The reinvented Charlie Wilson

The veteran R&B singer comes to the Lyric in a gospel play

Music

November 24, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Charlie Wilson may end the statement with an infectious, high-pitched giggle, but he's only half-joking.

"I'm the king of R&B," the singer-songwriter says. "Bobby Brown ain't been showing up lately."

Wilson is calling from his cell phone inside Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where he's waiting for his flight to an engagement in Indiana. With a new, well-received solo album riding the charts, the R. Kelly-produced Charlie, Last Name Wilson, the Gap Band lead singer may be on to something. If you consider the major influence he's had on male R&B singers of the hip-hop era (Kelly, Aaron Hall and Keith Sweat chief among them), then the gregarious Oklahoma native may be the prime candidate for the throne.

Wilson sings in the gospel stage play Why Good Girls Like Bad Boyz at the Lyric Opera House Tuesday through Dec. 4.

On his latest album, whose title track has been a mainstay on urban radio for months, the performer's melismatic, Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals are placed in synthetic, hip-hop-splashed productions. The set is spotted with guest appearances by much younger performers such as Twista, will.i.am of the Black-Eyed Peas, Snoop Dogg, even Justin Timberlake. But Wilson is never lost in the mix, blazing the sometimes-lackluster material with the soul fire that kept the Gap Band in the Top 10 during the late '70s and early '80s.

"Working with R. Kelly and the younger artists reminded me how to take chances," Wilson says. "I never would have sung so many words in a lyric. I didn't want to lose old fans, but I'm gaining new ones. I had to understand that I wasn't cutting a Gap Band record. I could go to the edge, so to speak."

With its beat-driven arrangements and rap cameos, Charlie, Last Name Wilson is much slicker than the work Wilson does with his brothers Ronnie and Robert of the Gap Band. The funk factor is virtually nonexistent, and Wilson is transformed into a cornrows-wearing mack daddy. On just about every track, especially on the title cut, Wilson epitomizes the flashy older guy in the club, the one trying to woo the young honeys with his smoothed-out game.

"Hey, it's hard in this business," Wilson says. "It's hard because a lot of programmers want to tell me I'm too old to be on the radio. You have to reinvent. If some young kid programmer don't like your record, it don't get played. I'm too old? It's crazy."

The singer, who founded the Gap Band with his brothers in the early '70s, doesn't divulge his age. "I'm ageless," he says. "It doesn't do nothing but toy with your mind when you think about your age, man. Ain't nothing old about me."

Wilson's hits with the Gap Band - "Outstanding," "Yearning For Your Love," "I Don't Believe You Want to Get Up and Dance (Oops, Up Side Your Head)" - are frequently sampled on modern R&B and hip-hop songs. Signed to Jive Records, he's one of the few funk-era vocalists on a major label these days. His peers - Michael Henderson, Teddy Pendergrass, Jeffrey Osborne - are either largely inactive or recording for small, independent labels.

"I've got a Jive behind me, so that makes a difference," Wilson says. "I can name a lot of huge stars from yesterday who ain't getting no love from the industry, which is sad. I feel lucky 'cause it's rough out here."

When Wilson isn't playing solo dates or shows with his brothers around the world, he's at home on his 20-acre ranch in Acton, Calif. "It's a cool, little country town," he says. "It's quiet as hell. It has a studio, a guesthouse. It's my getaway spot."

Mahin, Wilson's wife of 11 years, travels with the busy singer. These days, Wilson says he's much more focused on his career. He has long given up the hard party life and the recreational drug use that came with it.

"Yeah, man, my wife is everywhere I go," Wilson says. "She makes sure I stay out of trouble. I need to, 'cause it's easy to get into trouble on the road. That was my problem in the '80s."

As the self-proclaimed king of R&B, he has to exude a more evolved, respectable image.

"Hey, I have to put it down for the kids," Wilson says. "I can give you the funk, anything you want if I can get in the door."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Charlie Wilson in "Why Good Girls Like Bad Boyz" at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., Tuesday through Dec. 4. Tickets are $26 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.

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