Charlie Wilson is traveling this week to visit U.S. soldiers in Iraq, where the R&B legend is in high demand. The first time he went, he says, soldiers stood in line for up to three hours to talk to him and get his autograph. Now, as he prepares for his third visit, he is among the top three acts the troops requested for a return visit. And it's important to Wilson to be there.
"They need the love," he says, "because they really put it on the line."
Wilson wants to be there for others. After all, he's celebrating his 17th year of sobriety, thanks to the people who were there for him. He plans to do the same for his good friend, R&B singer El DeBarge.
DeBarge checked himself into rehab this week, canceling the remainder of his highly anticipated comeback tour. That comeback kicked off last year, shortly after DeBarge completed a 13-month stint in prison for drug-related charges. Soon after, he was performing on television, talking about beating drugs and relaunching his musical career. Last November, DeBarge released his first album in 16 years, featuring the hit single, "Second Chance."
Wilson's return to the industry wasn't as easy as DeBarge's. In fact, it took the former Gap Band singer 10 years after becoming sober to get a second chance. He had a lot of doors slammed in his face. Looking back, he says, that was a bit of a blessing.
"I was still working on myself," he says. "You have to work on yourself first. That's more important than relationships, and it's more important than your career. Your life has to matter more than sitting on the cover of a magazine."
Wilson won't speculate as to what DeBarge may have done wrong during his comeback. He's far too protective of his friend. But based on his own experience, Wilson says DeBarge needs to take a break when he gets out of rehab. He says the demands of the industry can put you under a lot of pressure. That's the last thing a recovering addict needs — even after years of being sober.
"I am working on myself every single day. I am just one drink from catastrophe," he says. "One hit away from losing everything I have."
Like Wilson, DeBarge hit big in the early '80s. Wilson was the lead singer for the Gap Band, and DeBarge was the lead for his family group, DeBarge. By the early '90s, El DeBarge had launched a solo career and was consumed by a cocaine addiction. A decade later, he was making headlines for his drug abuse, leaving his music career in the past.
Wilson's fall from fame was similar. He remembers going into rehab seven times before it finally worked. He says that's because the last time, he made the decision to get clean for himself. And when he got out, he got rid of everything from his past.
"People, places and things. Those people [from your drug past] that have easy access to you, you need to cut them out. Don't go to those places that you used to. And don't do the things you used to do."
Wilson says he is prepared to be a bigger part of DeBarge's future. Last week he tried to reach out to support his friend before the news broke, but DeBarge's voice mail was full. Wilson says he's going to give DeBarge his space and call him in about a month.
"He knows how to get a hold of me if he needs me before then. We've talked about how I did it and what I do now to live sober," he says. "He has my full support when he gets out. If he needs me to be a sponsor, all he has to do is ask."
Meanwhile, Wilson takes his own struggle with addiction day by day as he deals with the full schedule of a very successful comeback. His biggest supporter is his wife, Mahin. The two met during his last trip to rehab, and he says he would not have made it without her dedication. He says that everyone on his team stays on the lookout for anyone from his past who might try to tempt him. Most of all, Wilson credits his relationship with God.
"I ask God every day for guidance. If you don't have some God in you, you may not ever shake this thing."