Charlie Wilson just can’t be stopped. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, native helped to define classic house-party funk with the Gap Band. Along with his brothers Robert and Ronnie, Wilson—now 60—created such chart-toppers as “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” and “Early in the Morning” during the band’s ’80’s heyday. But the group’s hard-partying ways—as well as struggles with alleged mismanagement—took their toll. Substance abuse, topped off by a period of homelessness, followed, before Wilson achieved sobriety in 1994. He was helped back into the spotlight by Snoop Dogg, starting a collaboration—and a friendship—that continues to this day and sparking other projects with a full range of younger performers, including R. Kelly, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, and Will.i.am. Prostate cancer almost sidelined him again. But he’s back—and giving back: in 2008, the singer became the national spokesman for the Prostate Cancer Foundation, and last year he announced his partnership with Janssen Biotech to launch the company’s Making Awareness a Priority (M.A.P.) campaign. And the music keeps on coming. On his fourth solo album, Love, Charlie, out now, Wilson continues his exploration of soulful adult urban contemporary, and in June, he was honored by BET with a Lifetime Achievement award. We caught up with Wilson, who will perform at the Essence Festival on Saturday, July 6, at his ranch in California.
First of all, congratulations on the BET award.
I am so happy, first of all, that BET thought about me. I’m quite sure that the list is long for this award, lifetime achievement, and I know a lot of people are probably worthy of this award, just as much as I am. I notice that the past recipients have had a lot of success, but that was back in the day and I notice sometimes that they wait till the person is no longer in the business. I’m the first to receive an award coming off of a number one record [“You Are,” Number One Billboard urban adult contemporary for 13 weeks] and with one going up the charts [“Turn Off the Lights”]. People can look at that, see that I’m still current. That’s the best part of all of this: They won’t come and get me when I’m in a wheelchair and can’t barely speak.
It seems like they’re honoring you partly for your outreach.
I’m a spokesperson for the [national] Prostate Cancer Foundation. As African American men, we’re two times more likely to die from this disease, and I’m so happy they gave me a platform. We don’t talk about this disease. We need to continue to talk about this, help stamp out this particular demon that’s killing us. Get tested, get a PSA test, go to your personal physician and let them examine you and know your numbers and know what those numbers mean. I was diagnosed in 2008 and I’m cancer free now. It’s a blessing to know your status. Early diagnosis is key.
Cancer isn’t the only demon you’ve overcome.
A lot of people bury themselves in alcohol and drugs and never get up. I covered myself with self-pity, and I got back up, dusted myself off, and said “I can do this.” I have strong support. I have a woman who stands by me, a good manager, people who don’t steal my money. And that’s the best—and I just go on with my life. It’s a great opportunity for a guy like me. I’m having the best time of my life.
When I was younger, when I was homeless, there were some very trying times for me, I went through it, I weathered the storm. It was a cousin of mine who pulled me in and pulled me into rehab. I met this really wonderful woman who was there [in rehab] with the doctor, and I later married her, and we’ve been together ever since. To show all this love and make me want to do this thing again, it was definitely hard because there was a lot of damage there.
You’re talking about your wife, Mahin Wilson, a social worker, who now works with you on your songs?
She talked me back into it and helped me. [Musically] I was picking up where I left off, and she said, “No, you can’t say that. No woman will want to hear that.” It kept me kind of grounded.
Did you know you’d be collaborating with her musically?
I thought she was just going to keep cooking sandwiches and things like that. [She kept] coming in my room and telling me, “I don’t like what you’re saying.” At the end of the day—some of things she had me change just worked to my benefit. She comes to the table prepared. It’s just great to have your life partner, the woman you love, be involved with everything you’re doing, for the last 18 years.
Now you tour together?
Everywhere! We don’t go nowhere without each other. Everywhere except for the public bathroom. Everywhere!
Listening to songs like the slow and sultry “If I Believe” or the sweet “My Love is All I Have,” I’m struck by how romantic the new album is. It sounds like old-school soul.
Once you’re a certain age, certain radio stations won’t play you. If they would play my music on certain stations, I would tailor fit it and still be number one. It’s a different thing. You have to have a different kind of swagger when you’re 20, 21 years old.
Could you have done these songs with the Gap Band?
I could have lived out and played out and wrote these kind of songs with my brothers back in the day, if we had been left alone to do that—but being taunted and messed with and strained and wrung out through the wringer of everything, we just didn’t live out the real musical dreams that one musician would love to have. Lyrically we could have grown, but those times were a bit rough, and we didn’t get a chance to live it out like we could have. We definitely had the audience.
So are you done with playing that kind of funk?
I do have an alter ego, and at some point I’m going to let that alter ego out—but I’m not going to tell you about that right now. In about a year I will.
You’ve credited Snoop Dogg with helping you get back into the music industry after rehab. What is that relationship like?
Snoop is the one who really helped me get back into the game. He allowed me to sing on his records. He took me on the road with him, and I showed him how it’s supposed to go—how much energy you’re supposed to have, how to take good care of your audience. He understands that I taught him that, and when I was having hard times, he was there for me. He was looking out for me, and I’m so happy he came into my life.
Besides Essence, you’re heading out to Europe. You’re keeping up a pretty grueling tour schedule of 75 to 100 gigs a year.
Right now, we’re on break. What you see now is not probably half of what we usually do. You have to kind of watch what you pray for. I asked my wife, I was so tired: can’t we take a break? Then you wonder, does my body really need all that rest? Because you’re losing money.
But it’s been great to take the time off, work on some other things—work on my book, and these animals I have on this ranch. I have a lot of animals, and I don’t get to see my dogs that much. They act like they haven’t seen me in a year. I have lambs, goats, chickens, turkeys, dogs. It’s Old Man Wilson’s farm. It’s just great to mingle with the animals.
Wait… you’re writing a book? A memoir?
Absolutely. Trying to get some of the things out, it just takes time. You’re not there to point fingers. There’s stuff I’ve forgiven but I haven’t forgotten, I’ll get a lot of stuff off my plate and I’ll move on.
It just takes time, you go back and hash out what you did, the upside and the downside and the sideways things that you did, and you can’t take none of it back, so you go on. You got to continue, to love to do what you do—the work ethic at this stage of my life, a lot of people looking at me and wondering why it’s me that gets this attention. I never got the attention I wanted to get when I was with the Gap Band. Now I know what it takes to win. You have to work really hard to get where you want to go. I know I have to get up and do an interview, do radio at three in the morning or four o’clock. A lot of people don’t want to do that.
I don’t know how to explain that part of it. I’m at half time. I’m going to the top of the third quarter. I don’t know how the third quarter is going to play out, how the fourth quarter’s going to play out—I’m going to play it and I don’t know how long it going to last, two years, maybe three years. I don’t know. I don’t know how it’s going to work, but I’m going to play it hard like I never played before. I’m going to do it like I never played.