AMM Inspiration: Charlie Wilson
When R&B icon Charlie Wilson emerged from a battle with alcohol and cocaine addiction in the late 90s, music industry executives told him he was too old to make a comeback. He was great in his day, they said, but he had aged and the industry had moved on. Wilson was determined to prove them wrong.
Despite his addictions and two years of homelessness, Wilson’s voice remained strong and clear. This, he felt, was God offering him a second chance to make music.
From a young age, performance had been his gift. Singing in the church where his father delivered sermons and his mother served as a minister of music, a pre-teen Charlie Wilson found that he thrived on stage.
In 1967, Wilson and his two brothers, Ronnie and Robert, formed The Gap Band. The band took its name from the streets Greenwood, Archer, and Pine in their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. As their lead singer, Wilson became known for his thrilling live performances. The Gap Band gained experience performing with rocker Leon Russell in the early 70s, and by the end of the decade, were on their way to becoming headliners themselves.
In the 80s, chart-toppers such as “Burn Rubber on Me (1980),” “All of My Love (1989),” and “You Dropped a Bomb on Me (1982)” built The Gap Band into a radio mainstay and a fixture of R&B. Their sound was soulful and smooth, with catchy electrofunk beats that carried them successfully through the decade.
But even as The Gap Band produced hit albums and sold out tours, the band’s management held them in a stifling contract, Wilson says. After the brothers tried to negotiate a better deal, Wilson claims their manager dropped them and had the group blacklisted in the music industry. The Gap Band was left with all of the fame, and none of the fortune.
“I couldn’t bounce back from that,” Wilson told The Associated Press in 2010. “Everywhere we went, he ran interference. He threatened people. It was a sad situation.”
Alcohol and drugs had been present in Wilson’s life from an early age. After his father left their family for another woman when Wilson was 13, he began to act out, and eventually started using cocaine. When his relationships with his brothers began to falter under the pressure of their financial struggles in the early 90s, his drug usage became much heavier. From 1993 to 1995, Wilson’s addictions left him homeless, sleeping on the streets of Hollywood Boulevard.
During that time, he was cared for by other homeless people, who showed him how to construct a bed with a brick and carpet. Except for these friends, Wilson didn’t want to be seen by anyone. He hid during the day to avoid recognition. When fans did see him, he tried to excuse his worn down appearance by saying he had been in the studio all night.
Wilson wanted to quit, but nothing stuck until a cousin he used to get high with found him on the street. Now recovered and healthy, she showed Wilson how sickly he had become. Shocked by his appearance, Wilson was convinced to try the rehab program his cousin had gone through.
Initially, Wilson struggled through the program, using drugs in secret. The turning point in his recovery, he says, was a visit to a social worker named Mahin. Mahin asked him what he would do after leaving the program. Realizing he had nowhere to go, Wilson broke into tears. Mahin assured him that she would assist him in finding a place to live.
“Mahin told me she’d help and she did. She was there, helping me get clean,” Wilson told Essence in 2020. “She instilled a sense of faith in me that had been lost over the years. She taught me how to do more than just exist. More importantly, Mahin taught me how to live again.”
After leaving the rehab program, Wilson asked Mahin to be his wife. She said yes, on the condition that he was fully committed to recovery. The pair have been married — and Wilson has remained sober — for the past 27 years.
In those years, Wilson has also managed to rebuild a successful R&B career. As a solo artist, he has won two NAACP Image Awards, a BMI Icon Award, and a BET Lifetime Achievement Award. He has also been nominated for thirteen Grammy Awards and named Billboard magazine’s No. 1 Adult R&B Artist of 2009 and 2020.
Rather than listening to those who doubted him, Wilson found support in his wife and in younger musicians including Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, and R. Kelly. Although Wilson has now severed ties with R. Kelly after the singer was exposed for his involvement in sex trafficking, he credits Kelly with helping him to reignite his career in the early 2000s. Most significantly, Kelly wrote Wilson’s 2005 comeback release “Charlie, Last Name Wilson.”
Snoop Dogg, with whom Wilson remains very close, featured Wilson on his 2005 single, “Signs,” which landed on the Billboard Hot 100 that year, and on his 2018 album Bible of Love, which reached No. 1 on the Top Gospel Albums chart. He also gave Wilson the name he is known by in the hip-hop industry, “Uncle Charlie.” The nickname reflects the support and advice Wilson offers to younger artists, especially surrounding substance abuse and financial struggles.
Although he’s full of wisdom as Uncle Charlie, when he’s making music, Wilson is youthful as ever.
“In the studio, I think he was even more pumped than I was,” rapper and singer Aminé told the Los Angeles Times in 2018. Aminé, one of the many young artists Wilson calls his “nephews,” asked Wilson to sing on his 2017 debut album Good for You. “His energy is like he’s 18,” Aminé said.
At 69 years old, Wilson’s performances are lively and energetic, and he can still overpower much younger performers. Now a living legend in the entertainment world, he carries himself with the confidence he’s earned. But Wilson is still humble, consistently thanking his cousin, his wife, fellow artists, and God for helping him out of addiction.
“I promised God that if he got me off the streets and gave me back what I love —making music and singing — that I’d promise to shout him out every single night,” Wilson writes on his website. “And I do because I’m the guy who went down in flames … but was allowed to rise from the ashes.”