As lead singer of the Gap Band, Charlie Wilson had it all in the early ‘80s, only to get derailed by all the excesses that fame can bring. He ended up living on the streets of Hollywood in the mid-‘90s, but pulled himself together, got clean and found a way to resurrect his career.
Today, Wilson is affectionately called Uncle Charlie by younger artists who have tapped his musical expertise and experience, including Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West. Catch him Saturday night at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, where he’ll perform funk favorites by the Gap Band including “Early in the Morning,” “Outstanding” and “You Dropped a Bomb On Me,” plus plenty of solo hits from his recent albums “Love, Charlie” and “Just Charlie.”
Wilson talked to Miami.com about the show, how he turned his life around, and advice he would give to successful artists who might feel invincible.
What can we expect from your set?
A lot of fun, that’s for sure. Tell all the ladies I know you’re coming in your stilettos, but I suggest you have a small pair of tennis shoes or whatever with you, because we’re gonna be having a lot of fun up in there. Bring your dancing shoes. Put ‘em in your purse, and you can just walk back out like you had those stilettos on all night [laughs].
I imagine we’ll hear a lot from “Just Charlie” – what were you going for with that album?
Oh, man, I was just being myself – when I say it was just Charlie, I mean it’s just me doing what I do. At that moment I was just trying to make a great R&B record, and bring back memories with love songs. I wasn’t having a concept record or anything like that – I was just being me and having the most fun I could have.
And you’re gonna break out some Gap Band hits as well?
Always do. Can’t get on and can’t get off without it [laughs].
Are there any groups today that you feel approach the sound the Gap Band achieved?
Not that I can recall. Daft Punk – they’ve got a mixture of the sound that Pharrell [Williams] uses, plus some of the disco stuff. But I don’t know anybody that’s come close to me except for Pharrell – he knows me and he knows my sound like the back of his hand. If he hits any part of it, he’s thinking Charlie, too, because he’s such a big fan and he grew up listening to the Gap Band.
What inspires you to work with young artists like Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West and now 2 Chainz?
Well, they’re calling me [laughs]. I’m not searching for anybody. It’s like the kid Wiz Khalifa was at the Awards, and he stepped to me and said, “Oh, would you come and sing on something with me?” And I was like, “Yeah, whatever you got.”
So he’s waiting on me now – I’m supposed to be doing something with him this week, but I’ve been really busy doing interviews and things like that. So I’ll get with him and see what he’s got. But yeah, they’re calling on me, and I’m having a lot of fun that way, because I don’t go out searching for anybody. It’s just happening naturally.
You’ve been through a lot over the years. Any advice for young artists at the top of their game?
If you’re headed toward the top of your game, and you think you’ve conquered the world, stop. Stop. If you want a short-lived career, that’s fine – you know, I made it to the top and I’m through. But nobody’s ever really through, not in their minds, but in their hearts about music if they’ve conquered something that they wanted to conquer. So I say stay focused, stay true to what it is, follow your signs, follow your heart and go for it.
And never stop – there are so many things out there that can just turn you away from your gift, like drugs and alcohol. Don’t self-medicate just to be the cool one in the bunch, because that can turn out to be something really, really bad for you in the long run. And then you’re stuck, and now you’re hooked to drugs and you’re trying to figure out how to get off the drugs, and you don’t think there’s a way out, and now you’re in trouble. And you can sink deeper and deeper into that depression because now nobody wants to bother with you, nobody wants to hear your music no more, and they’re calling you a failure because you wasted so much time dabbling in the streets and trying to mix that with your superstardom. It just don’t work.
I know you’re speaking from personal experience – what brought you back from all that?
Absolutely. Sheer perseverance and the passion that I had. And I just didn’t finish doing what I wanted to do. So I was like, I know I can do this, and here I am. I never stopped, and it’s a good thing, man. God is good.
Do you feel more grateful for your success now?
Oh, for sure – that’s why I try to speak to the younger audience. I know they probably don’t wanna hear it – they don’t understand it till they get past the age limit, and you’re trying to make a comeback and all the doors are closing in your face. … I love music, and I understand – I appreciate it more now than ever. Yes I do – because when you’re young, you’re just going at it, going and going and going.
So keep it real, keep it fresh, and know what your surroundings are at all times. And if you go to a party, don’t be the last one leaving. Because it could be like, yeah, I went to this party, and five years later I’m still at the party, and everybody was gone but me. Been there, done that.