Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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Charlie Wilson: Outstanding contributions

Charlie Wilson
Charlie Wilson

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 Londonâs 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 parentsâ Pentecostal church before later becoming a prominent member of his Junior High Schoolâs 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 âThe Gap Bandâ.

Signing with controversial Los Angeles producer Lonnie Simmonsâ 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 1980âs 'Oops Upside Your Headâ (also a Top Five UK pop smash); 1981âs âBurn Rubber On Meâ and âYearning For Your Loveâ; 1982âs âEarly In The Morningâ and âYou Dropped A Bomb On Meâ; 1983âs âOutstandingâ; plus 1987âs âBig Funâ (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 âAll Of My Loveâ, the groupâs gradual commercial demise also sadly coincided with Charlieâs 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 Bandâs vast back-catalogue being heavily sampled by Americaâs then-rising hip hop generation, would in the mid-Nineties lead to one of rap musicâs 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 âTha Doggfatherâ. All of which in turn has since led to Charlie becoming a regular collaborator-of-choice for many of todayâs 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 âYou Turn My Life Aroundâ 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 2000âs Interscope-released âBridge The Gapâ. 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 (2005âs Gold-selling âCharlie, Last Name Wilsonâ; 2008âs double-Grammy-nominated, R&B chart-topping âUncle Charlieâ; and 2010âs âJust Charlieâ) having all attained Top 10 status Stateside while simultaneously establishing him firmly as one of R&B musicâs 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 âBlues & Soulâ 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 Americaâs hip hop talent.

Charlieâs thoughts on his upcoming headline concert at Londonâs IndigO2

âWell, I love Great Britain and I love to perform for my British fans. But to me I just donât get a chance to come there ENOUGH! You know, for a while now Iâve been trying to find some promoters to bring me over and couldnât FIND anybody. So now that I have, hopefully Iâll be able to come back more OFTEN!... And the show itself is gonna be INCREDIBLE! Weâve got the dancers; the lights; the sound; my whole band ⦠You know, this time Iâm bringing EVERYBODY! Then song-wise, in addition to playing all the recent Charlie Wilson solo hits, weâre also definitely gonna take you back and do some of the old Gap Band hits too!â

His latest US R&B Top 10 album - the December 2010-released âJust Charlieâ

âMusically I basically wanted to stay within the realm of âgrown-and-sexyâ while also adding just a little bit of urban appeal... And then lyrically I definitely wanted to deal with how, as men, weâve lost touch with how to talk to women. You know, while I donât 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 âbitchâ or âhoâ or âhoochie-mommaâ or âhood-ratâ, that a lotta the young women today just EXPECT that - and I donât 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.â

How he feels about being dubbed âUncle Charlieâ by todayâs younger hip hop/R&B generation

âI LOVE being looked upon as the âcool uncleâ of the music industry - thatâs why I called my 2009 album âUncle Charlieâ! I was like âLet me express myself as an uncle to everybody - âcause, in a lotta youngstersâ eyes, anything coming from your uncle has to be TRUE!â! You know, while your dad or your mom can say things to you, you probably wonât LISTEN! Whereas itâs that cool uncle that you really RESPECT! Because, unlike them, heâs the one whoâs gonna slide you that 100-dollar note or that 50-dollar note, or whatever!... And itâs actually quite remarkable. Because I see so many Facebook or Twitter comments today where kids are like âWow, I just went to see Uncle Charlie with my auntie! He was really puttinâ it down!â⦠You know, all the youngsters are beginning to come to the SHOWS now, to the point where Iâm really beginning to grab them live AND on record! Because they understand that Uncle Charlie is gonna give it to you STRAIGHT! He ainât gonna pull no punches - heâs gonna tell it like it IS! So itâs like âHeâs the only somebody we can listen to thatâs OLDER than us - heâs COOL that way!â!â

Charlieâs memories of his early days singing in church in Tulsa, Oklahoma

âI started singing in church as a little boy when I was around three years old. My motherâd be playing the piano, and so sheâd have me sing as this little bitty boy along with my brother and sister - and weâd just tear the church UP! Because Iâd be this innocent young child singing in this powerful way, trying to imitate my father who was always very energetic in church - you know, heâd 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 fatherâs 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 Iâd be watching them ALL!... So yeah, I just grew up totally immersed in gospel music. It was incredible, man!â

How he recalls singing in school and eventually forming his first band

âThe same way I was singing in church, I also sang all through ELEMENTARY school! Like I remember singing songs like âI Left My Heart In San Franciscoâ in the auditorium there, and the girls would go so crazy theyâd run me into the BATHROOM! Iâd 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, weâd play the YMCA, the boysâ 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 weâd actually done was, weâd 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, weâd be up there playing as if we were these massive little young GENIUSES!.. Then that eventually led to us playing CLUBS, where weâd start at 5:30 for their Happy Hour! You know, though we were obviously too young to be there - and of course my parents didnât know about it! - because one of the local bass-players would accompany us as our manager, we were able to get AWAY with it!â

How Charlieâs first band eventually metamorphosed into The Gap Band

âWell, as we got a little older, we basically decided to fuse the band I was in with my oldest brotherâs 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 âThe GAP Bandâ! 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!â

Charlieâs interesting recollections of The Gap Bandâs early days prior to them signing with Total Experience Records in 1979

âWell, with Leon Russell being Tulsa, Oklahomaâs 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!â

The highs and low of The Gap Bandâs international chart heyday (1979 to 1987) with controversial LA producer Lonnie Simmonsâ Mercury-affiliated Total Experience Records

âWell, 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 didnât 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 thatâs when everything started derailing.â

How Charlie ultimately overcame his alcohol and drug addiction to become the Grammy-nominated, US-chart-topping solo star he is today

âThe 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 hadnât been for my strong spiritual beliefs Iâd 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 âIf I can get away from these drugs I know I can do this thing one more time!â⦠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 wouldnât be able to do it again... But then through it all I just kept saying âYou guys donât 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!â⦠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, thatâs 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 âWell, I guess he DID know what he was talking about after all!â!â

Charlieâs ongoing friendship and working relationship with West Coast rap superstar Snoop Dogg, which - having begun back in the mid-Nineties on Snoopâs 1996 LP âTha Doggfatherâ - has in turn provided him with the opportunity to work with so many of todayâs big-name hip hop artists

âWell, Snoop Dogg is like a nephew to me, He was the first one who started calling me âUncle Charlieâ; 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 âCharlie, Last Name Wilsonâ)! 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, itâs just INCREDIBLE, man!... And, as I say, Snoop is definitely the one responsible for that whole re-launch.â

Why - unlike virtually every other artist of his generation - Charlieâs vocal appeal has remained timeless, in terms of his fitting-in with todayâs hip hop/R&B artists and audience

âWell, itâs 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 doesnât MATTER! My voice can genuinely fit in with ANYTHING happening today! Whether itâs autotuned-up, whether itâs world music, whether itâs just ballads, whether itâs uptempo with a funk bottom - I can sing ALL of it, and everybody KNOWS that! And so thatâs 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 thatâs what voices SOUNDED like then - my voice DOESNâT have a time-lock on it! Which is the reason why Iâve inspired so many of todayâs 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 Iâm still in STYLE!â

Charlieâs up-and-coming projects in general

âWell, of course Iâve just had this string of records out with Kanye West that are all on his latest album (âMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasyâ) 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 weâll do as soon as weâre both able to get in the studio together... Then Iâve 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 Iâve been doing - because I know R&B is suffering and lotta people canât get away with some of the things I do today because my voice is so unique - is Iâve 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, Iâm also just about to start my OWN next project! You know, though I donât know at this point where itâs gonna go musically and I havenât started picking subject-matter to talk about yet, I am definitely intending to start recording around the First of October... So yeah, Iâve just been doing a whole lotta STUFF lately - because Iâm also always TOURING! And of course what Iâ m actually counting the days for right now is getting back to LONDON! You know, Iâd just love for everybody there to come see my show because I promise I wonât DISAPPOINT you⦠Though I would advise you to come with your tennis shoes, âcause youâre definitely gonna be doinâ a whole lotta MOVINâ!â

Charlie performs at IndigO2, London on September 16

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