Charlie Wilson is best-known for being the lead singer of the Gap Band, whose string of platinum and gold albums produced hits like "Outstanding," "Yearning for Your Love," and "You Dropped a Bomb on Me." The consummate performer, Wilson's star shined bright on his solo outings as well: You Turn My Life Around (1992), Bridging the Gap (2000), and Charlie, Last Name Wilson (2005). And on the heels of 2005's gold-selling LP, "Uncle Charlie" topped Billboard's Hot Adult R&B Airplay, again, with the release of "There Goes My Baby," which spent eight weeks at the summit. During his reign at the top, Wilson scored his highest debut on the Billboard 200, when Uncle Charlie, his fourth solo album, landed in the #2 spot.
As the mentor of Aaron Hall and principal influence on R. Kelly, Charlie Wilson is — without question — "the de-facto father of new jack swing." Upon review of Uncle Charlie, his fourth solo album, Charlie Wilson managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on "Homeless," his public battle with prostate cancer and the absolute power of music.
Congratulations on the chart-topping success of "There Goes My Baby." You're one of the few artists that can have someone in their 20s and someone in their 60s jamming and grooving to the same song! How fulfilling is it for you as an artist to know that men and women of a wide age group can listen to your music and all connect?
Man, it feels really good to know I'm bridging gaps and crossing barriers and breaking down walls. I just believe that no matter who you are, what color you are, what you look like, if you can sing and you can come up with a record and it feels good and everybody can sing along with it – everybody should play the record. I still feel that way. I know there are a lot of programmers out there saying, "I can't play this. I can't play that." Your job should be listening to your fans, dude. This is one of those successes that lets everybody know that it doesn't matter how old you are. It's a wonderful feeling. This record can fit all ages.
The same could be said from your latest album, Uncle Charlie. It's classic Charlie. We know it's you, but the production is definitely modern. I love how you started the album with a crazy riff on "Musta Heard." How do you strike and maintain such a delicate balance between the use of classic and contemporary musical stylings?
First of all, I'm married to a Middle Eastern woman so I wanted a Middle Eastern vibe on this record. I was talking to Harvey Mason Jr. about doing a Middle Eastern record. So we came up with this vibe and went, "Hey, it sounds like a party. Do you hear the funk?" We just went with it and it turned out really, really great. It was a lot of fun trying to do something out of the box and build off of a Middle Eastern vibe.
You experiment and incorporate a lot of contemporary elements into your music. As a role model and mentor to a large number of younger artists, what traditional elements do you hope a lot of them hold on to?
Well, the realism for the music, the guts and meat-and-potatoes of it all. I mean, there's a lot. There's a lady that asked me the other day, "What do you think about auto-tune that everybody uses, like T-Pain?" I said, "Hey, however they come in the game, they do their thing." It's okay with me. I don't bash music. All I hope is everybody understands what R&B music is. Then you can just take off from that. Pop music – they all come from R&B, all of it had come from that. If everybody remembers to hold on to the soul, the rhythm-and-blues part of it all, everybody would be just fine.
Over time, the R&B genre has been spliced into several different categories. The Recording Academy, for example, honors contemporary R&B and traditional R&B, at their annual GRAMMY Awards ceremony. What is R&B to you?
They put all these different names on it. I don't know what they mean by contemporary. A rhythm-and-blues record feels good to me. It's just a soulful music. It's what comes out of the heart. Back in the day, we just cut music that felt good and had great lyrics and had a nice beat to it. That's what it's coming back to. I don't know if they can call it contemporary or classic or they can call it fusion. I don't know what they want to call it, but it's just good R&B music. I don't know what they'll classify me as but, like you said, a 20 year old and a 60 year old are digging my music. I don't know if they're calling that classic in today's R&B. To me, that's just good R&B.
Over the course of your 40-year career, you have seen the musical landscape evolve over time. What do you think has allowed you to have such longevity in the music business?
First of all, you got to have the stamina and you have to work hard. A lot of people don't like to work hard. That's the reason they don't have hit records. I have hit records because I work hard at it. There are some things that go along with it, which are diet and exercise and every morning getting up and hitting that treadmill. I have my wife, who is my partner and my friend. She's with me in the morning and we hit it together. We work out, lift weights in the gym. A lot of people don't want to do that. When everybody's got their GRAMMY and they're sitting back and thinking of yesterday's GRAMMYs, that don't get them today's number one hit record. That ain't working. They gave them a shot, they gave them all of that but in the end, who's still standing?
Right! [laughing] Charlie Wilson works hard at what he does. But I have a hell of a team around me, too. I got a wonderful friend in my wife, my manager Michael Paran, my assistant Jenna Lankford and from the west Karen Lee, from the east, Juanita Stephens. We have these five people who have surrounded me and taken care of my needs every single day. There's always somebody there taking care of business just like I am when I'm doing my music. When my part is over, this organization that I have, this group of men and women continue to work round-the-clock to make sure we're going where we need to go. A lot of people don't have that. A lot of people just want to use their GRAMMYs that they had in 1988. "I won 3 GRAMMYs and I should be able to…" Then they run out here, half-cocked and they get to about number 0 on the charts and fall off.
What do you think is the best piece of advice that somebody ever gave you?
When I was in the darkest part of my life, in the corner of the hell part of Hollywood, a guy walked up to me and said, "Charlie, don't wait too long to come back because you're going to end up like me, just trying when it's way too late, trying to figure out how to get back in this game. Don't wait until you get to my age to try and figure out how to get back in this game because I'm struggling right now." He's dead now. But I was in the darkest part of my life at that time – drugs and alcohol. He was like, "Man, you need to stop now and try to come on in, man. It ain't too late for you." That was one of the things that stuck with me. I was like, "Wow." I had to get myself together.
What pulled you through? What made you just put everything down?
There was nowhere I could go. I was out already on the curb. I looked around, and seeing everybody else on the curb, I was like, "I need to get the hell out of here because it's too crowded down here. It's way too crowded down here for me." Being homeless and being on the curb – that's the struggle, man, not having anywhere to go. That's one of the worst feelings, man – not knowing where your meal is going to come from, no income and you're just in the streets. Everybody that's down there knows who you are. Drugs are easy to get because people who have the drugs are looking at you like, "Oh, man, that's the meal for you man." They just give you more. It's dark down there, man, with nowhere to go, nobody really loving you. The people that are giving you drugs really don't love you because if they did, they won't give it to you. It was crazy. When I found my future wife and married her, from that day, the light came. I used to pray to God, "Don't let the devil kill me down here. I have something else I got to do because I'm not finished yet. I didn't get what I deserve to have." He granted me that wish and this is what I'm doing now. I'm going after it. I got married to a wonderful woman that made sure that I kept living right and doing the right things. And I had a manager that took care of business. And we started gathering positive people around me. Like I said, everything's working fine now. I'm happy, man.
Well, with all that you've shared, I want to talk about one of your new songs, "Homeless." The whole analogy is so powerful – losing your love and almost feeling like you have nothing else. How did you come up with that?
You hit the nail right on the head because that's exactly how those lyrics came and that's how I sang it. Just imagine you have nowhere to go and your girl put you out. You were able to write in this big cardboard, "I'm homeless." As she's leaving, going to work, you put that sign up. She sees it and she goes on to work and she goes from lunch break and you go to her job. Any moment you're trying to show her, "I'm not going to do without you." That's how I was holding on to God. "There's nothing I can do without you, Lord. I can't do this. You got to pull me up." I'm saying, "I'm sorry if I took you there but you may see me on the corner of a street with a cup in my hand, holding a sign saying, ‘I'm homeless.' You need to bring me back in because you're the love of my life." That's where I was at with it. I can sing it because I already felt it. I had lived it already.
Another one of my favorite tracks is "Back to Love." Are there any stories related to that song?
I was sick with pneumonia and I heard this record over the phone. My wife said, "You ought to hear this record." I said, "I'm sick, sick, sick." Another day I probably would have ended up with strep throat. I was so sick I needed antibiotics. I heard this song on the phone and I said, "Man, play me the song again. Oh, my gosh. Where is the guy?" He said, "He's in Vegas." "Vegas, that's just like about 45 minutes." My wife was standing there and she turned around and she said, "Oh, no. Oh, no. You ain't. Now you're not going anywhere. You are sick." I was like, "You got to hear this one. Play it for my wife." I hear her on the phone. She was like, "Yeah, it's good but you're not going." I said, "Book me a flight. We'll be there tomorrow." She did not like that. It was already late at night. He booked the flight and I went and did it. I was sick and did the vocals. We do need to get back to love, real love. We definitely just need to get back to that. There's so much craziness in the world. Love brings you out a lot of things. It can stop you from killing yourself. Just think about how many middle to upper-class people are homeless right now in this economy. They had no clue that they'd ever be homeless right now. Some people have been killing themselves and all that. We need to get back to love, just nothing but love. That's what I'm trying to share and pass the message on to the people.
You've been sharing and showing a lot of love to the Armed Forces troops. You've even spent time in Iraq — meeting with soldiers and performing for them. Why was it important for you to do that? And what was their response?
First of all, I did it because they needed the morale. They're working everyday. They go outside those walls and they take care of business. They put it on the line everyday. When I got there, the way they received me was incredible. You got a mixed group of men and women from different parts of the country – white, black, they're all young. They're all just about teenagers. Most of them knew who I was. Some of them didn't. When I finished, they were like, "I'm going to get your CD now. I'm going online." I performed an hour-and-a-half and signed autographs for about three hours. The lines were long and I made sure I signed everybody's autographs. A lot of them had my CDs already. It was an amazing journey. I'll never forget it. I remember a guy walking up and telling me he had been deployed for 15 months and he said this was the best day of his life. I'll never forget that. That made it all worthwhile right there. The guy had tears in his eyes when he said it to me. I was in awe. It made it all worthwhile. I will cherish that for the rest of my life. They were going outside the walls and taking care of business right there. When we arrived in one place called Mosul, it was like rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat all day and all night. Man, you'll hear bombs blowing and all of this craziness, you know. It was amazing. To be there with them while they were under fire – I got more respect for the men and women of the Armed Forces than I could ever have. It's through the roof for them.
This year, you were a vocal participant on Tom Joyner's radio show for "Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day," which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has designated the third Tuesday of each September. How important is it for you now that you're in a position of status where you can share your story of prostate cancer and be humbled by your situation and hope that it inspires people?
A lot of people are quiet. A lot of people get diagnosed with different things and they don't want to talk about it. This disease was really about me. That's why I'm sharing it because the knowledge that I had and I learned, I want to share with other men. Prostate cancer is a sneaky one. It doesn't give signs or signals. It just starts attacking slowly and slowly and start going inside you. This is why I tell people we should go get a PSA test. I know we're all just scared to go to the doctor. I know nobody would like to go get the exam. I was basically begging them to go to the doctor. I will continue to be a spokesperson for the prostate cancer foundation because, man, I just want to know if we can find a cure to snap it. Why is it that one in three African-American males will develop prostate cancer when it's one in six Caucasians or any other ethnicity? I want to know why it is one in three African-American men. I know it's our diet and lifestyle. What about the other reasons? And what's the cure? What can we change? There's not enough money. Why is there not enough money for prostate? Breast cancer gets a lot of money for research but they're not giving the Prostate Cancer Foundation enough money for research. They're not giving them enough money and I just want to know why. That's why I support the foundation. We need to continue to raise money to find the cure, man. I thought I was healthy. I played basketball. I'm always on the treadmill every morning and lifting weights and whatever, trying to eat the best way I can. Then I found out that I was unhealthy. I had this disease. All of this jogging that I was doing – I had no signs that I had this disease. My wife made me go get a PSA test. That's the reason I found out that I had it. This is why we say: "Take a Loved One to the Doctor." Go get a test. Go get a blood test. Go get tested for everything.
You're definitely being a light for the world. When people are diagnosed with something, that is usually the point where they start dealing with it and handling it — ultimately becoming their life's focus. The fact that you've been able to take that moment and inspire countless lives is truly amazing. Just think about the power of one person just saying, "Okay, look. This is what it is, y'all. You all need to handle it." I can only imagine thousands and thousands of men now – just because of you – who are stepping out on a limb and not being afraid to get tested. From one man to another, it's a true testament of your character.
This is why I stepped out. I needed to tell the brothers and the sisters, too, because women have a major role in this whole situation. Nine times out of ten, we ain't going to the doctor. We're not going to go. If it ain't for the girlfriend or the wife, they ain't going. I stepped out so I can say it, so the girlfriend or the wife will hustle them and say, "We're going to the doctor. We're going." Let's be honest, man. We ain't going. A lot of dudes will say: "That's exit only." But I say, "Man up and get the finger shot." We need to go get it checked. The PSA test is just a blood test, anyway. I know there's been a lot of hoopla and talk about the PSA test, that's it's not going to work, it's not accurate. As soon as I started talking about it, here comes somebody out of the woodwork saying, "Well, the PSA test is not accurate." Well, I do know when I did it the PSA test saved my life. I can speak on something that worked for me. This is the reason why I tell people it worked for me.
Well, a good uncle always gives great advice! [laughing] For some time now, you have been known as "Uncle Charlie." We all know that Snoop Dogg was the first to dub you with the name, but is there a story behind the name? And what is the depth of your relationship with him?
Well, Snoop always says, "Uncle Charlie is my uncle, not by blood, but by love." For somebody to allow me into their home, around their children and trust me that way for so many years, I'm definitely uncle. I've been there when there are good times. I've been there when there were some rough times for him. Now he's back up on top. I've been around everything he's been through. I've been inside the home and commented "I think you should do this" or "I think you shouldn't do this." He's been one who listens, so I'm an uncle that way. That's what uncles are for – especially a cool one, one that's not that far off age-wise but who you can relate to. He allows you in his home for questions and answers and things like that. So that's why I'm cool uncle because I'm not wearing polyester suits. I'm wearing some really cool gear. When I walk in the door, his kids would look at my hands and say, "Where are my Christmas presents?" So it's always cool like that. That's why I'm uncle. I'm uncle to him that way and to many others. I'm America's favorite uncle! [laughing].
For more information on Charlie Wilson, visit his official website: http://www.charliewilsonmusic.com/
Since our conversation, Charlie Wilson has been selected to receive the Rev. Charles Williams Award for his humanitarian accomplishments for prostate cancer. "Uncle Charlie" will receive this honor at the Indiana Black Expo on July 17, 2009. In addition, the Prostate Cancer Foundation recently created the "Charlie Wilson Creativity Award," for advanced prostate cancer research. These one-year awards amount to $1.0 million in funds, all of which has been designated to support innovative ideas that have the potential to achieve breakthroughs for the detection and treatment of prostate cancer.
"Uncle Charlie" is currently touring across America — "performing" and "informing." Be sure to check out a few of his special appearances at the Steve Harvey Hoodie Awards, Essence Music Festival, Macy's Music Festival, and Taste of Chicago.