Legendary R&B Singer Charlie Wilson on His Work With Gap Band and Snoop Dogg, and Getting His Hollywood Star

“I remember when I first came to Los Angeles,” Charlie Wilson says. “I was here to mix the songs from the Gap Band’s first record, which only sold about 6,000 copies — or maybe it was 600, or 16,” he says with a laugh. “But I was walking in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and I was trying to put my hands in the hands on the sidewalk. I was like, ‘Wow, what if I can get this one day?’ Some woman walking by said, ‘That’s not impossible.’ I said, ‘But I’m talking about me.’ She said, ‘Yeah, and I’m telling you it’s not impossible. It might be improbable, but not impossible.’ And now, here it is — so many years later, and I’m getting that star on Hollywood Boulevard.”

In many ways, it’s remarkable that Wilson, 70, is around to receive his Walk of Fame honor on Jan. 29. After singing lead in the Gap Band alongside his brothers Ronnie and Robert and reeling off a long string of R&B smashes in the ’70s and ’80s, Wilson spent several years in the early ’90s homeless and battling addiction. He was also diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, treated successfully, and now serves as a spokesman for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

But in the ’90s, Wilson’s career entered a new chapter, first as a featured vocalist on records by a new generation of hip-hop artists, and then as a full-fledged solo star. He has received 13 Grammy nominations, a Soul Train Icon award, a BET Lifetime Achievement award and has a dozen No. 1 singles on the Urban AC charts. Over decades, Wilson — who has collaborated with the likes of Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell — became not only one of the signature voices of funk’s golden era, but one of the final links to that classic, soul-drenched sound.

Wilson even has a new single called “Superman,” out on his longtime manager Michael Paran’s P Music Group label. “‘Superman’ is sort of my story,” says Wilson, “because I’ve been through so, so much. So many ups and downs, so many physical things, so many operations, so many crazy things. But I’m still here, and I’m still making No. 1 records.”

Growing up in Tulsa, Okla., the Wilson brothers sang in their father’s Pentecostal church, and their mother insisted they take piano lessons. By the time Charlie was 13, he and his friends had started a band and played “just about everywhere.” Soon, though, he could tell they were actually
getting good.

“When we got to about 15 years old, it was more chaperones than it was students,” he says. “All the teachers — the principal, I called him Pookie. When I got to high school, I was on a first-name basis with the teachers.”

He left that group to join his brothers in a band they named after the streets in their neighborhood: The Greenwood Archer and Pine Street Band. That got abbreviated to the G.A.P. Band, but after a typographical error left off the periods in a show listing, they just became the Gap Band.

Their first break came when fellow Tulsan Leon Russell hired them to back him on 1974’s “Stop All That Jazz” album. But the first two Gap Band records, “Magicians Holiday” (1974, released on Russell’s Shelter label) and “The Gap Band” (1977), went nowhere.

They met Los Angeles-based producer Lonnie Simmons, who signed them to his production company, Total Experience Prods., and got them a record deal with Mercury Records. In 1979, “Shake” became a Top 5 R&B hit.

“We just changed the grooves,” says Wilson, explaining how the Gap Band started to hit its stride. “I used to love Earth, Wind and Fire and I took some vibes that I heard them play. ‘Shake’ was the first one that came up.”

That same year, they noticed a chant that an audience in Pittsburgh was singing. Listening back to a tape of the show, they couldn’t fully decipher the words, but turned it into “Oops Upside Your Head,” building out a P-Funk style jam complete with comic spoken sections. It also went to No. 4 but helped propel the “Gap Band II” album to gold status — and became a perpetual party and concert staple.

As soon as they hit the 1980s, the Gap Band exploded. They scored 10 Top 10 R&B singles in the next six years, including such No. 1 hits as “Burn Rubber” and the irresistible wedding/cook-out standard “Outstanding.” They also crossed over into the Top 40 with the slamming “Early in the Morning” and “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.”

Wilson’s strong, soaring vocals on these songs were defining a modern style of funk — more earthy than Luther Vandross but sweeter than Rick James. And the Gap Band’s reach went surprisingly far: Madonna sampled “Outstanding,” George Michael borrowed “Burn Rubber” and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl said the drum break in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a copy of the signature Gap Band turnaround.

Wilson maintains that the band’s glory days were a dream come true — for a while. “Before we got out of hand with alcohol and drugs and craziness, it was fun,” he says. “And then when we started touring, it ended up being something crazy, and we kept going and going and going. Finally, my father, Bishop Wilson, told me, ‘You need to go by yourself, God showed it to me in a vision.’ I said, ‘What about Robert and Ronnie,’ and he cut me off before I got their names out — he said, ‘Son, it ain’t nothing in that Gap Band for you no more.’”

The singer released his solo debut, “You Turn My Life Around,” in 1992. But he was falling deeper into cocaine and alcohol addiction, and between 1993 and 1995, he slept in the alleys off Hollywood Boulevard. He would hide during the day and come out at night, afraid of being recognized.
“That was my rock bottom time,” he says. “And once you’re on that curve, ain’t but one way back, and that’s up. So I prayed, ‘Lord, it’s too crowded down here, please take me up off this curve.’”

Ironically, Wilson’s darkest days were happening just as he was being acknowledged as a crucial influence on a new wave of R&B, from the New Jack Swing of Guy and Keith Sweat to the emerging hip-hop soul sound of Jodeci and Mary J. Blige.

“I knew that my voice was gonna be around for a very long time, because the ’90s was built on Charlie Wilson’s voice,” he says.

He recalls one pivotal night when he ran into the late Andre Harrell, the founder of Uptown Records, home to the new-school sounds that owed so much to Wilson’s vocals. “I must have been really, really high because I was going into this hotel in Beverly Hills to use the restroom,” Wilson says. “I walked in, this door was open, and I heard a lot of noise and there was a big party. When I peeked in, Andre Harrell looked at the door. He said, ‘Come here!,’ and I said, ‘No, no, no, I’m not dressed, I’ve been up too many days.’ But I went in, and I saw faces I recognized, and I was like, wow, look at all these stars.’

“He said, ‘I want to toast you, man, because if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be toasting anything.’ I was high, been up all night, so I said ‘I gotta go.’ I was so embarrassed. Andre followed me out, gave me a hug and said, ‘If you don’t have a deal, I’ll give you one right now.’ I said, ‘Not like this, not now — give me a couple of weeks and I’ll get back at you.’ But I never got back at him. I was too embarrassed to see him again.”

Wilson determined that the time had come to get himself back in shape. “I said, ‘I gotta get on this mission now, I got to start cleaning up. I’m finna start singing, and they gonna get out the way when I come — they all going to get out the way.’ I had that kind of mentality.”

He went into a rehab program in 1995, where his social worker was a woman named Mahin Tat. They began a relationship, which led to their marriage later that year, but first she laid down some strict rules.
“She told me that if I wanted to be with her, we had to go everywhere together,” he says. “We have to be together every single day, all day, every day. I said, ‘24 hours a day?’ She said yes. ‘I can’t do no 24 hours.’ ‘Well, you can’t do me then.’ So we’ve never been apart, no days and no hours apart ever since we’ve been married. And that’s the reason why I’m still sober.”

Meantime, younger hip-hop artists started calling on Wilson to add his special sauce to their recordings. Snoop Dogg put him on multiple tracks on 1996’s “Tha Doggfather” (which included the inevitable Gap Band reworking “Snoop’s Upside Ya Head”) and 2004’s “R&G (Rhythm and Gangsta): The Masterpiece” albums. It was an ideal way for him to get back in the game and raise his profile without yet taking on the full responsibilities of being a frontman again.

“It meant that my voice, my style of singing, would be around for a while,” he says, “and it would give me time to clean up and do what I had to do to get back so I can be presentable. So that whenever I would see [anyone], they could be proud of me, instead of seeing me like a derelict or something. Then in the millennium I was coming to get it, to show them how much I got left in the tank.”

The 2005 album “Charlie, Last Name Wilson” (with a title track written and produced by R. Kelly) went gold and hit the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 top albums chart. “Uncle Charlie,” in 2009, went even higher — hitting No. 1 on the R&B chart, No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and picking up a couple of Grammy nominations.

Simultaneously, Wilson continued working with the leading figures in hip-hop, including numerous recordings with Kanye West and Pharrell, and, more recently, with Tyler, the Creator, Nas and Don Toliver.
In 2018, Bruno Mars took Wilson out as his opener for part of the 24K Magic World Tour, including Mars’ hometown dates at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium.

“Pharrell would have me come to New York and do vocals for songs he was gonna release on other people,” says Wilson. “I really enjoyed working with Tyler, because he’s different than anybody, like Pharrell was different when he first came in. I have fun with all of them.

“They always call for me,” he adds. “I don’t hunt down them, they call for me when they have a record that they know that I can get on. I know what they’re looking for — they’re looking for that beast mode!”
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, one of the most successful hitmaking teams in history, included Wilson on their 2021 album “Jam & Lewis: Volume One.”

“Charlie Wilson is one of the greatest vocalists God ever created,” says Lewis. “His incomparable style is anointed to move us, and we are blessed when we hear it.” Jam adds that “if music is truly the divine art, then Charlie Wilson is truly the divine artist.”

Remarkably, Wilson’s “comeback” period has now lasted longer than the initial Gap Band years that brought him to fame. He’s been with his wife for 28 years and with Paran, his manager, for more than two decades, and he credits their assistance and advice with extending his success into its sixth decade.
“I think this part of my career is the better half,” he says. “I have a support system — number one is my wife, and the other half is my manager. We all try to pick songs together, and of the records that I’ve put out, maybe one ended up being No. 2, but mainly all of them have been No. 1.”

He chronicled his story in the 2015 New York Times bestselling memoir “I Am Charlie Wilson.” And after his years of struggle — sleeping on the street literally around the corner from the Walk of Fame stars he is now joining — Wilson values his resilience and longevity and recognizes the responsibility to maintain the gift he’s been given and the opportunities that come with it.

“My voice still sounds the same because I haven’t put anything on it in almost 30 years,” he says. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, everything’s just water. And I believe in God strongly. When God gives you something, he don’t take anything away from you.”

Looking to the future, the release of “Superman” may soon be followed by a new album (which would be Wilson’s first since “In It to Win It” in 2017), but the plan is still taking shape. “We have enough songs for an album — we could drop tomorrow if we wanted to,” he says. “But we also have a lot of things that we still want to record.”

Wilson is sorry that his parents and his brothers aren’t around to see him receive his Walk of Fame honors (Robert died in 2010 and Ronnie in 2021). But even more than getting such recognition, just being alive and healthy and happy after all his trials — well, it’s outstanding.

“I’m still here to be able to tell my story and be able to dance and sing and have a good time on the stage,” says Charlie Wilson. “All the things I’ve ever prayed for, they all came to pass. I really sort of am Superman — I’m faster than all of the speeding bullets that came after me.”

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