R&B legend Charlie Wilson will appear Saturday as a part of "The Sweat Hotel 2010 Summerfest" at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds. / Special to GoPensacola.com
In the '70s and '80s Charlie Wilson was on top of the world as the lead singer of the Gap Band. Today, he's back on top as a solo artist, with hit singles and albums, Grammy nominations and pop culture status as "America's favorite Uncle."
But the years in between saw the legendary R&B singer hit rock bottom.
Shifty music-biz types left Wilson without a penny to his name. And with a raging drug problem, Wilson found himself homeless, living on the streets in the mid-'90s.
"I got no royalties, no payments and nothing was in my name," Wilson said during a phone interview to promote his appearance at Saturday's "The Sweat Hotel 2010 Summerfest" at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds. "I ended up sleeping on the streets because I had nowhere else to go. It was a horrible situation. Drugs played a big part."
Wilson credits the kindness of fellow homeless people who "let me sleep in their shopping carts, with a brick for my pillow and cardboard for my bed," in helping him survive the streets, and a chance encounter with a relative for setting him on the road back and completely changing his life.
"My cousin saw me one day, and she started crying, and talked me in to rehab," Wilson said. "That's where I met my wife, who helped me get my life together. She was doing so much for me that I had to ask her to be my wife. She did, and I've been clean and sober for 16 years, and we've been married for 16 years."
Wilson's wife, Mahin Tat, had been a coordinator in his rehab program when the couple met.
"I was in there the first 14 days, and I was not very active in the program," Wilson said. I was doing a lot of signing autographs, trying to be the superstar without a quarter in my pocket. And I remember this lady coming and having a meeting with me saying, 'what are you going to do when you get out?' "
When Wilson broke down and admitted the truth of his situation, Tat came to his aid. She helped him find a home, and furnished it. Wilson knew that this woman was special.
"I told her I wouldn't be able to function alone, so that's when I asked her to stay with me," he said. "After I did my first show sober, I asked her to marry me. She took her time to answer, but we've been together for 16 years with no relapses, and we've been having a great time. She's my best friend, my lover, my wife, my everything. We go everywhere together except the public bathroom."
Wilson credits his wife and her son, Michael Paran, for helping to turn his career around, too.
"My wife, she started digging into everything that had contractual implications for me and my brothers in the Gap Band," Wilson said. "She found everything. After I married her, I put her son in charge of getting the Gap Band back to life and ignite the switch again. He satrted looking for shows for us, and stayed the Gap Band's manager for about 9 years. We made more money than we'd ever made."
While the Gap Band was having success on the road, Wilson and his brothers wanted to return to the studio, too. But he says the industry looked down on an act it considered "over the hill." That led him to try his luck as a solo act and back to the top of the charts.
"I've had six No. 1 (R&B) records when everyone had told me no," Wilson said. "I waited 10 years, and it was a struggle of having every door shut in your face."
While the music industry may have seen Wilson as over the hill, the hip-hop generation felt just the opposite.
"When I got clean and sober, Snoop Dogg was the first guy that musically started doing anything for me," Wilson said. "I sang on 5 or 6 of his albums. He was one of the ones that financially kept me going. We did Lollapalooza together and he was just there for me. All of the hip-hop community knew me because I was singing with Snoop."
Snoop Dogg also provided Wilson with a nickname Uncle Charlie which Wilson made the title of his most recent album. "Uncle Charlie" debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart last year, the greatest success of Wilson's career to date.
Another younger performer Wilson credits with helping him on the comeback trail is R. Kelly, who gave Wilson his comeback hit, "Charlie, Last Name Wilson."
"We went into the studio and recorded 'Charlie, Last Name Wilson.' And he said, 'tell everybody I'm producing you.' So I leaked it, and it spread like wildfire. Every label that turned me down was calling me. It was a fun cat and mouse game with all these labels that had turned me down."
Wilson said he loves working with the hip-hop generation, and said, "everybody's asked me to give them 16 bars of something." Among the other acts he's worked with are Drake, Master P, the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Lil' Kim.
And he hinted that he may have something brewing with the music industry's reigning king and queen.
"I was leaving the Grammys, and I was walking out and I heard someone singing 'Charlie, Last Name Wilson,' " he said. "I looked up, and it was Jay-Z and Beyonce. What a great feeling."
While recent times have mostly been good for Wilson, a recent health scare has kept things in perspective. Wilson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. Luckily, it was caught early, and he is in remission from the disease.
Now, Wilson is a spokesman for the Prostate Cancer Foundation, working to raise money and awareness, particularly among black Americans.
"I do a lot of performing, and I thought it was time for me to start doing some informing," Wilson said of his work with the PCF. "They say I've reached more than 25 million men."
Wilson said that he met a young man who brought home the importance of his work with the PCF after a performance in Atlanta.
"A young man said he'd heard me (in a public service announcement) on the radio. And he told me, 'me and my brother and five or six of my friends, we went to the doctor after hearing you, and we all had it. I want to thank you for saving my life.' "
Wilson mentioned that he sells "Uncle Charlie" hats at all of his performances to benefit the PCF, and that they will be available for purchase this weekend.
Wilson also spends a significant amount of time helping to entertain the troops, and has done two tours with the U.S.O. in Iraq. He said performing there has given him a new respect for American servicemen and women.
"It's awesome to play for the troops and give them morale that's what they need," he said. "They put it all on the line. When I'd see soldiers in the cafeteria, you could see in their eyes that it was like a piece of home. I'd perform 90 minutes and sign autographs for 3 hours, everywhere I went.
"I used to see men and women in uniform and didn't give two shakes about it until I went there. So I respect every military person I see now, because I've been over there watching them put it on the line. The best thing about it is to see the soldiers' eyes, the happinesss they were feeling when I was performing, jumping up and down like it was the last show they'd ever see.
"I love going there. It's dangerous, but it's all worth it."
Wilson loves appearing on big bills such as Summerfest while he's home in the States, too. And he's looking forward to performing on Saturday as a part of a bill that is filled with performers he calls his friends.
"We all have mutual respect for each other," Wilson said. "It's great to see Dru Hill back. Keith Sweat is my guy, he's always there when I need him. We're all really close friends, so it's great to see all these guys out. We're going to have ourselves a good time up in there."