News Column

Charlie Wilson talks about his life ahead of receiving BET lifetime achievement award

June 23, 2013

YellowBrix

June 23--Tulsa-raised R&B hitmaker Charlie Wilson credits his Tulsa roots, his Christian faith -- and his fans -- for more than 40 years in the music business.

As The Gap Band frontman and blockbuster R&B solo artist receives a lifetime achievement award next week from BET, the most prominent African-American network in the United States, he also looks back to his hometown roots.

"When I found out I was getting the award, I yelled 'Shut the front door!' " he said during a recent telephone interview. "It's hard to explain in words. It's sweet but bitter because it's been a rocky roller coaster ride getting here."

His latest No. 1 R&B album, "Love, Charlie," spawned hit singles "My Love is All I Have" and "Turn Off the Lights."

Musicians as diverse as Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, LL Cool J and Anthony Hamilton credit the vocalist as a vital influence in their own work.

It sounds like a cliche, but his life has indeed been filled with the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Church life to world fame to street crime, up and down and back again, full circle, and finally finding peace in the Christian faith he was instilled with by his parents as a child.

At age 60, even people who don't know his name know his sound.

"I am the bridge between R&B and hip-hop," he said.

Wilson's remained viable -- and influential -- in a sea of ever-changing fads, generations, genres and influences. He still performs about 100 concerts a year -- he's one of the most active R&B touring musicians in the nation.

When Wilson says the name of another musician, it's as a brother, a nephew, a niece. He's family. They're family. In the bigger picture, however, it shows his important place in a constellation of stars.

These days, he is Uncle Charlie.

Looking back

Wilson looks back on his life and the influence Tulsa has had on the influential musician.

One person who made an impact with Wilson is longtime local bluesman Ray D. Rowe, who also helped found The Greenwood, Archer and Pine Street Band in the late '60s. As part of a 12-piece, brassy ensemble, the band played "dark dives in north Tulsa," sometimes until 5 a.m. Eventually, Rowe left and the three brothers -- Ronnie, Robert and Charlie -- became The Gap Band.

"One night we were playing, and I looked back at the back of the club, I thought, 'Man, there's a white dude in here,' " Wilson said of the often self-segregated clubs of the time. "I thought, 'Man, he must be so drunk that he doesn't know where he is.' "

The next night, the man returned -- and brought friends with him.

It was Leon Russell, founder of the Tulsa Sound, famed producer and songwriter and, at the time, co-owner of Shelter Records. Russell cut his teeth making music with no racial bounds. He backed and supported some of the most influential musicians and producers in the world, including Phil Spector, Freddie King, Tom Petty and even Bob Marley on his first American single.

"I was introduced to Leon, and he said, 'I was so drunk last night I had to come back tonight to make sure I heard what I thought I heard,' " Wilson said.

That night, Russell also asked the band if they'd like to record at his studio.

When? Right now. By sun-up, they were recording.

"I love this man," he said of Russell. "He was our first start. He signed us to Shelter Records. He really showed us how to mold things together, how to make music."

Musical beginnings

Wilson is the son of Bishop O.W. Wilson, a local Pentecostal minister. His mom, Irma, was the church's state minister of music, he said.

"I remember watching Daddy preach and Mama play piano," he said. "Ray Charles wanted her to play piano with him when she was 13."

That didn't happen -- Irma's calling was to her church. As a mother, there was no funk or bright piano pop from Stevie Wonder played in their home, no soulful Sam Cooke. "We had to go next door for that," he said, then laughed. "We'd have to go to our neighbor's house."

But the Wilson home was filled with music, as early as he can remember. His mother helped teach him and his siblings how to sing and play piano, trumpet, drums, keyboards, organ. It wasn't as noisy as one might think, he said.

"Mama had this way -- she'd put your fingers on three keys, then say, 'Now push down. That's a chord.' Then she'd do it again. 'That's a chord.' We didn't start out by just banging on things."

There has always been an order -- a peace -- in his life. Even during times of extreme chaos.

"My spirituality kept me from dying in the streets," he said. There was cocaine addiction that, in the 1980s, pushed him into the streets, jails, hospitals and multiple rehabs.

He talks about friends who have battled with drugs and have "moved on." Whitney Houston. Marvin Gaye. Rick James. "We'd have conversations back in the day while we were choppin' it up," he said of his own cocaine use.

After Wilson found sobriety 18 years ago, "I tried to talk to them. ... I had come so close to death. Jail and death -- there are no other rewards other than that." It's a message he also shares with up-and-coming music acts, his hip-hop family and to anyone else who will listen.

He was honored earlier this year by the City of New York with a proclamation not only for his lifetime achievement in the music industry but also "his courageous and continued efforts to spread awareness about sobriety."

Life's lessons

When musicians want to know what not to do, "I tell 'em," he said. "I know how to fail. ... I've screwed it all up before, and I came back when I turned it over to God. People told me to retire, basically to go away, that I couldn't do it any more," he said.

"Why should I sit down?" he added, more loudly. He refused. He got sober. He started a solo career.

Today, he's the most "currently successful, active" recipient of the prestigious BET Lifetime Achievement Award. "Nobody else in recent memory had a No. 1 record at the time they received the award. I'm the first -- a Tulsa Oklahomie-an."

Not many people can have the success he's had, not once, but twice, in a lifetime.

"You have to be prepared to get what you ask for when you pray to God," he said. "I asked that I be allowed to inspire people, I asked him to let me reach people, and he dusted me off and gave me a whole new road."

Walking down a street in Chicago not too long ago, sunglasses on, a young girl, maybe 13, saw him and yelled at her mother with excitement, "Mama, it's Uncle Charlie!"

"Her mom kept telling her, 'You don't know him, he's not Uncle Charlie. You don't know him,' but she kept on. I stopped and told her mom, 'She knows me. You might know me as the singer of 'You Dropped the Bomb on Me' and 'Early in the Morning' ..."

Here was a girl who only knew Wilson as a hip-hop and R&B hitmaker. Her mother knew him as part of The Gap Band.

"Her mom started jumping up and down, too. So did her mom," he said, as a warm chuckle flowed from him.

"I said, 'Hi, I'm Uncle Charlie.' "

2013 BET AWARDS

Charlie Wilson will receive the Cadillac Lifetime Achievement Award

When: 7 p.m. June 30

Channel: BET, cable channel 40

Jennifer Chancellor 918-581-8346

jennifer.chancellor@tulsaworld.com

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