I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.
He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.
And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD.
—Psalm 40:1–3 (King James Version)
Our house was very musical, but we weren’t allowed to play the blues. That’s what my mother would call any music that wasn’t gospel—the blues. Irma Delores Wilson was saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost, and in her mind, if you couldn’t sing a particular song loudly from the front pews of the Church of God in Christ, then, like cigarettes, alcohol, and cursing, it was a sin against the good Lord. Something that would land you on the wrong side of heaven’s gates.
Mind you, there wasn’t any such thing as black radio in Tulsa. You had one radio station back in the fifties and sixties, and that station played Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and the like, which we could listen to occasionally when we rode in the car. But if we wanted to hear R & B music—Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, the Temptations, the Supremes—we had to go next door for that. Miss Hanna, our neighbor, had all that music in spades, sitting right there next to one of the best-sounding stereos and speaker systems in our neighborhood. Her records were shiny, too—she kept them clean and scratch-free. My brothers, my friends, and I would sneak over there and listen to Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” and everything by Harry Belafonte. Our favorite was James Brown, a god in and of himself. He brought a whole other level of energy and soul that we could detect even at a young age. With him, you wouldn’t be satisfied sitting in your chair and tapping on the counter; he was doing something completely different from that Motown romanticism—not just lyrically but musically. Motown had a heavy backbeat on the two and the four, with a tambourine attached to it. When James punched the two and the four and the horns would hit and the snap of the snare drum pounced—it was bam! Like gunshots. It was so powerful and monstrous you couldn’t help but dance. He straightened everybody out with that funk, like, “Here I come, here I go, and here I’m going to stay.” He was the leader. I was only about eight or nine when James Brown was leaving that indelible artistic mark, and every last one of my friends and I loved him with abandon. We all tried to do the “James Brown.” His feet were so fast and the splits so badass. He had a hold on every young kid and teenager who ever dreamed of making music. That none of that was allowed in my house, where my father was a preacher and my mother a choir director, just made me love “the blues” even more.
Still, from the youngest age, I was so moved by this soul music, I wanted to share it with my parents. There was one artist whom I thought even they, especially my mother, could appreciate: Stevie Wonder. He moved something deep inside me. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Stevie Wonder at Miss Hanna’s house. He sounded like a twelve-year-old version of my mama. In fact, I thought he was a girl—rolling his voice with that same sound quality Mama had when she sang and played piano at my father’s church—until somebody told me otherwise. One day when I heard “Fingertips” on the radio, I nearly lost my mind. I ran over to Miss Hanna’s window and yelled out to my mother to listen, and then I turned the stereo up really high. She smiled, I snapped my fingers to the beat, and Stevie, well, he worked those licks and riffs that became part of his repertoire.
Nobody was making those runs on the radio.
Stevie was the first, and he was incredible. That he was a young boy, just a bit older than me, encouraged my already intense desire to sing. Prior to hearing Stevie, I didn’t believe that anybody could touch the performance ability I’d displayed in church and at home and had already been getting accolades for. But there he was.
“I can get him, Mama! I can get him! I can sing like that!” I yelled.
My mother laughed. And then she got serious: “Boy, you ain’t playing no blues.”
Call it what you want, a sixth sense, a gut instinct, a premonition, or simply a mother’s intuition, but Mama understood the trouble that could come with being a secular celebrity. The drinking. The drugs. The women. The jealousy and envy. The danger. The incredible rise and the dizzying plummets. The stakes were high. And she wanted to protect her son—a naïve, impressionable church boy—at any cost.
She did the best she could. I didn’t listen. My talent, this God-given gift of vocal, performance, and musical production skills, was too strong a pull. As soon as I could, I ran toward the fire. And I got burned. In part because that is the way of the music industry: it sucks you in and, if you are not careful, chews you up into bitty pieces and spits you back out into the wind. But also because, like my mother probably knew deep down in her gut, I was not naturally endowed with all the bravado you need to navigate stardom. Not in the earliest of my days in the spotlight, anyway.
My friend Rick James, whom I’d meet after my family band, The GAP Band, started making it, knew this, too. He used to tell me that I was much too quiet. Rick was boisterously charismatic, the way he walked, the way he commanded a room. When I met him in 1978 or 1979, he was already a bona fide rock star and was covering some of The GAP Band’s music in his shows. He was on the Motown label, so he had a machine in his corner. He also had the Stone City Band up there onstage with him and a fan base that got downright rabid from the moment he’d come out, shirtless, into the spotlight, the tails of his long leather coat flying behind him, his man tights and leg warmers sitting funky in his cowboy boots, and all that hair swinging past his shoulders. When his fingers got to prancing across the strings of his guitar and the audience made out the notes for the intro to “You and I” or caught wind of the opening licks to “Mary Jane,” the entire arena would combust into all kinds of screaming and shouting and frenetic energy. Rick James was electric, and he was drawn to me because I was his complement onstage—wild and full of bravado. Active. He liked that. He liked me. And pretty quickly after we met, we were fast friends, running the streets and hitting the clubs and getting into all kinds of debauchery together. But it was hard for me to keep up with Rick.
One night he had me ride in the limo with him and an entourage of about ten people as we headed for the China Club in Los Angeles. Rick was practically talking in tongues—“All you gappers and finger snappers and toe tappers and you love rappers,” that line from The GAP Band’s “I Don’t Believe You Want to Get Up and Dance (Oops!),” was just one of the jewels Rick dropped that night in the limo—and to say he was amped when it came time to walk past the velvet rope and into the doors of the China Club would be an understatement. I was by his side in the car, but by the time all the people piled out of that limo and the bodyguards started jumping out of their cars and the swag level of Rick James and his entourage was turned up to one thousand, I was all the way in the back of the line, having been shoved out of the way by Rick’s various groupies and clingers-on as they jockeyed for space in his orbit.
That’s the way I was: Vibrant onstage but quiet and unassuming off. Too afraid to speak up. Rick was a superstar. Me, I was just the lead singer in a band. “You’re too humble,” Rick said to me when we finally found each other in the VIP room after twenty minutes. I didn’t want to cause a scene or be a problem to anybody, and he wanted me to be the opposite. “You should have been right here next to me the whole time.”
“How could I do that?” I asked. “I had people pushing me out the way.”
“You gotta act like a star,” he said, tossing in a few curse words to put an exclamation mark on his point. “Watch me. I’ll show you how.”
The next day, he dressed me up in all this stuff—all that Rick James accouterment that made him bigger than life: boots and tights, leather, and leg warmers. And he had me walking around with him like that—trying to give me a different swagger. “Who are you?” he kept asking me. “I know who I am. The name is Rick James, bitch.” That was not a saying made up by Charlie Murphy and Dave Chappelle for a TV skit. Rick was really like that. That was his thing: “This is rock and roll, bitch.” He insisted I say it, but I couldn’t do it. Having been raised in a preacher’s house, I couldn’t see myself responding to someone who asked me my name with a “My name is Charlie Wilson, bitch!” So I didn’t say it, I didn’t think it, I didn’t act on it. I didn’t run through the women and call them bitches. I just let Rick act on it. And that was okay for a minute, but after a while, I started feeling less than—as if I were the clinger-on and everyone else was the superstar. I felt little. Belittled. Rick, Sly, Stevie Wonder, all the superstars I hung with had everything, and there I was with so little self-esteem. I felt as if I were a nothing, had nothing. Then soon enough, that nothing manifested for real.
Low self-esteem was the bitch.
And ultimately, the catalyst for my spectacular downfall.
Singing the blues didn’t kill me after all. Music, my gift, helped me to soar, dropped me to my lowest of lows, and resurrected me in ways immeasurable. In fact, it, along with God’s goodness and mercy, imprinted on me as a child raised by the hand of a woman who loved and revered the Lord, saved my life.
Becoming Charlie Wilson
My daddy was a preacher with that Bible-thumping, Southern Baptist fire deep in his bones. That early-Sunday-morning vigor gave him wings; he’d fly all over that pulpit and all through the church, crowing through the pews and hopping over laps, the Word dripping from his tongue. That man could jump three or four feet in the air, and by the time he made it back down, people were falling out and shouting. I’m not going to lie: my daddy’s hollering and screaming scared me. The way the congregants of the Church of God in Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma, would jump in the rhythm and work themselves into a frenzy was confusing. Alarming. Addictive.
I was about four years old when I said, “I want to do that.” My father happily obliged me, seeing as my oldest brother, Ronnie, and later my sister, Loretta, both gave up their position as the good pastor’s warm-up act when they turned twelve and got a little too much preteen angst to be bothered. I had no problems handling the gig.
I took my cues from my father.
Oscar Wilson was a boy preacher. A prodigy. At just thirteen years old, he took off from his home in Lehigh, Oklahoma, in the dead of night with nothing but a small suitcase and a Bible, chasing behind God’s voice and a light that lit his footpath through the pitch dark. The Lord had spoken to him—told him to get on the first train coming and ride it through the countryside until He told him where to get off. The average teenager may have thought he was going slowly, surely mad, following behind a voice that insisted he leave all he knew and deposit himself on a locomotive, destination unknown. But when my father heard the calling, he listened. He ended up a few stops down that stretch of railroad track, in a small town with a huge, empty field God directed him to. When he arrived there sans a chaperone, the people there said, “What’s your name?”
“Oscar Wilson,” I’m told he replied.
“Wilson, huh,” one man stated. “What’s your daddy’s name?”
“Dave Wilson,” my father answered.
“Boy, you Dave Wilson’s son?” another man asked.
“Yessir,” my father answered quickly, understanding the cachet this carried in this town among its people, both of which were foreign to him. My grandfather, Dave, was somewhat of a pistol. Literally. I’m told that he was a full-blooded Indian with a hot temper and an itchy trigger finger. Word has it that he once shot the town sheriff and got away with it, and that he was known for lying in the road with his Winchester rifle, waiting for someone to say something sideways to him. After that incident with the sheriff, no one ever did. His reputation preceded him. “Dave’s lying across the road with that Winchester,” they’d warn anyone who approached. “Be careful.”
So when my father showed up talking about preaching, the townspeople, either impressed or out of fear, happily obliged him, strange as his intentions were. “Where you going to preach?” they asked him.
“Right in that field over there,” he stated matter-of-factly. “That’s where God told me to preach.”
They made my father a little platform and strung up some lights for him so that the people could see him. He preached to a few people on the first night and to double that number the second night, and bit by bit, hundreds and hundreds of people showed up to hear the boy preacher. He was answering God’s calling, and the people were getting saved. An evangelist, my father preached all around the country for most of his years on this here earth.
I honed my stage presence and singing performances in the back room of my childhood home, in front of the mirror, where I would mimic my daddy and my mama’s church preaching and praise. When people see me whirling across the stage with all that infectious energy and ask me where I learned to perform, without hesitation, I give that credit to my father. When he was in the pulpit, Daddy would sing and shout all kinds of things, like, “Throw your hands in the air!” and “Say yeah!” while my mother was over there getting down on that piano, whipping him and the entire congregation into a frenzy. Those are move-the-crowd standards that I tend to shout out during my concerts, even today, but I’ve been working on and perfecting my high-energy stage exploits for a lifetime. It wasn’t a thing for my family to open the door and see four-year-old me wrapped in one of my mother’s robes, my father’s shoes flopping off of my tiny feet, flying through the air, landing in front of a mirror: “He’s a mind regulator and a mind fixer and a burden bearer!” I’d be shouting, jumping, twisting, squalling, rearing back, and playing the air piano, all at the same time. My parents would take a gander at the dramatics in that back room and just shake their heads. “Boy, we got our hands full with this one,” they’d say, laughing. Of course, because our house was deeply religious, it wasn’t strange to anyone that a four-year-old was preaching and jumping and shouting at his own reflection. It was expected.
There were more dramatics on Sunday when I put my routine into action at the church. Dress code: blue gabardine suit jacket with matching shorts and bow tie. The song: “When They Ring the Golden Bells.” Nerves: nonexistent. There was no reason to be scared; we grew up in the church, quite literally, spending at least three days out of the week, sometimes more, learning both the Bible and how to be. At any point in time, you could be standing up in front of the entire Sunday school to recite Bible verses you learned in class, or playing a baby lamb in the Nativity play at Christmas, or spending the entire Saturday with your church friends and their parents, doing good works out in the community or dancing and playing at the congregation’s picnic. Being in front of one another, fellowshipping and growing, is what we kids did in the church, and everybody embraced you, no matter what you did or how you did it. Even if you couldn’t sing or you got a few of the words in that verse jumbled, everybody would get up on their feet and clap for you so that you knew you were loved, and when there is love, there is no guard—no wall. You show up, open your mouth, and sing. Of course, it helped, too, that my mother insisted we Wilson kids were the best singers. But really, everybody—the crooners and the croakers—could stand up in front of a microphone and be made to feel as if they’d turned the place out. There was nothing to get nervous about at all. Plus, when it came time for my solo, Mama had already practiced the song with me, and on top of that, I was on a mission: my father delivered a powerful sermon every Sunday and it was my job to make sure the spirit was high and everybody within range of the sound of my voice was in full-on shout mode. My voice may have been sweet and pure and the scab on my knee may have betrayed just how little and new I was, but that old soul deep in my bones had crept up through my center mass and into my throat and was waiting there like a revving race car at the starting line. My mom was sitting at the big upright piano, with my siblings and me standing off to the side of her. “It’s time to sing, baby,” she said, nodding at me.
Let me tell you, when she put that microphone in my hand? I took off—headed straight for the pulpit, where the preachers and deacons were. And when I rounded that corner and saw my daddy, he stood up and then everybody else did, too, and I knew that was my cue. I went in. I started shouting and moved down the aisle as far as I could get with that microphone, jumping and throwing my leg up and my head all the way back. People were going crazy and shouting with joy, and by the time I finished, my dad got up humming, happy I’d warmed up the congregation, yes, but also proud that his son was hopping in his footsteps.
My addiction to that energy, that power over an audience, extended beyond the church pews, right into the halls of Dunbar Elementary School. My brother and sister had already been through the school, so I walked in there with a serious rep. I was “Little Wilson,” the teacher’s pet. They had me singing on demand: the instructors would say, “Come here, Little Wilson. Let me see if you can sing this song.” I’d get the song’s key and dive in. The response they’d give was inevitably along the lines of, “Oh my gosh, what a beautiful voice,” whenever I sang.
That much I could handle, but I wasn’t ready for what would happen once I shared my abilities with a bigger school audience. Indeed, I got the full brunt of people’s response to my singing at a talent show, when I was in the fourth grade. Someone taught me Tony Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and I sang it in front of an auditorium packed with my elementary school peers. As I sang, they began to scream and swoon as if I were Frankie Valli. And when those last words crossed my lips—“Your golden sun will shine for me”—those girls came running toward me full-speed, screaming and waving their hands in the air. A good eighty to one hundred of them. I still had my arm in the air and my eyes closed, dragging out that last note, when I heard the stampede. It scared me so much I took off running! With the entire elementary school of girls chasing me, I scrambled off the stage and down the hallways, searching desperately for an escape; I pushed through the first door I could find, not sure what to do or how to survive a gaggle of screaming fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade little girls. Big mistake. I didn’t realize what the room was until I saw the stalls: the girls’ bathroom. I was trapped. Shaking, I almost peed my pants when a teacher pulled me out of there and rushed me into another room.
“You all right, Charles?” the teacher asked, brushing off my clothes and putting her hands on my shoulders to steady me. Breathing hard, I held back the tears, completely traumatized.
• • •
That teacher pulled me into the teachers’ lounge, away from the grabby hands and shrieks of my peers, tucked away safe until, finally, my mother got there. When she walked into the room, I could tell she was trying her hardest to suppress her laughter. “Your little heart is beating so fast,” she said between stifled giggles.
My mother couldn’t wait to tell my daddy the story when we got home. “Babe, they ran him into the bathroom. One of the teachers had him over there in a separate room and the halls were full of kids trying to get to him,” she said, her laughter met with my father’s easy grin. My mom hugged me and said in that soothing voice: “It’s okay, baby. You did good. You did real good.”
That had never happened to me before. Once I recovered, I realized I liked it. A lot. From then on, anytime anything needed to be sung at the school, I was the chosen one. And I was always ready for the reaction. I was pretty all right with the girls chasing me after that; the sixth graders wanted to kiss me all the time. I craved that excitement and would look for it anywhere I could—on the stage, and later, in everything from my relationships, to my career, to even my addictions. I understood instinctively, even at age six, that the sound of the crowd is life.
Me at seven years old. P Music Group
My little brother and me on Christmas. P Music Group
In front of my childhood home before my last junior high football game. I enjoyed football until I discovered the marching band. P Music Group
My high school graduation day. P Music Group
Performing on Soul Train with my brothers in 1975. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Performing with The GAP Band in Chicago in 1983. Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Enjoying the beach in Cannes, France, in 1983. David Corio/Redferns
Singing with The GAP Band in Chicago in 1984. Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
My father and me. P Music Group
The GAP Band being honored with the BMI Icon Award in 2005. Rick Diamond/WireImage for BMI
Me about a month before my cousin took me to rehab for my last time. P Music Group
With Mahin on our wedding day. P Music Group
My mother and me. P Music Group
Celebrating Zulu Ball in New Orleans with Mahin. P Music Group
With Michael Paran and my brothers a few years into when he started managing The GAP Band. Harry Langdon
Snorkeling in St. Thomas right before I thought I was going to be attacked by a shark. P Music Group
Clowning around with Lil Jon and R. Kelly. Rick Diamond/WireImage for BMI
Performing with my brothers in 2005. Rick Diamond/WireImage
Having some fun with Aaron and Damion Hall from the group Guy. Rick Diamond/WireImage for BMI
Me with Snoop at Live 8 London in 2005. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for AOL
Performing with Snoop on Idol Gives Back in 2008. Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Snoop, Mahin, and me when Snoop asked his wife, Shante, to remarry him in a surprise ceremony at our ranch. P Music Group
Promoting my Charlie, Last Name Wilson album. Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Jive Records
Getting on a plane with Mahin, headed to another base to perform for the US troops in Iraq in 2009. P Music Group
Signing autographs for the US troops after my performance in Iraq in 2009. P Music Group
Michael, Mahin, me, and Michael Jordan at his celebrity golf event in the Bahamas. P Music Group
Jamming with Stevie Wonder at his radio station, KJLH, in Los Angeles. P Music Group
Revisiting the streets where I used to be homeless in Hollywood, California. Dan MacMedan
Spending some quality time with one of my favorite lambs in the barn of my ranch. Dan MacMedan
Having a laugh with my doctor when he asked me to autograph his CD before my prostate cancer procedure. P Music Group
Performing with my “nephews” Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, and Snoop Dogg during my Lifetime Achievement Award tribute at the BET Awards. Johnny Nunez/WireImage
Backstage at the BET Awards with my friend and idol Stevie Wonder. P Music Group
Posing with my BET Lifetime Achievement Award with Justin, Snoop, and Pharrell after our performance. Mike Windle/Getty Images for BET
Every time I step on the stage, it is a blessing. I am so thankful for my fans who come out to see my show. Elpwe Ray/P Music Group
With Mahin and Michael at the 2015 BET Honors. Kris Connor/BET/Getty Images for BET
Sharing the stage with Kanye West at the BET Honors performing “Yearning for Your Love.” Brad Barket/BET/Getty Images for BET
Performing at the Essence Music Festival. Elpwe Ray/P Music Group