Though his solo career broke out in the early 2000s, Charlie Wilson is best known for his three decades as part of the funky singing trio, the Gap Band. While never given just due by music critics, for the better part of a decade the Gap Band created some great music that has increased in stature over time and has influenced a new generation of artists who have liberally borrowed from the Gap sound in creating modern soul and hip-hop albums.
Formed in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 70s by brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson, the Gap Band largely mimicked musical pioneers George Clinton, Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind & Fire before developing their own distinctive sound in the early 80s that propelled them to the forefront of soul and funk music. Named as an acronym for three streets in Tulsa, the Gap Band spent most of the 70s as backing musicians or as the warm-up act for visiting artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Willie Nelson.
The group recorded a couple minor albums in the mid-70s but received their first taste of national success only after signing with Mercury Records in 1979. Working with producer Lonnie Simmons, the Gaps hit the top of the Soul charts with the Clinton-inspired humorous cut "I Don't Believe You Want to Get Up and Dance" (more commonly known for the repeated rap "Oops Upside the Head"). However, the group didn't distinguish itself from the remainder of the burgeoning pack of disco-funk groups until 1980's III, an excellent disc on which the Gap Band broke out of the shadow of its influences to establish its own brand of infectiously funky, electric sound characterized by the album's big hit, "Burn Rubber." The group showed its songwriting development with now classic gritty ballad "Yearning For Your Love," and the surprising piano ballad, "Nothing Comes to Sleepers."
The Gap Band's next album, while not as uniformly strong as III, was its biggest. IV became one of 1982's biggest soul albums and popped out three top 10 crossover smashes, "Outstanding," "Early In the Morning" and the group's most notable hit, "You Dropped A Bomb On Me" - a song that has since been sampled by other artists countless times. About that time the Gap Band was also becoming a great touring funk band, and the group spent the remainder of the 80s topping bills around the world while also maintaining its Soul radio popularity with hits such as "Big Fun," "Party Train," "Beep A Freak" and a #1 remake of the Friends of Distinction's "Going In Circles." Charlie Wilson also established himself as one of the most distinctive lead singers in soul music, as his slightly raspy, strong baritone powered also not only Gap hits, but also songs of other artists (most notably Zapp's "Computer Love").
By 1990, a general decline in the quality of the group's work, a changing in musical tastes and Charlie Wilson's slippage into alcohol and drug addiction sidelined the Gap Band. However, Wilson overcame his addictions and the group proclaimed its return with a national tour and the aptly titled 1996 album Live and Well. The Wilsons continued to perform (successfully) and record (not so successfully) over the remainder of the decade. In 2000, Charlie Wilson recorded a well-received second solo album (he had released an unsuccessful solo disc in the early 90s) that included two great ballads, the UAC hit "Without You" and the duet with Marc Nelson "For Your Love."
In this decade the Gap Band has become increasingly recognized by a new generation of artists, largely through remakes and samples of the group's biggest work. Charlie Wilson has continued to provide guest vocals for other artists, most recently singing lead on the 2005 smash hit "Signs" with Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake. He followed it by signing with Jive Records and releasing Charlie, Last Name Wilson, a surprise hit album made with an all-star cast of modern producers, including The Underdogs and R. Kelly. He followed three years later with another hit album, Uncle Charlie. In 2010, Wilson hit pay dirt again with the excellent album, Just Charlie.
Tragedy struck the group on August 16, 2010, and brother Robert Wilson, often referred to as "The Godfather of Bass Guitar," died of a massive heart attack in his California home, at only age 53.
In Fall of 2012, Charlie Wilson began working on a new release titled Love, Charlie, which will be released in early 2013.
While often labeled by critics as a group that followed, not led, trends, the Gap Band has secured its place in soul music history through a number of great cuts that have stood up well and that continue to exert an influence on both classic soul radio and on younger artists of the hip-hop generation.
By Chris Rizik