Q&A: Charlie Wilson

I AM CHARLIE WILSON_BOOK COVERWith a string of chart-toppers including “Yearning for Your Love,” “Outstanding,” and “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me),” The GAP Band solidified its place as one of the most beloved—and funky—R&B groups ever. For the band, what appeared to be success on the outside was eclipsed by turmoil on the inside, including sibling troubles within the group, compounded by bad industry business with record labels, managers, and publishing.

Charlie Wilson, or “Uncle Charlie” as he is often referred to today, emerged as The GAP Band’s front man and thrust him more heavily into the spotlight; however, that light became dim, leaving Wilson alone in the darkness, mired in substance abuse.

In his recently-released memoir, I Am Charlie Wilson, co-written with Denene Milner, SoulTrain.com spoke with the Grammy-nominated singer about his book that takes fans on a musical journey from his days as a kid in Tulsa, Oklahoma to how he made his way back to music, carving out a successful solo career that shows no signs of slowing down.

SoulTrain.com: What led to the decision to write your memoir?

Charlie Wilson: For many years, I’ve been saying I was going to write a book, so I just thought it was time. I just wanted to tell the story of my life from when I was a little boy up until now. I’ve been through a lot and I know as far as people who are addicted, there’s someone out there right now who’s going through what I went through and that don’t think there’s a way out. I know that I can inspire people and I just wanted to do it.

SoulTrain.com: Early on in the book, you mention how integral your mom’s musical gifts and your hometown of Tulsa were to your own journey. How did both shape the musician you became and the musician you are now?

Charlie Wilson: When I was really young, my mom taught us all how to play instruments. She taught us piano and she taught me how to play the trumpet, but I learned those things in school as well. Growing up in Tulsa though, my friends and I had a band at a very early age. We were copying people but then I always copied my older brother because at the time, he had his own band. So there we were, learning instruments and practicing all the time, and it made a big difference as far as where I am right now. But growing up in Tulsa taught me that you have to prepare yourself and go at it.

SoulTrain.com: Would you say that in some cases, a lack of music fundamentals is pervasive in some of today’s music?

Charlie Wilson: A lot of youngsters out here who have records don’t know how to play anything. They don’t know anything about being in a garage with your band practicing for months and then trying to go play at clubs. They just go make a beat and then they suddenly smell themselves. They think because they got one record that they can live high on the hog.

SoulTrain.com: As far as The GAP Band goes, in the book, you cover a lot of the strife that existed among you and your brothers; at the same time, you were also dealing with your resentment towards your father for abandoning your family.  Do you feel that his absence contributed to the troubles the group faced?

Charlie Wilson: Family-wise, it would’ve been great to have my dad there to talk to all of us about certain things but with him leaving so early on in our lives, it left my mom to have to deal with some things. On top of that, when you’re being mannish and not listening to your mom, I just think things would’ve been different if he would’ve been there. I would’ve had more conversations with him about different things and I could’ve definitely made decisions a lot differently.

SoulTrain.com: In just about every aspect of the business, including relationships with managers and record label executives, you recount just how much The GAP Band got the short end of the stick. While you fully admit your naïveté, knowing what you know now, in what way(s) do you wish you would have handled things?

Charlie Wilson: I wouldn’t have trusted so much. And I know that I was so hard-headed about things, too. But I did end up getting the desires of my heart and other things I wanted in life, which is to be able to get back to playing music and showing out for people!

SoulTrain.com: You are always very raw and open about your time under the influence of drugs. In the book, you also mention that on some levels, you were addicted to fame and stardom. Could you tell us more about that?

Charlie Wilson: Well, it probably reads that way—that I was addicted to fame—but all I was really saying is that I never got a chance to get where I wanted to be in life so I never stopped striving. We got side-swiped by everything and we just ended up with nothing. I don’t mind being open about my time under the influence of drugs and I’ll tell anybody my story. It was a crazy situation. When I was into drugs and booze and all that, and when everybody thought I had no more money—which I never had from the beginning, let’s just say I stayed at the “party” too long. It was just a crazy stage for me. I sunk so low. I didn’t believe I could get up. I lost faith in myself. It was rough for me. I just believed I should’ve had more than I had at that time.

SoulTrain.com: You devoted a great deal of the book to your wife Mahin, who was your substance abuse rehabilitation counselor. Tell us what it meant to have her be a major player in your road to recovery, as well as your career comeback.

Charlie Wilson: She is just an amazing woman. She is very instrumental in me being where I am right now. During those rough times especially, she was my goalie and my center—she was knocking out pucks and blocking shots for me. She is truly amazing.

SoulTrain.com: One relationship you talk about in the book that your fans are sure to appreciate is your friendship with the late Rick James, especially when you were deep in your substance abuse. What would you like to say about him?

Charlie Wilson: I love Rick James. He was one of my really good friends. And not a lot of people know that he was a very sensitive guy, too. One night, he was looking over my shoulder and I didn’t know what he was staring at. I looked at him and saw he had tears in his eyes. I asked him what was wrong and he looked at my wife and then told me, “You have an angel and I don’t.” I tried to keep him close to me but, well, he was a very stubborn guy. I loved him but he was really very headstrong. I just miss Rick a lot.

SoulTrain.com: Of course, The GAP Band, whom Don Cornelius once called “the best band in the business,” made several appearances on Soul Train. Can you share any memories with us?

Charlie Wilson: We invited Don and Dick Griffey to one of our shows when we did our little band stuff but they never came! I told Dick Griffey about that later and he just laughed and told me he didn’t know anything about that!

SoulTrain.com: Did you ever mention that “no show” to Mr. Cornelius?

Charile Wilson: When it was our first time appearing on the show, I never mentioned that to Don because when we got on stage to perform, we were too busy trying to talk to all the girls! He got upset! He told the Soul Train dancers that they knew better than to fraternize with the stars and guests and then we said, “Uh oh—we got everybody in trouble!” So we really didn’t get to have that much fun our first time on because he was a little upset about all that. We just tried to stay on our “Ps and Qs” so that we didn’t get anybody else in trouble. But I loved Don. He was a great guy.

SoulTrain.com: You’re one of the few industry veterans to have successfully collaborated with new school artists; however, you didn’t always feel this way, especially when it came to hip-hop. What changed?

Charlie Wilson: I do love hip-hop and I’ve always loved the beats. Of course, they’ve used a lot of The GAP Band’s music to get their stuff going. But at the time, I just didn’t like some of the things the rappers were saying as far as degrading women all the time. It was just a different way that they were expressing themselves and I get all that, but the women bashing? I just wasn’t with that.

SoulTrain.com: As your solo career really got back on track, you collaborated with hip hop artists, most notably, Snoop Dogg. What were those early days working with him like?

Charlie Wilson: Snoop and I ended up being really close. He understood me and where I was coming from, and changed his ways a little bit and eventually started making other kinds of records. I love hip-hop music and I don’t mind collaborating with them on their records if they’re not bashing or cursing too much. And they all know that about me.

SoulTrain.com: What do you want readers to take away from the book?

Charlie Wilson: I have been where everybody’s trying to go. I lost respect, gained it back and got back to the top of my game. There’s nothing anyone can talk to me about not trying—I ended up in the toilet but got up and cleaned myself off. But what I want people to get from the book is that they should never give up on themselves, no matter what.

–LaShawn Williams

LaShawn Williams is a freelance writer and editor from Chicago, Illinois. She is an arts and entertainment enthusiast who has a serious thing for stand-up comedy, music and dance. Follow her on Twitter: @MsWilliamsWorld.

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