Charlie Wilson: Outstanding contributions
Iconic, four-times-Grammy-nominated funk/R&B vocalist Charlie Wilson - best known globally as former lead-singer with internationally-successful Eighties R&B chart-toppers The Gap Band - returns to the UK on September16 for a one-off headline show at London’s IndigO2.
Born Charles Kent Wilson in January 1953, Charlie was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma where, at age three, he was first taught to sing in his parents’ Pentecostal church before later becoming a prominent member of his Junior High School’s choir and, in 1967, joining-up with his brothers Ronnie and Robert Wilson to form The Greenwood, Archer & Pine Street Band. Whose name in 1973 would become shortened to ‘The Gap Band’.
Signing with controversial Los Angeles producer Lonnie Simmons’ Mercury-affiliated Total Experience Records in 1979, the trio would - over the ensuing eight years - go on to help define and popularise an infectious and enduring form of upbeat funk (alongside soulful quiet storm ballads) on the nine consecutive hit albums they recorded for the label. Which in turn spawned a succession of US Top Five R&B singles, the best known being 1980’s 'Oops Upside Your Head’ (also a Top Five UK pop smash); 1981’s ‘Burn Rubber On Me’ and ‘Yearning For Your Love’; 1982’s ‘Early In The Morning’ and ‘You Dropped A Bomb On Me’; 1983’s ‘Outstanding’; plus 1987’s ‘Big Fun’ (another British Top Five pop hit).
Nevertheless, with The Gap Band scoring the last of their four US R&B Number One singles in 1989 with ‘All Of My Love’, the group’s gradual commercial demise also sadly coincided with Charlie’s personal descent into drug addiction, alcoholism and homelessness during the late-Eighties/early-Nineties. During which time his musical influence was still nevertheless being strongly felt and resounding in the gritty, powerful vocal stylings of a whole new generation of chart-topping New Jack Swing/R&B vocalists - most notably Aaron Hall and R. Kelly.
A fact which, coupled with The Gap Band’s vast back-catalogue being heavily sampled by America’s then-rising hip hop generation, would in the mid-Nineties lead to one of rap music’s biggest stars - multi-million-selling West Coast rhymesmith Snoop Dogg - first hooking-up with a by-now sober-and-rehabilitated Wilson for several tracks on his 1996 international hit album ‘Tha Doggfather’. All of which in turn has since led to Charlie becoming a regular collaborator-of-choice for many of today’s leading hip hop/R&B artists - including (in addition to his still-ongoing friendship and working relationship with Snoop) such globally-acclaimed names as Kanye West; R. Kelly; Jay-Z; Justin Timberlake; Jamie Foxx; and T-Pain.
Meanwhile, with Wilson having released a one-off solo album ‘You Turn My Life Around’ for the MCA label back in 1992, the Noughties - thanks largely to his new-found acceptance from the modern-day hip hop/R&B generation - finally saw him launching his solo career permanently, via 2000’s Interscope-released ‘Bridge The Gap’. Though it was after signing a multi-album deal with Jive Records in 2004 that Charlie would truly return to the bona fide US chart heights of his Gap Band days - with his first three releases for the label (2005’s Gold-selling ‘Charlie, Last Name Wilson’; 2008’s double-Grammy-nominated, R&B chart-topping ‘Uncle Charlie’; and 2010’s ‘Just Charlie’) having all attained Top 10 status Stateside while simultaneously establishing him firmly as one of R&B music’s most enduring and influential vocalists.
… All of which in turn brings us up-to-date. As a highly-talkative and personable Mr. Wilson (who is also publicly celebrated in the US these days for his work as national spokesperson for the Prostate Cancer Foundation) hooks up for the first time with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss his upcoming London show; the extreme highs and lows of his trailblazing, 44-year career; plus his ongoing close relationship with the cream of America’s hip hop talent.
Charlie’s thoughts on his upcoming headline concert at London’s IndigO2
“Well, I love Great Britain and I love to perform for my British fans. But to me I just don’t get a chance to come there ENOUGH! You know, for a while now I’ve been trying to find some promoters to bring me over and couldn’t FIND anybody. So now that I have, hopefully I’ll be able to come back more OFTEN!... And the show itself is gonna be INCREDIBLE! We’ve got the dancers; the lights; the sound; my whole band … You know, this time I’m bringing EVERYBODY! Then song-wise, in addition to playing all the recent Charlie Wilson solo hits, we’re also definitely gonna take you back and do some of the old Gap Band hits too!”
His latest US R&B Top 10 album - the December 2010-released ‘Just Charlie’
“Musically I basically wanted to stay within the realm of ‘grown-and-sexy’ while also adding just a little bit of urban appeal... And then lyrically I definitely wanted to deal with how, as men, we’ve lost touch with how to talk to women. You know, while I don’t wanna JUST blame hip hop music or lyrics, a lot of the problem does have to do with some of the hip hop stuff that came out years ago. To where some of the kids that have grown up on that have just got so used to calling women words like ‘bitch’ or ‘ho’ or ‘hoochie-momma’ or ‘hood-rat’, that a lotta the young women today just EXPECT that - and I don’t like that at ALL! Which is why, with this latest album, I decided to recreate the dialogue between man and woman by making sure there was nothing in there degrading women at all… You know, because the youngsters today do listen to my music a lot, I thought that maybe we could teach them how to be kind and honest and polite to women, and in turn hopefully change attitudes.”
How he feels about being dubbed “Uncle Charlie” by today’s younger hip hop/R&B generation
“I LOVE being looked upon as the ‘cool uncle’ of the music industry - that’s why I called my 2009 album ‘Uncle Charlie’! I was like ‘Let me express myself as an uncle to everybody - ‘cause, in a lotta youngsters’ eyes, anything coming from your uncle has to be TRUE!’! You know, while your dad or your mom can say things to you, you probably won’t LISTEN! Whereas it’s that cool uncle that you really RESPECT! Because, unlike them, he’s the one who’s gonna slide you that 100-dollar note or that 50-dollar note, or whatever!... And it’s actually quite remarkable. Because I see so many Facebook or Twitter comments today where kids are like ‘Wow, I just went to see Uncle Charlie with my auntie! He was really puttin’ it down!’… You know, all the youngsters are beginning to come to the SHOWS now, to the point where I’m really beginning to grab them live AND on record! Because they understand that Uncle Charlie is gonna give it to you STRAIGHT! He ain’t gonna pull no punches - he’s gonna tell it like it IS! So it’s like ‘He’s the only somebody we can listen to that’s OLDER than us - he’s COOL that way!’!”
Charlie’s memories of his early days singing in church in Tulsa, Oklahoma
“I started singing in church as a little boy when I was around three years old. My mother’d be playing the piano, and so she’d have me sing as this little bitty boy along with my brother and sister - and we’d just tear the church UP! Because I’d be this innocent young child singing in this powerful way, trying to imitate my father who was always very energetic in church - you know, he’d be jumping around back then just like I do now ONSTAGE! So you had this three-year-old boy mimicking his father - and the church would just go CRAZY!... And then influence-wise, with it being my mother and father’s church and my mom being very respected as a singer herself, some of the biggest names in gospel would come THROUGH there! You know, Shirley Ceasar and all these women used to come through - and I’d be watching them ALL!... So yeah, I just grew up totally immersed in gospel music. It was incredible, man!”
How he recalls singing in school and eventually forming his first band
“The same way I was singing in church, I also sang all through ELEMENTARY school! Like I remember singing songs like ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ in the auditorium there, and the girls would go so crazy they’d run me into the BATHROOM! I’d be locked in there screaming, and the teachers would have to come and get me OUT! So by the time I got to High School - when I was around 12/13 years old - I had my own little BAND! You know, we’d play the YMCA, the boys’ clubs and places like that while being chaperoned by teachers. And while it all started off with maybe one of two teachers watching us, by the following Wednesday there were four, the next Wednesday there were 12... And before long we had the whole FACULTY in there! And what we’d actually done was, we’d snuck in and watched my older brother and his band - as well as some of the jazz cats around the city - and basically stole their whole repertoire and learnt it VERBATIM! So by the time we came to play for our teachers, we’d be up there playing as if we were these massive little young GENIUSES!.. Then that eventually led to us playing CLUBS, where we’d start at 5:30 for their Happy Hour! You know, though we were obviously too young to be there - and of course my parents didn’t know about it! - because one of the local bass-players would accompany us as our manager, we were able to get AWAY with it!”
How Charlie’s first band eventually metamorphosed into The Gap Band
“Well, as we got a little older, we basically decided to fuse the band I was in with my oldest brother’s band. And while at first we were called Creative Sounds, in 1967 we changed to become The Greenwood, Archer and Pine Street Band. And it was that band that in, 1973, ended up changing its name to ‘The GAP Band’! And from there we basically just started playing EVERYWHERE - until we got to be one of the most massive bands in the CITY! Which in turn allowed us to get in those little vans and go to OTHER cities and OTHER States!”
Charlie’s interesting recollections of The Gap Band’s early days prior to them signing with Total Experience Records in 1979
“Well, with Leon Russell being Tulsa, Oklahoma’s big rock superstar, we quite naturally ended up running into him - which eventually led to him taking us on as his BACKING band. And so from there we ended up going on the road with him, Joe Cocker, The Eagles - and even opening for The Rolling STONES! And this was all before we even had a RECORD out! Like I remember all those guys like George Harrison and Eric Clapton used to always come to Tulsa back then just to see us play LIVE! Because as a band we just had this energetic fusion of pure gospel and rock that was just RAW! You know, there was no structure to it at ALL - it was just purely all about the fun and this enormous ENERGY level we had! And so from there we just kept on playing the clubs and the beer taverns - until we eventually moved out of the city and became successful nationally in our OWN right!”
The highs and low of The Gap Band’s international chart heyday (1979 to 1987) with controversial LA producer Lonnie Simmons’ Mercury-affiliated Total Experience Records
“Well, for me the highlight of those days was the fact that me and my brothers got to spend the best time of our lives together in the studio coming up with the MUSIC. You know, though at the time it was painted as if it was the Total Experience head (the aforementioned Lonnie Simmons) who was coming up with it all, it was actually my brothers and I who came up with EVERYTHING! So in that way we were the ones who made him look really, really good! But while the high-point was the love we had for making the MUSIC, the low was definitely that we just didn’t look at the BUSINESS part of it all the right way. Which meant that after a while it was then kinda EXPECTED of us to be a certain way. And then from there the drugs and alcohol came in and started to play a big part in everything. Which definitely was not a great time in our lives - and so that’s when everything started derailing.”
How Charlie ultimately overcame his alcohol and drug addiction to become the Grammy-nominated, US-chart-topping solo star he is today
“The one good thing about the drugs and alcohol thing for me was that I understood everything I was doing at the time that I was DOING it. In that, although we were derailing, I was still very, very conscious of my spiritual upbringing and my gospel background. And it was the faith that I have in God that ultimately did bring me THROUGH! I mean, if it hadn’t been for my strong spiritual beliefs I’d have already been gone from here a long TIME ago - the drugs would have taken me OUT! Because, though those demons did stick with me for a while, I always said ‘If I can get away from these drugs I know I can do this thing one more time!’… But then what happened was, when I DID finally shake it, what I found was that people were slamming the DOOR in my face! You know, they were telling me I was over the age limit, that it was too late for me, that I wouldn’t be able to do it again... But then through it all I just kept saying ‘You guys don’t really know who I AM and what I have INSIDE of me! I have so much bottled-up in me that I wanna get OUT!’… It was like I was this ball of fire all bottled-up - and, as soon as somebody could pop the cap for me, I was gonna EXPLODE! And when they DID, that’s exactly what HAPPENED!... So yeah, we have overcome a LOT! To where a lot of those people who doubted are now looking to me like ‘Well, I guess he DID know what he was talking about after all!’!”
Charlie’s ongoing friendship and working relationship with West Coast rap superstar Snoop Dogg, which - having begun back in the mid-Nineties on Snoop’s 1996 LP ‘Tha Doggfather’ - has in turn provided him with the opportunity to work with so many of today’s big-name hip hop artists
“Well, Snoop Dogg is like a nephew to me, He was the first one who started calling me ‘Uncle Charlie’; he realised I had a lot to say; he had a lotta EARS to listen, a lotta TIME to listen - and he listened really WELL! To where I then started singing on a lot of his records, a lot of them became hits... And so suddenly EVERYBODY started calling me Uncle Charlie!... So yeah, basically Snoop Dogg is the one who really re-launched me - because he did it long before R. Kelly had his hands on me at ALL (Kelly produced part of the 2005 LP ‘Charlie, Last Name Wilson’)! You know, Snoop was the first one who believed in me - and from that right there all the OTHER hip hoppers started calling to use Uncle Charlie for their hooks! Whether it be Master P, Mystikal - right up to Kanye (West) today! You know, it’s just INCREDIBLE, man!... And, as I say, Snoop is definitely the one responsible for that whole re-launch.”
Why - unlike virtually every other artist of his generation - Charlie’s vocal appeal has remained timeless, in terms of his fitting-in with today’s hip hop/R&B artists and audience
“Well, it’s like this. People know that I can still SING! And not only that, but I can sing any kinda music that you put in FRONT of me! Whether it be gospel, whether it be hip hop, whether it be R&B, whether it be pop - it doesn’t MATTER! My voice can genuinely fit in with ANYTHING happening today! Whether it’s autotuned-up, whether it’s world music, whether it’s just ballads, whether it’s uptempo with a funk bottom - I can sing ALL of it, and everybody KNOWS that! And so that’s the reason why they CALL on me! Because unlike a lotta people from back in the day whose voices were time-locked up - in that their voice worked at that particular time for the music industry because that’s what voices SOUNDED like then - my voice DOESN’T have a time-lock on it! Which is the reason why I’ve inspired so many of today’s singers, and why so many of them have grabbed something from me and then taken OFF on it!... You know, most of the singers out there today do have some flavour of Charlie Wilson in there in some way! Which in turn leaves it open for me to still be COMPETING out there and also means that I’m still in STYLE!”
Charlie’s up-and-coming projects in general
“Well, of course I’ve just had this string of records out with Kanye West that are all on his latest album (‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’) and feature me alongside artists like Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Mos Def… And so following that, Kanye has now said he wants do a record on me for MY project - which we’ll do as soon as we’re both able to get in the studio together... Then I’ve also just recorded and produced a record on Boyz II Men, which is great and will either be featured on their next record or mine... Plus another thing I’ve been doing - because I know R&B is suffering and lotta people can’t get away with some of the things I do today because my voice is so unique - is I’ve been reaching back to try and help other people I know who I think could still definitely make a mark in this music business again… Then in addition to all that, I’m also just about to start my OWN next project! You know, though I don’t know at this point where it’s gonna go musically and I haven’t started picking subject-matter to talk about yet, I am definitely intending to start recording around the First of October... So yeah, I’ve just been doing a whole lotta STUFF lately - because I’m also always TOURING! And of course what I’ m actually counting the days for right now is getting back to LONDON! You know, I’d just love for everybody there to come see my show because I promise I won’t DISAPPOINT you… Though I would advise you to come with your tennis shoes, ‘cause you’re definitely gonna be doin’ a whole lotta MOVIN’!”
Charlie performs at IndigO2, London on September 16
Words PETE LEWIS