As the lead singer of brotherly trio the Gap Band, the pioneering group whose late 70’s early 80’s funk still serves as a guiding light for producers and singers, it has been a long road for Charlie Wilson. From the dusty roads of Tulsa, Okalahoma to the neon lights of Cali to being homeless in the city of angels, the brother has seen it all. "I went from riches to rags," Charlie laughs. "But now it’s take for me to take it back to the stage with ‘Charlie, Last Name Wilson’."
Anyone familiar with the rhythmic repertoire of the Gap band, including classic tracks "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," "Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)," and "Yearning for Your Love," can hear traces of Charlie in the contemporary voices of current R&B royalty. Their music continues to be sampled by hundreds of artists including Madonna, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Ashanti, Will Smith, and George Michael to name a few.
"From day one, R. Kelly has always proclaimed himself a modern day Charlie Wilson," he says. "He and I have been talking about collaborating for years, and now it’s finally happening." On Charlie, Last Name Wilson, his first disc since 2001, the former cowboy boot wearing bro is now gator stepping in Chi-town with the king of urban grooves. "This was a big step for me, because the Gap band always did our own music," Wilson recalls. "Letting others write and produce for me, is a big step." Fortunately, coming through on his promise, R. Kelly has stepped to the plate to produce four mackadelic tracks.
"The first song we recorded was the title track. I already knew he was talented, but it was then I realized he’s a genius." With his own classic appeal, Charlie Wilson possess a style that has never gone out of style, the kind of voice that can be gutbucket and cool, smooth as hot butter and tasty as chocolate. "Charlie, Last Name Wilson" is the kind of urban romancer that will appeal to both old souls hanging in the spot and R&B kids chilling on the block.
The instant classic "No Words," is an exquisite track that has an eternal pop sound comparable to Burt Bacharach, Curtis Mayfield or Babyface. With this enchanting song, sonic Chicago architect R. Kelly has constructed one of the finest "drama" ballads of his career. "That is my favorite song, because it’s so powerful," Charlie says. "Basically, it’s me singing from the woman’s perspective. I know some men are going to be mad that I’m saying these things, because now they might have to stop playing basketball long enough to buy their lady some flowers."
Proving himself to be more than a balladeer, the smoking "So Hot" is the kind of popping dance-floor track one might not expect to hear. A master blaster for the BET generation, one can imagine booming speakers, slinking girls and enough sweat to swim through without drowning. Indeed, with a brilliant collection of material, Charlie, Last Name Wilson has created the perfect re-introduction for contemporary audiences to embrace.
Throwing down some new tricks, the upbeat groove of "Magic" is a whimsical song with Uncle Charlie (that’s what the kids call him) playing the roll of a magician—the kind who can blink his eye, mumble a few words and make your clothes disappear. "It’s all about being able to work that charm," Wilson says slyly. Abracadabra, hocus pocus and all that jazz…
Raised the son of a preacher man and a strict mother, Charlie recalls his Tulsa days with the fondness of a Hallmark card. "It was the kind of place where you could go to any door and borrow a cup of sugar," he says. "I had a very happy childhood." Though his mother did not want him sullying his ears with secular sounds, he says, "Pops didn’t care, because he had a nephew who was a blues musician. Every time he came around his car had shiny wheels and slicked back hair; he wore sharkskin suits and always had a car full of women. I knew then, that is what I wanted to do.
Inspired by the black velveteen of Sam Cooke and the Motown sound of Little Stevie Wonder, young Charlie began performing in local night spots while still a teen. "I would be playing for the same people at night that was teaching us during the day. We were playing grown folk’s music when we were still kids." Teaming with his brothers in 1967 Wilson proudly says, "And we’re still performing together today. We may not see eye to eye on everything, but we are family first. Some crazy things have gone down over the years, but family is the mother ship; and that big ship is the Gap Band."
In addition to their "roof is on fire" jams, the Gap Band was also known for making cowboy gear cool in the hood. "People used to tease us, because we came from Okalahoma," Charlie laughs. "So we just decided to dress like cowboys. When we put on the hat and boots, we knew it looked corny, but we did not care. That’s our look."
Though Charlie has had his share of wealth, he has also had his share of demons. Partying hard and living close to the edge, Charlie lost everything due to bad decisions and drug abuse. "I went from living in a mansion to living on the street," Charlie confesses. "I had strangers living in my house, stealing my cars. I had hit rock bottom. If it wasn’t for God and my wife, who knows where I would be today."
After the recording with R.Kelly in the windy city, Charlie returned to his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, going straight to the studio with superstar label-mate Justin Timberlake and Black Eyed Peas auteur Will.i.am. "Justin is a very talented kid," says Wilson. "We had worked together on a project with Snoop. We were hanging-out in my trailer when I asked if he wanted to be a part of the project. Justin is a real humble guy." Called "Floatin’," the track is bound to introduce Charlie Wilson to a brand new crowd. Simultaneously laidback and funky, there is a certain bliss one feels when listening to this song. Like an easy Sunday morning, "Floatin’" will make you feel good. "Will is like a modern day Sly Stone," he says. "He is on his way to great things."
For sure, Charlie Wilson knows about great things. From those early days touring with the Rolling Stones to being a major headliner in the early ‘80s, the Gap Band always brought the party. "When we performed it was all about showmanship," informs Wilson. "That’s what I think is missing in music right now, and I’m ready to bring it back."
The track for former new jack swing fans is Wilson’s remake of Guy’s classic ballad "Let’s Chill." Of course, as Uncle Charlie is quick to point out, Guy singer Aaron Hall listened to his share of Gap Band material before going into the vocal booth for the first time.
"We laugh about it," Wilson says. "But, singers like R. Kelly and Aaron Hall continued in the tradition of what I was doing." Produced by Platinum Brothers and Larry "Rock" Campbell the tone of the "Let’s Chill" remake does not stray far from the original Teddy Riley joint-ski, Wilson provides enough flavors to make it even spicier. With a haunting quality to his voice, this is the kind of mood music that demands a red light bulb dangling over the waterbed.
On Charlie, Last Name Wilson a masterful performer returns to proclaim his rightful place on the throne. Mixing booming beats with chocolate love, Charlie Wilson is bringing the truth; and, as with most great soul singers, the gospel of life, love and happiness can be heard in the grain of his voice.
Even before the question is posed, she makes clear the essence of her sound. “I’m a soul singer,” she says, with much pride and little hesitation. That’s who she is, at her core, and no matter the song she sings, her spirit seems to resonate from the speakers along with her voice. That’s the magic that Fantasia brings, every time.
At first listen, Side Effects of You might sound like an album about heartbreak and the process of piecing oneself back together. That’s true, in part, but if you have her tell it, there’s much more there. While the Grammy-winning singer has certainly enjoyed chart-topping, triple-platinum and multi-platform success since winning season three of American Idol, she, like everybody, has made some mistakes, too. Though she has never shied away from being transparent in her music, she wasn’t necessarily thinking about putting her words into song when she picked up a pen and her blank notebook two years ago.
“When I started writing in my book, I had a bittersweet taste in my mouth,” Fantasia says of how she was feeling – professionally, personally, emotionally – after putting in a decade’s worth of hard work. “I’d been doing one-off shows and not really recording, but when my doctor put me on bed rest, I decided to use that time to start writing down some of the things that were on my mind. If I was able to get to the grocery store, people would stop me in my Hoveround chair and tell me what they were going through, so I wrote about that, too.” It was only after she met (and vibed with) London-bred producer, Harmony Samuels, that she realized it might be time to get back in the studio. With her trusted notebook by her side, she would eventually co-write seven of the 13 songs that comprise Side Effects of You. “I’ve always wanted to collaborate with someone the way Michael Jackson did with Quincy Jones,” she says of joining forces with Harmony, who serves as album producer. “As soon as I heard the song, ‘Supernatural Love,’ I knew he was the one.”
Crafting this, her fourth album, was like a dream come true for Fantasia as she made it her mission to tap into the music that has inspired her over the years. “When I was growing up, we listened to so many different types of music in my house,” she remembers. “It started with gospel and then the blues because my grandfather loved B.B. King. Of course I loved listening to my girls Monica, Brandy, TLC and SWV, but I also played Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, Bonnie Raitt and Queen. You can listen to any of those artists today because their music still stands and that’s what I wanted to do with this project. I want my music to be timeless.”
Leading the album out of the gate is “Lose to Win,” which she co-wrote alongside Andrea Martin over a sample of The Commodores’ classic, “Nightshift.” “This is my testimony,” Fantasia says of this ode to the power of understanding when to hold, and fold. “Andrea and I really connected and I wanted to deliver this song for her. She allowed me to switch a few things up, but we were both able to put our feelings into the song.” Fantasia followed up with the slow-bounce club banger, “Without Me,” featuring Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott. The song, which she co-wrote with Al Sherrod Lambert, Kyle Stewart and Missy, set the blogosphere and urban radio ablaze in record time. She sings of the moment that the veil is lifted on an unbalanced relationship. Once Kelly and Missy chime in, there’s no avoiding their burning question – “Where’d you be, without me?” “I always love working with Missy and it broke my heart that she wasn’t a part of my last album. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity this time. And Kelly? She killed her verse!”
“End of Me” is a song so moving that it literally sweeps you off your feet. Co-written with Lambert and Amber Streeter, Fantasia sings of the type of love that is absolutely no good, but keeps calling you back, over and over again. Who hasn’t been there? On “Change Your Mind,” co-written with Lambert, Fantasia tips her hat to the late Whitney Houston. When she sings, “Come home to me, baby, I’ll be good to you, darling,” it’s so very reminiscent of Whitney’s 1990 hit, “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and that’s exactly how she wanted it.
Two words come to mind when she talks about “Get It Right” – rock soul. “When I say ‘rock,’ I’m thinking of Tina Turner and when I say ‘soul,’ it’s all about Aretha Franklin,” she says of the high-octane track which she co-wrote with Streeter and Lambert. “With the live instruments, you get a Tina Turner/James Brown feeling and maybe even a little bit of Andre’ 3000’s ‘Hey Ya.’ When we were recording, I ran and grabbed everybody in the studio to sing with me. I love this song!” Then there’s the album’s title track. Produced by Naughty Boy and written by Emeli Sande’, Shahid Khan, Claudia Bryant and Ben Harrison, “Side Effects of You” is as haunting as it is vivid when it comes to the business of releasing someone who has wrecked havoc on you. “This song is the truth,” Fantasia says, “but it’s also kind of tricky because it’s about a man and medication. At first, I’m singing about him like he’s what I needed, but in the end, I flip it like he was actually the drug.” As for choosing this ballad as the title track, she explains that the song’s sentiments also relate to life, in general. “Everybody’s been hurt and the pain can be caused by family, friends and in my case, the industry, too. When I sing this song, I’m telling everybody who has ever done or said anything to hurt me that these are the side effects of you. Yes, this song is the truth!”
Back in 2004, on the night of May 26, a then-19-year-old Fantasia Barrino stepped onto the American Idol stage and won top honors. After wowing television audiences with her vocal talent, the North Carolina native released her debut album, Free Yourself, which featured as its first single, “I Believe,” a song that made her the first artist in Billboard history to debut at #1 on the Hot 100 chart. Her second single, “Truth Is,” would later hold the #1 spot on the charts for 14 weeks. During 2006, she released her New York Times bestselling memoir, Life Is Not a Fairytale, starred as her younger self in the Lifetime movie of the same name and by year’s end, released her second album, entitled, simply, Fantasia, which included the hit single, “When I See U.” What followed were the coveted role of Celie in Broadway’s The Color Purple (for which she won a Theater World Award), a guest spot on The Simpsons and a two-season run of the VH1 reality series, Fantasia For Real. During the summer of 2011, she released her third album, Back to Me, which featured the Grammy-winning single, “Bittersweet.” To date, she’s sold nearly three million records and 1.5 million digital tracks, domestically. Looking toward the near future, she will expand her musical repertoire even further when she joins classical singer, Andrea Bocelli, for his world tour in summer 2013.
Each of her experiences have contributed to who she is as an artist and also, as an inspiration to the next generation of performers whom are listening to each note she hits and watching her ascension. As she continues on her creative journey, she’s still has more learning and growing to do and many more songs to sing. What remains constant is that she loves music, she knows music, and she always sings from her heart, with all of her soul.
So, how does she feel about her latest work now that it’s out in the world, for all to hear?
“I know that every artist says that their albums are like their babies, but Side Effects of You really is my baby,” Fantasia says with a laugh. “Besides the music, this album means so much to me because it represents the amazing creative relationships I made and the thoughts and ideas that were spoken into my life during the recording process. This project came together right in the nick of time.”
Gill is the sixth and final member of the R&B/pop group New Edition, and was also a member of the supergroup called LSG; with Gerald Levert and Keith Sweat.