His catalog is enviable, his pipes are golden and for decades, “Uncle Charlie” Wilson has enthralled both the old school and new school set, packing out arenas with grown and sexy live shows and remaining a chart-topping presence on the Adult Urban Contemporary charts in the post-Gap Band era. Overcoming ageism, alcoholism and an addiction to cocaine was just part of his triumphant comeback: thanks to hits like “Charlie, Last Name Wilson,” “You Are,” “There Goes My Baby” and his latest single, “My Love Is All I Have,” Mr. Wilson is earning long-overdue recognition and accolades, his most recent being the Trumpet Award Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
As he simultaneously celebrates two momentous occasions---his birthday and the release of his latest CD, Love Charlie--- the iconic singer, songwriter and producer shares the objective behind the songs, how he maintains his professional momentum and what it takes to stay clean, sober and married in and out of the spotlight.
MELODY CHARLES-Happy Birthday Uncle Charlie! I work out to “Early in the Morning” and I grew up on you and The Gap Band, it’s an honor to speak with you.
CHARLIE WILSON- (chuckles) That’s kinda cool, thanks! I would love to have one of my biggest weeks of sales ever if everybody could just download it and make the stores sell out, that would be greatest present I could ever have.”
MC- I also want to say ‘congratulations’ for your Lifetime Achievement Award: since they’re about longevity, excellence and being a positive role model to others, how did it feel to receive that honor?
CW- “It’s amazing….I’m kinda at a loss for words right now. It’s so surreal that I thought somebody was playing a joke on me at first, but I’ve been trying to be all of that my whole life, and the excellence comes from putting countless hours in the music, trying to outdo myself every time. I’ll listen to previous works and be like, ‘ugh, how ugly was that?’ and try to come harder the next time.”
MC- For you to have remained relevant and in-demand for as long as you have is an accomplishment in itself, especially with the ageism that makes it harder for anyone 30+ to get the same airplay and attention as their younger peers. How do you do it?
CW- “I’m still interested in what the public thinks, how they feel about the music and what they need, it takes a lot. I’ve noticed that some of the artists that I’ve known throughout the years, the ones that were hot when the Gap Band was hot and had a long illustrious career, some of them no longer have the drive or just think that they can use their accolades to automatically get airplay: I don’t know what they’re thinking, but it takes a lot of work. My work ethic’s always been through the roof, I’ve got a great team around me and those men and women work as hard as I do on the music. I get up countless times at 4am in the morning and a lot of them just don’t want to do that, but I’ve always been a hard worker, so here I am. If you’re trying to get to the top, that’s what you’re gonna have to do, and that’s what we’ve done for the past ten years.”
MC- How did you overcome that resistance to the ‘no thanks, you’re over 40’ set?
CW- “It was rough: radio had just gotten to the point where they were saying, ‘We appreciate you Uncle Charlie, I’m a big fan and we congratulate you on trying to do your thing, but you’re kinda over the age limit.’ And I would say, ‘But what does my age have to do with me singing? I’m not trying to be a pin-up, I don’t get it.’ A lot of doors were closed to me for ten years because people kept telling me ‘no,’ but Mahin was telling me ‘You can’t give up,’ and I finally got that first hit, “Without You,” in 2000. Then the hip-hop community started calling for me and I stopped what I was doing and worked with them: I made a good living singing on all kind of their records. But I didn’t want to be limited to being the guy that was just singing hooks, so I had to step back and find my own lane. There’s no type of music that I can’t do, but if I was to do other styles, what would that do to the fans that’s been loyal to me? How many of these youngsters are gonna support me after I nail that hip-hop hit down, you know? So I chose to stick with the age group of fans who had been loyal to me---the urban adult contemporary stations and listeners are the ones who stuck with me, so I have to stick with them.”
MC- More and more though, a lot of the ones we’ve grown up listening to have been slipping away, and one of the biggest and brightest was Whitney Houston. How do you think you escaped that same fate when you were fell prey to addiction?
CW-“Whitney, Teena Marie, Rick James---they were all my friends. But the ones with drug problems resisted doing what I had to do, and that was changing people, places and things. If we used to get high together, you were out of my life, it didn’t matter who you were. I changed those banana peels and kept away from the slippery places and things, and I told the ones with problems that if you want to tell the public and your fans that you’re clean and sober, then behind closed doors you’re still dippin’ and snortin’ and whatever you want to do, one time you’re gonna slip and fall, bump your head and then you’re not gonna be able to get up and tell people how you bumped your head, because you’ll be dead. You have to be honest with people all the time and all of the time, be honest: say ‘hi, my name is Charlie Wilson, I’m an alcohol and cocaine addict.’ Just be honest with yourself. Some of my friends never came clean, and that’s why most of them ended up dead. We all have addictive behaviors: some people stopped snorting cocaine, for example, but thought they could take a casual drink instead, and there’s no such thing as ‘casual’ because your mind can easily go back to ‘I can go get just one hit.’ But that one hit is too many and then a thousand is never enough.”
MC- Amen. Let’s talk about Love, Charlie: what was the creative process and what was your objective behind it?
CW- “I wanted to make a record that would surpass the last one and the kind of love that we have in this home between Mahin and I, I just wanted to have that emotion on every record. Every single record that we cut has something to do with love. When I was recording it, if she heard something that she didn’t like, she’d bust in there and be like ‘Uh-uh, I just know you’re not trying to put that out and have it be on the radio!’ And she actually went and got a pen and some paper and we would re-write some of the words together. I was like ‘Aw man, now I’ve got another songwriter on my hands!’ She helped me write half the record, it was incredible.”
MC-It’s refreshing to see a high-profile entertainer embrace monogamy and cater to the ladies as you do in this CD. A lot of listeners really crave that type of music and appreciate that because falling in love is one thing, but living day-to-day with that person is a lot of work.”
CW-“You’re right: me and my wife have been together for 18 years and we’re working on the 19th. Except for going to the restroom, we’re always together (laughs). My momma always told me ‘the older you get, the uglier you get,’ so we need to go ahead and share this spotlight together and go right on. I’m not trying to hide my wife and put another lady on my arm to ‘look good,’ I make myself look good being with the woman that’s staying down with me for the last 19 years. I won’t go down the red carpet without her, uh-uh! I’m never ashamed of my wife in public.”
MC-That’s precious. Why does that seem so difficult for some men to do, you think?
CW-“It’s the man thing, just trying to look hard. But in the home, it can’t be about that, it has to be about the love. Let your hair down, or whatever you got left on the top of your head (chuckling), and just go all in. Go in the paint hard with your spouse and show them love every single moment because you never know when or the other will be taken away. It’s hard, but you have to do it. Guys tell me, ‘you’ve got to come harder in your records Uncle Charlie’ and I tell em’ ‘I am going hard, I’m just going hard for the woman!’ (cracks up)”
MC-We just saw you slay the crowd during UNCF’s “Evening of Stars” and people cannot believe your stamina and how great you look at your age. What’s the secret?
CW-“People always ask me ‘what are you taking?’ but all I do is get some Holy Spirit, water and Gatorade and we’re gone. I surround myself with a great crew of friends and family, have a zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol and they know I strive for excellence: every single night that we hit the stage, everyone is giving 152% to the performances. Everybody gets sick, I’ve had operations and we all have problems, but no matter what, we get in that circle backstage, pray together and go right out there like nothing’s happening. When I’m not feeling that good, they’ll say ‘we’ve got to life Unc up’ and everybody goes through the roof with the energy level. And when I see people in the crowd showing me that they’re having the time of their lives, it’s on then!”
MC- “Well, thanks for speaking with us today and I look forward to seeing you live again next month when you bring it all back to Dallas. What message do you have for your fans and what do you want them to take from Love, Charlie?
CW-“I definitely want to tell the men out there to respect their wives and girlfriends more, stay down for her and go hard in the paint for her. And when you have one, stick with that one; the days of double wine and double roses….come on dawg, one day you’re gonna fool around and call the wrong one the wrong name. You’re not 20-something years old anymore, treat that one like a queen and be done with it. And for the fans that are reading this and listening to me, it doesn’t matter how young or how old you are, God gave you a gift and when you give it to the people, that’s a blessing.
Beats are good to have, but it can’t be about the beats all the time and you’ve got to have something real, and that’s what Love, Charlie is. If you wanna feel something real, grab that album because Uncle Charlie is writing and producing and singing real music. Some of my peers, guys who doing it big back in the day, they all tell me ‘you’re giving us all hope man,’ And that’s what’s what I’m here for, to inspire people. There’s a song on my album called ‘I Believe,’ and when I made that the first cut, people were telling me not to do that, but I always put God first. If I inspire you to put the pipe down, not pick the drink up or remember that there’s something greater than yourself with a hold on your life, then that’s what it’s all about.”
By Melody Charles