The music world recently suffered a loss with the death of Robert Wilson, bassist and co-founder of the legendary funk group The Gap Band. Robert, along with brothers Charlie and Ronnie, formed the group in the early 1970s to, as Billboard’s obituary phrased it, expand “upon the funk sound of George Clinton and Earth, Wind, and Fire.” Robert’s bass, along with Charlie’s soulful lead vocals and Ronnie’s keyboards, combined to produce gritty funk that held crossover appeal. Playing everything from ballads to dance-floor workouts, the Gap Band experienced success in the late ’70s and the early-to-mid ’80s with their distinctive sound.
Their earliest incarnation, the Greenwood, Archer, and Pine Streets Band, played throughout the Tulsa area. According to All Music, local advertisers felt the band’s name was too long for posters, thus shortening it to the G.A.P. Band. After one advertisement listed them incorrectly as the Gap Band, the name stuck. By 1975 Charlie had moved to Los Angeles to further pursue a music career; he eventually convinced his brothers to join him there. Finally securing a recording deal, they achieved success first with the jazz-funk track “Shake,” followed by their 1979 album The Gap Band II (actually their fourth album; they recorded two others on smaller labels, and The Gap Band met with little success), which spawned the Clintonesque single “I Don’t Believe You Want to Get up and Dance (Oops!).” Best known for the unforgettable line, “Saying oops upside your head/Saying oops upside your head,” the song featured Charlie’s vocals, punctuated by his distinctive “hiccuping,” which propelled the song to number four on the R&B singles chart. Another outstanding track, “Party Lights,” with Robert’s thumping bass and blaring horns, shows how heavily Earth, Wind, and Fire influenced their early compositions.
The Gap Band’s next album, 1980′s Gap Band III (yes, in reality their fifth album), showed funk fans that the band was no flash in the pan. The single “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)” sounded like no other soul single at the time. Just listen to Robert’s pulsing bass line, Charlie’s growling voice, and Ronnie’s slightly distorted keyboards—all of these elements add up to classic dirty funk, but with a danceable beat. “Yearning for Your Love” proved they could perform tender love songs as well as floor burners, with the breezy beat and laid-back vocals slightly reminiscent of such EWF classics as “You Can’t Hide Love” or “That’s the Way of the World.” “Sweet Caroline” (not to be confused with the Neil Diamond tune) shows off their jazzy side, with a swaying beat and horn accents. Prince must have been listening to “Gash Gash Gash,” as Ronnie’s keyboard lines predict many funky tunes off his 1999 album. Overall, Gap Band III remains a solid effort containing no inferior songs.
How could they top such a strong album? The Wilson brothers accomplished just that with The Gap Band IV, which includes an astounding number of classic hits. “Early in the Morning” picks up where “Burn Rubber” left off, and Robert’s bass plays a crucial part in the song’s success. The drums and bass drive the song, urging on Charlie’s vocals and making the track an instant funk classic. As a side note, Robert Palmer admirably covered the tune on his 1988 album Heavy Nova. The group also scored a massive hit with “You Dropped A Bomb On Me,” with its heavy keyboards, thumping bass and bomb-dropping sound effects. Charlie’s unforgettable vocal, with its growls and snarls, still amaze. Again proving their diversity, “Outstanding” became a quiet storm hit with its midtempo groove and Robert’s complicated bass. Amazingly, much of this classic album is not currently available on iTunes, meaning that many catchy album tracks such as “Stay with Me” and the beautiful, jazz-kissed “I Can’t Get Over You” must be found via other online music stores.
The funk party continued with the feel-good album Gap Band V: Jammin’, released in 1983. “Party Train,” its best-known track, scored on the charts and remains an essential party jam. Again, the keyboards, Robert’s bass, and Charlie’s unique singing style make the cut the ultimate example of the Gap Band sound. Other interesting songs include “Someday,” with Stevie Wonder contributing background vocals; the Wonder-influenced ballad “You’re My Everything,” which contains lovely piano playing by Ronnie; and the sequel to “I Don’t Believe You Want to Get Up and Dance (Oops!),” the spacey “Jam the Motha,” which addresses all “funkateers.” Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic must have been proud!
Throughout the 1980s, the Wilson brothers continued recording their own brand of funk, releasing tunes such as “Beep A Freak,” “Disrespect,” “Going in Circles,” and “Big Fun.” In the early ’90s, Charlie ventured on a solo career, and the Gap Band gradually ceased releasing albums. However, rap and hip hop artists frequently sampled their tracks, allowing fans to gain a new appreciation for their irresistible brand of funk.
Robert Wilson was to play Tulsa’s Timeless Music Festival on August 28, showing that up until his untimely death at age 53, he still loved performing. Known as the “Godfather of Bass Guitar,” Robert was an essential contributor to the Gap Band’s extensive hits. Without his popping bass, “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” or “Early in the Morning” would simply not have been possible. To celebrate his life and career, pick up copies of Gap Band II, III, IV, and V, or collections such as Gap Band Gold. Pay particular attention to the bass and drum rhythms, and immerse yourself in the Gap Band’s version of good-time, gritty funk. George Clinton once said that “you can’t fake the funk,” and the Gap Band proved that they were indeed the real thing.