If James Brown was the hardest-working man in show business, Charlie Wilson is running a close second in the latest chapter of his life. Currently on tour, Wilson is one of the most electrifying and energetic performers in the business. His new memoir, I Am Charlie Wilson, written with Denene Millner, is due for a June 30 release.
Wilson spoke to The Root about his journey from the Gap Band (performing with his brothers Ronnie and Robert) to poverty and then success after working with producer R. Kelly and overcoming drug addiction.
The Root: I’m sure for musicians, the stories about your being homeless and broke after all of those hit records is particularly heartbreaking. Your story about your perseverance is incredible.
Charlie Wilson: When I get ready to do this movie for it, I will definitely tell it all. It will show how I never ever got a paycheck and how good God is to have me to continue to live and write and producing music.
A person can easily take kindness for weakness, and we can’t just be so happy to put a record out. ’Cause back in those days, I just wanted to hear my record on the radio. And when this guy from Total Experience [Records] got away with a little bit of something, he just kept going and he just thought he had three weak people.
But really, it was just that I trusted him and I trusted him with my life, and he just ran away with it. I know he’s probably wishing he hadn’t done it now because look where I’m at. He could have still [been] a part of something that was a legacy, but he ran off with the fast money and he probably spent that up.
TR: The book details how difficult it was to maintain a group, even when you have really talented people, particularly with family dynamics in play.
CW: It’s hard when you’re dealing with real family members. You are putting all of your heart and soul and all the love you muster up from when you were little kids, and when that turns ugly, it's ugly. And so what do you do then? It’s hard.
It’s all right to not like some friend that was your friend that was in a band. But when it comes down to your family member and you’re not liking your family member because of some job or musical thing, that’s a big pill to swallow. I hung in there until the wheels rolled off.
When I was younger, there were so many opportunities where people were trying to get me to come and leave [the members of my band and go solo]—million dollar deals. I just stuck with them. One of my family members said to me, “If you was me, I would have left me a long time ago.”
I was looking at him, like, “You would have left yourself?”
He said, “Man, I would have left me a long time ago!”
That hurt a lot more. After all of those years, I thought maybe I should have left a long time ago. But it was all designed that way. I think God—he knows my heart and all of our hearts.
And my father used to say, “Son, you just keep looking forward ’cause I’ve seen what you’re gonna be doing.” He said, “Your blessings are ahead of you and don’t ever look back at none of this.”
That’s when I started moving forward. Everybody would say, “Aw, he’s too old; he’s never going to get to where he’s trying to go. It’s too late.”
TR: To what do you attribute your longevity? Working with younger artists?
CW: I would definitely attribute some of it to working with hip-hop artists and younger artists. But my first No. 1, “Without You,” was in 2000. Me and R. Kelly had been talking for a couple of years. We were supposed to do something together and he went and did something with Ronald Isley. So when I did see him, I would tease him about it and we finally went into the studio and he said, “I got this record for you.”
I don’t want to sound ungracious. … It was a record. But the next record I did beat the one he did. Then the second record I did beat the first record he did. I kept having more records at No. 1.
I have a lot of friends who tell me I work way too hard. I say I’m working just hard enough. I said it probably looks like that to you because you already have nine or 10 Grammys and you are probably living fat on the hog.
I’m the last man standing, so I gotta go get mine in a hard fashion. I gotta go do it. Now some of them are looking at me like, How can I get what he has? He’s still in the game. Sometimes accolades can bring you down.
TR: It helps to have that kind of stable foundation to be able to do the work and have someone in your corner. You and your wife’s story is a real love story. When did you know you wanted to marry her?
CW: The day I saw her. When she said she would help me, I broke down and cried like a little gal, then I said I gotta figure out how to get her snared up.
She had poise and the beautiful way she walked and beauty inside her. She was a boss. I said I need somebody strong like that in my life now ’cause whenever I leave out of this rehab, I know what I’m gonna be doing again.
Every time I got out of the rehab, maybe a month later, I would be back doing the same thing. I knew the pattern. Everybody was betting against me: “He ain’t gonna stay sober” or “I bet he’ll have her smoking in a year.”
I never turned around, no relapses. Having a strong woman like her around all the time helped. You need to have somebody like that around you, somebody that’s not a yes woman.
TR: About your addiction, what is the defining moment when you could distinguish between being a recreational user and an addict?
CW: I just have addictive behavior. All of it stems from being a teenager and an early adult—just having fun. And that turned into habit-forming fun—habit-forming and then stupid after that.
Trying to relive that and tell that story was very emotional for me. I remember where I slept sometimes. Some places still had the dumpsters still there.
TR: In the book you talked about being called a “nigger boy” as a kid. How can celebrities and musicians help in today’s racial climate? Before, it was with conscious lyrics. What can folks do?
CW: I just think that we should remember that racial profiling exists now and it is as strong as it was in the ’50s. If we could be hung and tar[ed and] feathered legally, we would be today.
This boy going into the church and killing all these people—was he trained to do that? You can’t go to church and have prayer anymore? I don’t know what the answer is to that.
But I do know growing up—I remember being called a nigger boy, and racial profiling was still there. In the ’90s I was on the road with Snoop Dogg doing Lollapalooza in Utah. My wife went in to get some food, and when Snoop’s brother came in … they snatched the menus away from my wife and they said, “We don’t serve y’all up in here.” Things haven’t changed that much.