This is a story of how R&B legend Charlie Wilson is defying the odds with yet another stellar album release, In It To Win It, and a lead single that’s gaining popularity on Adult R&B radio in America.
Recently, pop music legend Sir Elton John, 69, went on record to say that American radio is suffering from ageism.
More specifically, he bemoaned American pop radio for not playing his music anymore – this despite having racked up nine No. 1 singles on the U.S. pop charts during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and releasing his most critically acclaimed album in years with 2016’s Wonderful Crazy Night.
John, who turns 70 on March 25, was quoted as saying that “there comes a point where you have to admit that you’re not going to get played on the radio in America because its ageist.”
Clearly, that time hasn’t yet come for R&B legend Charlie Wilson.
The soul music crooner who fronted the family funk trio the Gap Band for three decades beginning in the 1970s has had no such problem – particularly on adult R&B radio – during a solo career the success of which nearly rivals that of even his former band a couple of generations ago.
Wilson, who turned 64 earlier this year, now has a single climbing the top ten on the airplay-based Billboard Adult R&B list. On that 30-position list, Wilson is the oldest artist represented and the only one in his sixties.
And that song, “I’m Blessed,” featuring rapper T.I., is just the latest in a consistent string of hits the 45-year veteran has put together since the turn of the millennium. It’s a string that includes eight No. 1 Adult R&B singles (all of which have also reached the top 40 of the main R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart) and eight albums – the last six of which have reached the top ten on either the Billboard 200 or the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop albums list, or both.
That includes his latest album, In It To Win It, which debuted last week in the top tens of both charts at No. 7 and No. 6, respectively. Not bad for a man in his mid-60s… a man who two decades ago was down on his luck and was in between careers and battling demons that included alcohol and drug addiction and homelessness.
Another thing happened during the 1990s that would normally doom many artists in the youth-oriented music industry of which Elton John spoke: Wilson turned 40…right around the time that the Gap Band’s success was reduced to a fraction of what it had been a decade earlier and Wilson’s well-documented personal struggles began.
But the strangest thing happened to Uncle Charlie on his way to 50. He began to reinvent himself. By taking a page right out of the Ronald Isley playbook, he chose not to fight the rising tide that brought in the music industry’s youth that was all around him, but to swim with it.
Wilson began to slowly emerge from the immense shadows of not only his former band, but the drastically changed music landscape with which he was striving to reconnect. He began lending his still-soaring and church-honed vocal chops to numerous projects by contemporary hip-hop acts – most notably Snoop Dogg, who rebranded him “Uncle Charlie” and with whom Wilson has forged a close friendship. He also contributed to popular tunes by Kanye West (“All of the Lights”), Pharrell Williams (“Beautiful”), Common, Kid Cudi and Big Sean.
Pretty soon, an artist of soul and funk music’s past who could have easily been relegated to a novelty nostalgic act started to become – once again – a legitimate force in R&B. Wilson’s familiar gospel-influenced vocals were now sought after, and with the Gap Band (and all R&B bands and groups) a thing of the past, Wilson began to focus more on his solo career.
To combat that age thing, he linked up with contemporary producers like R.Kelly, Babyface, The Underdogs, T-Pain and others to create albums that not only became increasingly popular, but more critically acclaimed with each release.
And now the eleven-time Grammy nominated artist can do no wrong.
Wilson – clean from drugs and alcohol since 1995 (the year he also got married) – has since also successfully battled prostate cancer, and now has become a spokesperson encouraging men – particularly African-American ones – to get tested for the disease. He has also supported American troops overseas and performed several concerts in Kuwait and Iraq during the millennium, with one such trip done at the request of the U.S. Armed Forces.
And he’s even more appreciated back here at home.
Among those eight No. 1 Adult R&B songs I mentioned earlier are urban contemporary classics like “Charlie, Last Name Wilson,” “You Are,” and 2009’s “There Goes My Baby,” the latter of which is one of the most recognizable songs of the R&B genre during the past ten years.
And the latest album?
Well, the title speaks for itself. Charlie Wilson is clearly in it to win it – and this album may be his best yet. It includes collaborations with his best bud Snoop Dogg, fellow adult-R&B mainstay Lalah Hathaway, rappers Wiz Khalifa and T.I., and fellow soul crooner Robin Thicke – all of whom are actually secondary to the songs themselves, which are of very high quality and contemporary sounding on their own merits.
Songs like “Good Time” (featuring Pit Bull) and “Us Trust” (featuring Wiz Khalifa) would have performed well in any of Charlie’s previous decades. “Dance Tonight” has the ability to make you do just that. And “Made For Love” with Lalah Hathaway could easily be the wedding song of the next decade.
In other words, Uncle Charlie may be an “uncle” in industry terms by virtue of his six-plus decades on this earth, but he’s an uncle you surely don’t mind hanging out with – as many of the industry’s more recent stars would readily testify. In fact, his current In It To Win It tour features opening acts Fantasia and Johnny Gill, both of whom also have singles on this week’s Adult R&B list.
And what might Charlie Wilson say to Sir Elton John about that ageism accusation the British legend lobbed at American radio? Well, clearly Elton is onto something, as not every 60-something-year-old artist gets to enjoy the kind of radio presence in his genre of choice as Uncle Charlie has with Adult R&B over the past 17 years.
But Charlie Wilson has proven that it’s possible to defy long odds of not just ageism, but all of life’s other obstacles that can be thrown one’s way if you live long enough.
So to borrow Elton’s own words, Charlie might retort, “I don’t know about you, but ‘I’m Still Standing'”…
And he’d be oh so right… for he truly is blessed!
Btw, these are the best tracks on Charlie Wilson’s stellar new album, In It To Win It:
- “New Addiction”
- “Gold Rush” featuring Snoop Dogg
- “Made For Love” featuring Lalah Hathaway
- “Us Trust” featuring Wiz Khalifa
- “Amazing God”
- “Dance Tonight”
- “Smile For Me” featuring Robin Thicke
Give it a listen if you haven’t already.