‘I Made It Through’
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS: CHARLIE WILSON
Charlie Wilson opens up about his legendary career and fascinating life offstage.
BY KIMBERLY BAILEY-TUREAUD
For a certain generation of music listeners, Charlie Wilson’s distinctive voice is immediately reminiscent of his days as lead vocalist for the legendary Gap Band — a time when his smooth delivery etched a number of songs (“Outstanding” and “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” to name just two) into the R&B canon.
His life offstage has been as dramatic as his vocal delivery. After splitting with the band in 1986, he battled and defeated both addiction and homelessness. His return to the spotlight in recent times has been nothing short of triumphant. Wilson played to a sold-out crowd at the MGM Arena this spring, and has for years enjoyed a thriving solo career that has taken him across the globe.
His latest album, “Forever Charlie,” features the inescapable hit single “My Favorite Part of You.” And now he’s an author, with the recently-released memoir “I Am Charlie Wilson.” He sat down with Black Image for a candid discussion, which began with a sincere query about how one should address this revered elder statesman of soul.
What would you like me to call you: Mr. Wilson, Charlie or Uncle Charlie?
Everybody calls me Uncle Charlie, and it’s all good.
What inspired you to write a book?
People have told me [when I am testifying] for many years, “Man you have a book in you, and you need to tell your story.” I sort of sidestepped writing a book for a long time, because it was so much darkness and pain. But then I decided to write the book because you can’t hold on to garbage and carry it around with you. You have to throw it out. I am not saying my book is all garbage, but I had to address my dark past and it was really painful to write about it. But I made it through.
In one of the chapters in your book, you talk about “Becoming Charlie Wilson.” Who is Charlie Wilson?
Well, it was things I had to let go of, and some things that I am today that were carefully planned. Like I said, I had to drop the garbage and peel back some things to find who I am today. (Laughs) “Yes, he dresses up really good.”
What musical projects do you have out now?
My album, “Forever Charlie,” is out with a new single called, “My Favorite Part of You.” The mixes are out at the radio stations now. I work with so many people. Of course, Snoop and I have a record out called “Peaches and Cream,” and we did the video together. I have worked with Pharrell and Kanye West, and I also go to London to work with some of the biggest producers there and in Australia. People are asking to work with me from all over the world.
To what do you attribute having a long and successful musical career?
I prepare my whole life to perform in arenas. To be the best there is; and like I said, I play hard and I leave it all out there on the stage when I perform. Even while performing in small theaters with only 500 people — it doesn’t matter. I still give a performance like I was in an arena. People would say, “This dude is working way too hard in this little club. He was sweating.” Every time I put a show on, after I leave the stage, I leave all I have on the stage. It doesn’t matter to me how many people are sitting in the audience. It can be 500, 5,000 or 50,000 — I am going to play the same way. This is the reason I am where I am in my career and life right now. I work hard for what I have. For others, if the theater is half-full, they give a halfway show. That has never been me. Charlie Wilson has never done that. Charlie Wilson has never missed a show that he wasn’t supposed to miss. I work hard, I play hard and I deserve what I am getting.
What can you say to other people struggling with drug addiction and how to get out of their bad situation?
I would say, “It is easier than you think to get out.” You are beating yourself up, because I beat myself up for a long time. Every time I didn’t want to get high, I wanted to get high. When you are addicted to something, as soon as you say, “I don’t want,” the other side, the demonic side, says, “Take just one more hit. It’s all good.”
Meanwhile, you get closer and closer to busting your heart out or having an aneurysm or something. You are willing to take that chance when taking a hit — and all you have to say is, “No, I am done. That’s it. That is all. And God help me to get out of here. I need to be strong.” If you take one step, you can take two.
We have to give this over to a higher power, because we can’t work this out ourselves. It is easier than you think. You have to give it to the higher power, it’s as simple as that. Admit you have a problem. Once you get over admitting you have a problem, that’s the first day of the rest of your life.
What has God done for you?
He brought me out of my drug addiction. He has given me all the chances. I always say, “I should have been on the Six O’Clock News a long time ago.” Found dead up under a truck somewhere. God brought me out. I used to pray and ask God not to let the devil kill me. “Please, don’t let the devil kill me out here until I get back to doing what I want to do. If you let me get back there, I promise you I will give you praise every single night.”
He kept his word, so I kept my word. He has blessed me. He has given me favor, his mercy and grace. He has been shining on me. My whole life, I have been in predicaments that I just knew in a few minutes I would be dead. Throughout, God has thrown his arms around me and covered me with his blood and protection. He didn’t allow me to get hurt. I have walked out of so many different situations that I knew I would end up dead in. But He covered me. Some people who were around, and worked with me, I thought were clean. And they weren’t. They were getting high and I didn’t know it. Had I known the person was getting high, I would have never allowed him around me. The first thing that God does is change people, places and things. Those three things I did change.
A lot of people were upset when I stopped doing drugs, and would say I thought I was better than them. I am better than you on that curve. I do not desire to be down there with you doing drugs. They have every right to be down there … but not me. So I got up and lifted to a higher place. I have been climbing and climbing, and God has been good to me. In return, I am going to praise him — simple.
What was the process like when you left The Gap Band and became a solo artist?
It was hard for me to leave The Gap Band because those two band members were my brothers and they were geniuses. They gave me confirmation on stage when I would try something new or say something. I could look to the right or the left of me on stage, and someone was there. It was very scary in the beginning of my solo career. I didn’t have that cushion; I was by myself. As a collective, The Gap Band was a beast — all three of us. When we broke up, I was happy and sad at the same time for a long time.
You are a national spokesperson for Prostate Cancer Awareness. Is it the job of women to take our men to the doctor to get their prostate checked?
I think women should take their men for their prostate checkup, because we are not going on our own. It was my wife that made me go to the doctor. It was her insistence that made me go, and that is the reason I found out I had prostate cancer. If it wasn’t for her insistence, I would be dead — because my prostate cancer was very aggressive.
You have to find out your family health history. If you have cancer, and are trying to find out why you have it, it is probably because your father or grandfather had it. My dad died of prostate cancer and I never knew it. I didn’t know that was what killed him, and if I knew it then I would have been more proactive with my health care. I would have changed my diet and I would have been watching for it and keeping my eye on it and not have to go through something like I did at the last moment.
If your man is up all times in the night urinating, you have to ask him if he has a strong stream of urine coming out or a strong flow. You know we don’t want to tell that part of it and we will lie, “Yeah, I’m peeing good.” (Laughs). You probably have to listen at the bathroom door to make sure that he has a strong release. But, if you just hear a squirting out in spurts, his prostate might be swollen. We don’t like to go to the doctor for our prostate checkup, because we have to have that finger shot up there. But we have to just man up and go to the doctor because so many are dying.
What do you do to relax and what makes you happy?
The stage and performing makes me happy. I haven’t started calling it work yet — because when I start calling it work, I will retire. I am still having fun and performing makes me happy. Also when my wife and I can sit around, laugh, and watch movies together. That feels great when we can wind down. We are together every day, 24 hours a day. Having quality time together is a challenge with my hectic career and when we are on tour. Right now — bless her heart — we are at the dentist’s office. Wherever I go, she goes.