Interview: Charlie Wilson Talks Overcoming Personal Challenges to Once Again Find Success in Music
Despite his immense talent and timeless voice, it hasn’t always come easy for Uncle Charlie Wilson. Dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, bouts of homelessness, and then struggling to find a deal for years before recently having to beat cancer, the man has had his fair share of hardship. However, his recent Grammy Nominations not only serve to show he’s come full circle and beat the adversity, but also stand as a form of vindication to those who doubted him and told him he was washed up. Now with a renewed vigor and passion towards music, he’s not leaving the industry again anytime soon. As he puts it: “Right now I’m just getting started, they should have never let me have a microphone again!” YouKnowIGotSoul had a chance to catch up with the r&b legend and we spoke about his recent Grammy nominations, having such an influence over a generation of artists, the impact his wife has had in his life, the challenge he faced trying to make it in the industry again after rehab, being a spokesman for prostate cancer, what’s next, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Congratulations on your two recent Grammy nominations for “You Are”. What does that honor mean to you?
Charlie Wilson: Anytime that you’re recognized and appreciated by your peers, it’s an awesome feeling. I’ve tried for so many years to try to be as correct as I can about making feel good records. When it feels good, you know it’s right. Sometimes we all fall short of what we think that feels good and I just try really hard to make a feel good record that everybody can appreciate. Once your peers appreciate it and recognize it, then it means a lot. It makes me feel really, really good and I’m honored by it. The fact that I’m back in for the second year in a row, it’s great, it feels great; this is the sixth time now. It’s a blessing, I’m blessed to be nominated, that’s for sure.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve been able to stay successful in music for such a long time now. What’s been the key to your success?
Charlie Wilson: I still have the passion and the love for it and a youthful spirit. I carry it with me all of the time. It’s just the passion and the love that I have for it and I just try really hard *Laughs* and I just say “I’m not through yet, I’m not through” and people are like “Dude, are you serious?” and I tell them “I am NOT through!” *Laughs* I’m just getting started because my career was cut short, I’m going to pick up where I left off! A lot of people don’t have that drive; I still have that drive and the want and ability to do it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’re recognized as an icon in music and have influenced a generation of artists who are making music today. What does it mean to have had such influence on music?
Charlie Wilson: Wow, it’s kinda hard to answer. I had no clue what I was doing and what I’m doing. I think if we ever figure it out, I think we’re doomed! I like to have fun, when people are listening and gravitating to what you’re doing, I think that’s a blessing itself. For me to be able to continue to inspire people in many ways, more ways than just music, then I guess I’m the guy that’s elected to be an inspiration for many generations. I remember even back in the Gap Band days, everybody had a set of guys who said they love the way I sing. Now, it’s still here I am again and there’s another set of entertainers who love the way I sing. I really can’t explain how it basically feels; I’m definitely blessed to be one of the guys who is inspiring people.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Not only have you inspired many artists and influenced their music, but you’ve also had a chance to collaborate with many of them; many who have grown up idolizing you. What do those collaborations mean to you?
Charlie Wilson: It means that they know that I still have that drive and that wantability, I call it wantability, *Laughs*, it sounds like a word! I want to do it so bad and I still have the ability so I call it the wantability! Especially in the hip hop world, a lot of guys call for me because they know I have some swagger and they know the vibe of Uncle Charlie will fit what they’re doing. The sound of my voice has not dated. A lot of times a lot of singers, they’re voice fits from back in the day, and that’s as far as it’s going. I think you may know what I’m saying. Everybody’s voice doesn’t fit in the day to day sound. The sound of my voice I think still fits. I don’t want to come off sounding like some arrogant guy, but I think that’s what it is. I said that, and somebody said “Nah, you’ve just got a license to old school!” *Laughs* I guess I could say that too! I’m blessed. All of these guys like Kanye and Jay-Z and Beyonce and especially Snoop Dogg who gave me the first shot. There are so many names that came after. I have got a chance to sing on some Nikki Minaj records! She was in the room and I was way too hoarse and I said maybe one day we’ll do it again. It’s just been great man to be amongst the superstars of today’s music. I’m happy. Those collaborations went well in the studio, everybody was so excited that I was there and I was excited to be in the room with them as well.
YouKnowIGotSoul: There are definitely a lot of artists out there in the music industry who look up to you, but maybe haven’t made it yet in the music industry. For those artists who are trying to make it and trying to break in, what advice do you give them as they try to sustain their careers in music?
Charlie Wilson: Go be a plumber! *Laughs* I would say whatever you want to do in life, you have to have the undeniable passion for it and you have to do it every single day. You look at great musicians like Stevie Wonder, he had a great gift and he sang every single day. I know Stevie personally and he was in the studio every single day of his life! Anything you want to do in life whether it be a sports star, a basketball player, you almost have to sleep with that basketball. Magic Johnson went everywhere with it; his mother would send him to the store and he went to the store with the basketball. When he got home, he had the stack of groceries in one hand and the basketball in the other. Same thing with Michael. If you want to be incredible, you have to do some incredible things at practice, you have to practice and you have to do it every single day. In bands, singers, drummers, guitar players, you have to practice that craft and do it every single moment of your life. Just take the time out to go use the restroom and come back! *Laughs* Then you have to have some great people around you. Not people that would just steal you blind, because I’ve been done like that where people will just take everything you have and dare you to say that they did something wrong. I’m saying that you have to have some great people and people that you trust and great attorneys that will make the deal for you. Hands down just some great people around you to make things comfortable and make things right for you. You just go after your craft and sign all of your checks, don’t let a check go out without your name on it because people will steal you blind! At the end of the day, you don’t want to be left with just a pen in your hand.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I’ve read that your wife has been a big inspiration for you over your career. Talk about the influence she’s had over you.
Charlie Wilson: Well first of all, when I went away from this music business because of drugs and alcohol, I ended up homeless and basically in the streets. So basically my wife is this woman that I met when was in rehab, she was the doctor there. To make a long story short, she was the one who instilled this faith back in me. I was praying to God to not let me perish when I was sleeping under these trucks and cars and different places. I wanted to do this again and I’ve just gone too far away from what I love to do. When I was in the rehab, before I got out, this was a woman who didn’t know who I was from the group, she wasn’t even American. She was like “You look like a pretty nice guy, I’ll help you as much as I can”. To make a long story short, she said “Ok you can do this on your own” and I told her “Nah, I can’t do this” and I asked her to marry me. She was basically was like “I don’t even know you!” I took her and basically talked her into it and she was like “Ok if I do this and we be together or whatever you’re trying to say, I have to be with you every single day. I have to quit my job”. At that point I didn’t have any money, I didn’t even have five dollars in my pocket. Anyway, she helped me and she’s been with me every day for the 17 years we’ve been together. She has been such a backbone and such a driving force behind me and making sure to continue to dream big and making sure these dreams come true. If you have faith in God and feel the faith in yourself and the courage to do the things you try to do. A prayer we used to have and I always say still, “May God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, and the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I know the difference in a lot of things now and I know the things that I can change and I cannot change. The fact of it is the things I can change is the things that I was doing wrong. I know that I can change my behavior and I know I can change people, places and things and be sober. So that’s what I did. God definitely gave me serenity. My wife has instilled that in me every single day. When I wake up and something don’t go right, I go all through my house shouting and she’ll be looking at me and staring at me saying “Are you through?” *Laughs* Then I start laughing because I can’t make an argument out of nothing with her. She’ll say “You know what, you’re headed down the wrong path”. She’s the one that keeps me grounded and understanding. “You need to continue to do what you do, and aint nothing broke here, all you have to do is continue to work on yourself and keep saying singing these records and you’ll be just fine”. Even today she says these same things to me, it’s been 17 years already and look where we’ve come. I don’t think I would have made it if God hadn’t sent me this angel. It’s definitely a Charlie’s Angel that God has sent me!
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve had success now as the lead singer of the Gap Band, and also now also many years as a solo artist. Which have you found more challenging to have success at?
Charlie Wilson: The most challenging thing was the Charlie Wilson career. When I got sober, I went and started trying to find my record deal and everything. For 10 years, everybody just told me no. When I got turned down, it hurt my feelings so bad, I thought I would get back in kinda quick. I had sobered up, I had waited a year, and then everybody turned me down. Year after year, I kept going and knocking on doors and people would say “Oh well Charlie Wilson is old, he needs to retire.” I thought “I’ve got this in me, they just need to hear it!” 10 years now, I’m 10 years older than I was when I first started and I’m thinking now the doors are really going to be closed and turned to my wife and she said “We are never going to give up on your dreams. If you give up, you surrender to something that’s not good. You’ve given up on your dream and now you’re standing out here with nothing but a pen in your hand”. So we finally got in there and that first record I put out was a number one record. Incredible. It was the hardest one and people were standing in the way. They said I was washed up. I had to go through all of that. But I’m here, eight number one records later!
YouKnowIGotSoul: Another challenge you’ve had to face is that you’re a cancer survivor and now you’re a spokesman for prostate cancer. What does it mean to be able to be a spokesman?
Charlie Wilson: I do a lot of singing and performing so I thought it was time to do a lot of informing. When I was diagnosed in 2008 with this cancer disease in the prostate, again I just really almost lost it. I thought that my life was going to be over and again my wife was like “C’mon man, you’re wimping out”. When the doctor said we had good news and bad news, she wanted to know the bad news first, and it was that I had cancer. So the good news was that it was early enough detection. We just started at it and I’m glad we got hold to it early. Then I decided I wanted to tell the world about it and we found the prostate cancer foundation and they gave me a platform to speak from so I could advise Americans. 1 in 6 Americans will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. With African Americans, it’s 1 in 3 that will be diagnosed. I thought those numbers are high, and I looked at the number of deaths which was almost 37,000 men a year. I decided to be that spokesperson and explained to the African Americans that we have a higher chance of getting the disease than any other ethnic group. I’m going to give you a story, I was in Atlanta, Georgia, and this young man came into my dressing room. He told me “I heard on the radio saying that you had prostate cancer and urging all men to go get checked up. Me and my brothers, I have 12 brothers, we all had prostate cancer, all of us!” I almost flipped out and started crying. He said “Man I just want to thank you so much because you just helped me, I’m so blessed, we probably would never had checked”. I think the message has been very strong, men have been listening to me all over the world. I have been carrying this message with me wherever I go. I perform so I inform a lot of men when I perform. I stop during all of my shows and ask folks to get checked for prostate cancer because it’s not a joke. I lost my father to it even though he was an older man. The type of cancer I had was a very active and strong one, it was a very aggressive one, it was moving faster than normal. It was a very abnormal one that was going pretty fast. Within a year or two I would have been out of here, it was moving very, very fast. They caught it just in time. A lot of men have that, I know a guy that died at 27, you have to get a checkup. We never know what’s wrong with us these days so we have to be proactive about it. I’m glad that I am the spokesperson and I think I’m the one who can make people listen and I hope I am the guy that’s making people listen. I like to speak to the women because the women are the ones that are going to make their man go to the doctor because we aren’t going to go! I don’t like to go to the doctor and I still don’t like to go to the doctor, but my wife insists on me going all of the time. So I really stay proactive about it. I always be honest about it and my honesty is what makes other men get up and go too.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your future plans for music and how long you plan to keep recording.
Charlie Wilson: I’m having such a good time and I’m getting ready to start my new album now. We finished out the year doing the “Just Charlie” album and it’s been great times for me. I’m having a ball, I love music, I love all genres of music, I’m getting a chance to express that. I’m getting ready to start this next album and I have not figured out what I’m going to name it yet because we have just started it. We demoed about six or seven records and I just have not had a chance to listen to all of them yet. Next week I’ll start listening to everything until I figure out which direction I’m going in. I can’t wait to get started on singing these records. I’m going to do music until the door closes on me. Right now I’m just getting started, they should have never let me have a microphone again! To me this is like it’s my third album, I’m getting ready to get loose man, we’re finna do this thing the right way! I can’t wait to get started man!
YouKnowIGotSoul: Anything you’d like to add?
Charlie Wilson: I just got back from Kuwait. I just did the last hurrah for all of the soldiers coming back from Iraq and they have to come through Kuwait. I did Iraq and Kuwait four times in three years. They just kept asking for me back. I got a chance to go back to Kuwait and all of the soldiers that were coming in by the thousands; I got a chance to play for them one more time. It was such an honor to be amongst those men and women who serve our country. I’ve been in some places where you’d hear automatic weapons firing and bombs going off all day and all night. It was quite nerve wracking, I want to say scary, but I’m not a coward but it was definitely nerve wracking. I’ve met men and women in the mornings and some of them just didn’t make it back from the afternoon missions. I met some incredible men and women in the armed forces. I did get a chance to play for some of them and they always ask for me. I just got back from that. I’ve got this hat line that I’m launching in January. All types of women’s hats and men’s hats; the Uncle Charlie line of hats. That will be at fashion week at Las Vegas. You can go to my website, my website is UncleCharlieWilson.com, Facebook.com/CharlieWilson, you can tweet me at @ImCharlieWilson. I appreciate everything and all of my fans, I love you all and thank you for supporting me. I’m getting ready to do this next record for you. Trust me, it’s going to be a monster.