Charlie Wilson has thrived in the music biz for decades

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

When Charlie Wilson decided to title his new album “In It To Win It,” he wasn’t kidding around.

The former lead singer of The Gap Band — whose ’70s and ’80s electro-funk hits included “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” “Party Train” and “Burn Rubber on Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)” — has powered through his share of personal setbacks in his four decades in the music business. He spent a number of years in the mid-’90s homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol before cleaning up and launching a hugely successful solo career. He also fought a battle with prostate cancer in 2008, for which he was successfully treated.

The singer, 64, says his drive to perform music is unflappable.

“Like my album, I’m in it to win it,” Wilson laughs, while on the phone from his home in Norfolk, Virginia. “I have a young boy’s spirit living inside of me, and he likes to play a lot. A lot of people don’t like to work as hard as I do, but it’s what I love to do. I have a passion for this. I grab the energy from inside, and we’re off and running.”

Wilson’s seventh solo studio album drops Friday on RCA Records, and he performs that night at Joe Louis Arena, supported by Fantasia and Johnny Gill.

“In It To Win It” is highly autobiographical, crammed with confessionals about Wilson’s Oklahoma upbringing (told through audio interview samples on the title track), his struggles with addiction, and his religious faith.

“I was like, ‘I want to say something this time,’ ” he says. “I wanted to talk about things that happened to me, and things that are happening. I just wanted to share some of my life with people through music.”

Singing with rappers

The record fits snugly into the sleek, adult-oriented R&B niche Wilson has worked in since the early ’00s, but it also features a handful of guest performers from the hip-hop world: Snoop Dogg, Pitbull and Wiz Khalifa all contribute vocals. Rapper T.I. appears on the lead single, “I’m Blessed,” which is arguably the most personal track on the record for Wilson.

“I asked T.I., and it came so fast,” Wilson says. “A lot of us go through a lot of things every day, and we wake up and forget to thank God for waking us up in the morning. I just thought it would be so great having another guy saying how good God’s been to him. So I said, ‘Let me have a rapper to help me say it to his generation.’ ”

Wilson is no stranger to collaboration. The singer has appeared on dozens of tracks by artists like Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg and 2Pac, and he shared Grammy nominations with Kanye West for his work on West’s 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” For his latest record, he wanted to return the favor and invite younger artists who admire him to share the spotlight.

“I wanted to use some people that I know have been wanting to work with me for a very long time,” Wilson says. “I decided to oblige them their opportunity, and this is one of the greatest pieces of work I’ve done to date. It feels good.”

Uncle Leon was a mentor

Wilson was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, but he says his roots are really in Tulsa, where he and his brothers, Robert and Ronnie, started The Gap Band (then known as the Greenwood, Archer & Pine Street Band) in 1967. The group got its big break when one of their local gigs caught the attention of Tulsa rock icon Leon Russell.

Affectionately referred to by many as “Uncle Leon,” Russell was so impressed that he hired The Gap Band to back him on his 1974 album, “Stop All That Jazz,” and a subsequent tour. In return, Russell recorded their debut studio album, 1974’s “Magician’s Holiday” at his famous Church Studio. He later played piano on The Gap Band’s self-titled 1977 LP.

Russell died in his home in Nashville in November at 74 years old. Wilson says he’ll never forget the lessons he learned from “Uncle Leon.”

“We became close friends, and we recorded albums together, and I met so many great people in his studio,” Wilson says, noting that superstars like Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Bob Marley passed through Church Studio in the late ’70s. “He taught me about records, and the things that were most important, and it stuck with me my whole life.”

Wilson has made it his mission to mentor younger musicians the way Russell did for him, and over the years Snoop Dogg has taken to calling him “Uncle Charlie.”

“It’s my responsibility to continue to talk to young musicians and rappers and singers,” he says. “Some of them have gone out of control, or let the fame and success and money deteriorate what it is that they’re really all about. I try my best to give these youngsters every information that I have in my mind, my heart and my soul.”

Wilson’s sobriety is the key to his creative longevity. He loves to share the lessons he learned during his final stint in rehab, in 1995, at the Acton Rehabilitation Facility in California, after two years of living on the streets.

“There were three things I needed to change: people, places and things,” he says. “After you admit you have a problem and you change these three things, you have a great chance of having success at being clean and sober. You can just not get high and be dry for a little while, but you didn’t gather any tools to help you clean up for the rest of your life.”

Wilson’s wife, the Iranian-born Mahin Tat, was one of the rehab directors at Acton when Wilson checked in. She took him under her wing after he was released, and Wilson now credits her with keeping him clean and getting him back on the stage.

“My wife has been by my side 22 years, and it’s just been amazing,” he says. “Every time I get a little bit carried away in any matter, she’s always there the second that I’m unraveling, and she tries to ravel me up quickly. ‘You’re slipping on a banana peel, mister!’ ”

Likes to rehearse in Detroit

Wilson hasn’t played a show in Detroit since his sold-out 2015 “Forever Charlie” tour — on which he brought along Detroit’s Kem as a supporting act — but he camped out in the city two weeks ago to rehearse for his new tour. Like any performer indebted to early R&B, he has a soft spot for the Motor City.

“I love Detroit musicians, and when it’s time to rehearse, I come to Detroit … and I love the food,” he chuckles. “We always find some nice places, private spots that we go to. It’s almost like a prizefighter. You get a gym in the hood somewhere and you sweat it out.”

Even after earning nearly a dozen Grammy nominations and a BET Lifetime Achievement Award, Wilson says he’s amazed he gets to play to such big crowds at this stage of his career. Speaking just after wrapping up rehearsals for the “In It To Win It Tour,” Wilson promises he and his band are pulling out all the stops to wow the stadium-sized crowds.

“I know people probably want to hear this new album, and I have to play it for them,” he says. “Of course I’m going to play some of the past No. 1 Charlie Wilson records and dabble in some Gap Band stuff a little bit. I’m trying to get everything to flow right, and it feels good right now. Energy is up.”

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Charlie Wilson’s ‘In It To Win It Tour’

with Fantasia and Johnny Gill

7:30 p.m. Friday

Joe Louis Arena

19 Steve Yzerman Drive


Tickets $48-$103


or (313) 471-7929