Born Charles Kent Wilson on January 29, 1953, in Tulsa, OK; son of the Rev. Oscar Wilson (a Pentecostal minister) and Irma Wilson; married, wife's name Mahin (a substance abuse rehabilitation center director). Education: Attended high school in Tulsa. Religion: Church of God in Christ. Addresses: Record company--Interscope Records, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
With his 2000 album release Bridging the Gap, Charlie Wilson became one of the few leading figures of 1980s R&B to mount a successful comeback in the changed musical landscape of the turn of the century. As the lead vocalist of the trio of performing brothers that went by the name of the Gap Band, Wilson had propelled the group to a consistent string of major hits. His reemergence a decade later was due not only to musical talent, but also perhaps to spiritual rebirth.
Charlie Wilson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on January 29, 1953; he was the son of the Rev. Oscar Wilson, a minister in the Church of God in Christ. With his older brother Ronnie and younger brother Robert, Wilson often sang in church before their father's Sunday sermons, accompanied on piano by their mother. Secular music was forbidden at home, but the brothers smuggled music by the likes of James Brown into the house. "When I heard Stevie Wonder's 'Fingertips,'" Wilson told Rolling Stone, "it was like, 'I can sing like that, Mom.' My mother said, "Go to bed! Go to bed! You're not going to sing that blues."
Took Name from Neighborhood Streets
What became the Gap Band grew out of jam sessions held in neighborhood garages in the brothers' Tulsa neighborhood. The group's original name, in its first incarnations around 1970, was the Greenwood Archer and Pine Street Band, referring to major streets in the neighborhood where the brothers grew up; that was later shortened (at first as the result of a typographical error on a poster advertising one of the band's performances) to the acronym Gap Band. In the year 2001 a nearby street, intersecting both Greenwood and Pine, was renamed Gap Band Avenue in recognition of the band's accomplishments.
After the addition of Charlie Wilson to the Gap Band as lead vocalist in 1973, the band's fortunes began to improve beyond gigs in small Tulsa clubs. At a performance at the International Club in 1974 the band was spotted by an acquaintance of the iconoclastic country rock singer, Leon Russell, a familiar figure in Texas and Oklahoma musical circles due to his long beard and mane of silver hair. Invited to audition at Russell's studio, the band encountered a hostile attitude from the singer at first. But that attitude evaporated after two hours of playing, after which the Gap Band had been hired as Russell's backup ensemble. They toured with Russell for several years, also working with Russell's friend Willie Nelson for a time.
The Gap Band's little-known debut album was released in 1974 on Russell's own Shelter label. It barely made an impact on the charts at the time, however, and when Russell dropped the band as accompanists in the mid-1970s, the brothers found themselves without a record label. "Leon Russell got us on our feet, took us around the rock & roll world, then he kicked us out of his nest," Wilson told Rolling Stone. Wilson led his brothers to Los Angeles, where they recorded a gospel single, "This Place Called Heaven," for the A&M label and won industry notice for the album The Gap Band, released on the RCA label's Tattoo subsidiary.
Signed with Mercury
Finally the group struck paydirt after signing with the Mercury label and joining forces with impresario, Lonnie Simmons, a record executive and former nightclub owner who honed their sound as producer and as cowriter of several of the hits that started to come around 1980. The 1980 releases "Shake" and "I Don't Believe You Want to Get Up and Dance (Oops, Upside Your Head)," the latter inspired by a refrain chanted by fans at a Pittsburgh concert given by the band, reached the R&B top 10. In December of that year, the Gap Band had its first R&B number one single, "Burn Rubber (on Me)." The album from which "Burn Rubber" and its successor "Yearning for Your Love" were drawn, Gap Band III, was certified platinum for sales of over one million copies.
At the center of the band's success were the vocals of Charlie Wilson; in the words of Rolling Stone at the time he "looks like a young version of Wilson Pickett and sings like Stevie Wonder." In 1985 the magazine called him "the best singer in pop music today, the unacknowledged heir to the tradition of Cooke and Redding." Several of his numbers began with a unique and inimitable vocal device that lay somewhere between a yodel and a scream, and his vocals had the rare capacity to communicate romantic passion over a hard funk beat.
The band notched several more platinum albums, enjoyed three more number one R&B singles ("Early in the Morning" and "Outstanding," both from 1982, and 1989's "All of My Love"), and crossed over to the pop Top 40. Perhaps their most enduring song, "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," reached only the number two position. Given 24 hours to devise a theme song for the 1989 film parody I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, the brothers responded with what became another top 15 hit.
"We were just some country boys," Wilson later told Essence in recalling their reactions to their ten-year run of success. "We were like, 'Wow.'" Success took its toll on all the brothers; as younger brother Ronnie Wilson struggled with cocaine addiction (he later turned to Christianity and became a minister), Charlie's songwriting contributions helped keep the group afloat. Charlie Wilson later confessed to Essence that he had been a substance abuser for nearly 20 years, beginning around 1974. In the early 1990s, as the hits dried up for the Gap Band, Wilson hit bottom.
Married Rehab Center Director
In 1994, Wilson spent 28 days in a Los Angeles rehabilitation center. Known as a womanizer during his days as a vocal star, Wilson married the center's director. "With her and God, that's how I made it," he told Essence. "I told [other entertainers] it's a dead end down there. You got the bling-bling with all the babes and it's all a big party, but a few years from now, you won't have anything and everybody's going to be gone. They listen to me because they know Uncle Charlie has been them. And I'm still here today."
Wilson had released a solo album, You Turn My Life Around, in 1992, well before his rehabilitation; it failed to crack the R&B Top 40. Continuing to tour with his brothers in the 1990s, Wilson put his life back together. In 2000 he released a second album, Bridging the Gap, which found strong appeal even among young listeners who hadn't even owned a radio during the Gap Band's heyday but remembered Wilson's sound as one of the hardest-edged of the 1980s. Touring in support of the album, Wilson, in the words of New York Times critic Jon Pareles, "wooed the audience ... like an ex-boyfriend hoping for another chance."
Bridging the Gap took a chance by featuring a romantic ballad, a style not strongly identified with the Gap Band, as the album's lead single. But "Without You" dominated radio playlists in the fall of 2000, and the album as a whole, featuring guest appearances by such contemporary stars as Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Angie Stone, and others, effectively fused hip-hop with Wilson's own style--to which numerous hip-hop acts had paid homage in the form of sampling. "A lot of rap artists wanted to blaze me," Wilson explained to the website sonicnet.com. "I didn't want to put out a CD where I had to depend on hip-hoppers ... to try to win over somebody." Indeed, it seemed that one of the top stars of the 1980s still had a lesson or two to teach contemporary musical audiences.
by James M. Manheim
Charlie Wilson's Career
Vocalist. Sang with brothers Ronnie and Robert Wilson in high school; joined with them to form the Greenwood Archer and Pine Street Band, later shortened to Gap Band; hired by rock musician Leon Russell as backup band, 1974; Gap Band released debut album, Magician's Holiday, on Russell's Shelter label, 1974; moved to Los Angeles, mid-1970s; Gap Band signed with Mercury label, 1979; sang lead vocals and wrote or cowrote most Gap Band hits, 1980s; released solo debut, You Turn My Life Around, 1992; released Bridging the Gap, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- You Turn My Life Around Bon Ami, 1992.
- Bridging the Gap Interscope, 2000.
- With the Gap Band
- Magician's Holiday Shelter, 1974.
- The Gap Band Tattoo, 1977.
- The Gap Band II Mercury, 1979.
- The Gap Band III Mercury, 1980.
- The Gap Band IV Total Experience, 1982.
- The Gap Band V Total Experience, 1983.
- The Gap Band VI Total Experience, 1985.
- The Gap Band VII Mercury, 1986.
- Straight from the Heart Total Experience, 1987.
- Round Trip Capitol, 1989.
- Best of the Gap Band Mercury, 1994.
- Testimony Rhino, 1994.
- Ain't Nothin' but a Party 1995.
August 23, 2005: Wilson's album, Charlie, Last Name Wilson, was released. Source: All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com, September 14, 2005.
- Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie, editors., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan, 1985.
- Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
- Romanowski, Patricia and Holly George-Warren, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
- Essence, June 2001, p. 66.
- Jet, July 23, 2001, p. 13.
- New York Times, October 10, 2000, p. E5.
- Rolling Stone, March 1, 1984, p. 44; March 28, 1985, p. 97.
- USA Today, January 2, 2001, p. D4.