Gap was real rivals, but Roger and me became very close. He used to bring me out onstage with him to sing ‘Computer Love.’ It made my brother mad, but I did it anyway,” he laughs.
In the late 1980s, as the Gap Band’s brand of funk began to fade with the rise of hip-hop and new jack swing, Charlie Wilson developed a drug problem. What began as fun times with his crew ended with the popular singer living on skid row alone. “I had hit rock bottom,” Charlie confesses. “There is no love in drugs. Cocaine will rob you blind; it takes everything away.”
On his 2009 album Uncle Charlie, he recorded the song “Homeless,” which forced Wilson to deal with his own memories of living on the streets. “When I was recording that song, I started feeling a lot of those old emotions.” Indeed, the power of those emotions can be heard on the track.
After several unsuccessful stints in rehab, Wilson checked himself in one last time in 1995. “I knew I was raised better than that,” Wilson snickers. “I prayed a lot, because I knew I was going to die if I didn’t get my life together.” While in rehab, he met and married his soulmate, Mahin Tat.
Working alongside his partner, Charlie Wilson has been through the storm and is humbly reaping the rewards. “I think the longevity of my career can be attributed to the love, passion and respect I have for this music. So many pitfalls can happen if you are not prepared or if you’re not passionate enough. I love music, I understand R&B and I’ve never felt like stopping. At 60 years old, between my wife and my music, life is wonderful.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He's also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.