Backstage at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, the veteran singer Charlie Wilson has a ziplock bag full of ice on his right knee. The joint was tight when he woke up the day of his performance there last Friday, and it worsened rapidly during a morning exercise routine. “I’m a wounded warrior,” he says, though he doesn’t look it, beaming and unflappable in dapper slacks and rhinestone-encrusted loafers that sparkle as he shifts his feet. At 64, when most artists have thrown in the towel, Wilson is still landing hits on R&B radio, enjoying the latest phase in a career that also saw him helm a next-level groove band and sing hooks for rap stars.
He has been performing since the age of four, when he jumped on the stage of a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to help his father deliver a sermon, so playing through the pain is second nature. (Wilson remembers completing a singing engagement despite a herniated disc that sent spasms of pain through his body whenever he reached for a high note.) In Newark, while singing tracks from his new album In It to Win It, he dances without so much as a grimace, leading a long line of musicians in a jubilant procession around the stage, twirling and high-stepping, and even bounding onto the speakers.
“I’ve watched [singers] since the late Eighties, early Nineties come and go,” Wilson said, speaking on the phone from rehearsals in Detroit the week before. “They see me now, it’s like, ‘Wow, you still got it like that?’ I don’t know no other way to perform. I go hard when I sing. It’s just what I do.”
That helps explain why Wilson has been on the airwaves with new music in five different decades, a feat accomplished only by an elite few. Following a stint backing rock polymath Leon Russell and a date opening for the Rolling Stones where he infuriated Mick Jagger with the intensity of his “Jumping Jack Flash” cover, Wilson started landing hits as the lead singer of the Gap Band with his brothers Ronnie and Robert in 1979. This group condensed the kaleidoscopic funk and florid ballads popular in the mid Seventies, especially the style of Earth, Wind and Fire, into hard-hitting, synth-heavy tracks armored to compete in the Eighties.
After struggling with addiction and getting clean – 22 years sober, he tells the crowd at the Prudential Center – Wilson worked with the new generation of rappers in the Nineties, especially those who saw hip-hop as an extension of the funk tradition and craved a touch of the real thing. He then parlayed those experiences into a successful solo career in the 2000s, landing several Number Ones at Urban Adult Contemporary radio.
His longevity has made him a legend of sorts for younger artists, who refer to Wilson affectionately as Uncle Charlie. “You’ve never seen him ever be bad,” says T-Pain, who collaborated with Wilson in 2009. “That’s how these people move. You probably can’t even imagine Charlie Wilson in sweatpants right now. You’ve never seen these people do bad, so there’s no way they can do bad.”
In It to Win It is Wilson’s eighth solo album, and his fifth since 2009, when he sent “There Goes My Baby” to the top of the charts for nine weeks, demonstrating once and for all his commercial potential as a soloist. That song, a golden bolt of soul with a joyously cutting rhythm track, is the sound of tradition and modernity in perfect marriage. Wilson fought to put the track out over the protests of executives at his label who thought “it sounded dated,” and the single helped transform Wilson, as he puts it, from “the little engine that could” into “the little engine that will.”
Like many of Wilson’s best songs, “There Goes My Baby” plays to the singer’s strengths: an outrageous range and a precise, lustrous tone, both of which, somehow, remain intact even in his sixties. “That’s just a gift from God,” Wilson said. “He preserved me. I smoked my throat away; I was blessed to have it return to me.”
Whether working on his own or collaboratively, he can swallow a song whole at any moment – see his obliterating interludes in Kanye West’s “Bound 2” – or astonish with light pirouettes, as he does during “Better,” an unadorned track on In It to Win It. “The pinnacle of sounding great on a soul record is going to be Charlie Wilson,” predicts T.I., who raps on Wilson’s new single “I’m Blessed,” a current hit on Urban AC radio.
In It to Win It is above all, a grateful album, appreciative of life and love, dancing and divinity. “It’s my job to continue to inspire,” Wilson explained. “I asked God to let me inspire others. I asked him to give me one more chance to get back to the music, and I promised I would shout him out. I didn’t know all of this would be happening – not only this time around but the last five times I’ve been doing albums by myself.” Artists cue up to join Wilson on his heartening journey: in addition to T.I. and longtime collaborator Snoop Dogg, the new record features Wiz Khalifa, Pitbull and Lalah Hathaway.
Listening to In It to Win It backstage in Newark, Wilson frames new tracks in terms of old classics. He describes one song as a 2017 update of “Outstanding,” which may be the Gap Band’s finest moment, while another duet attracts comparisons to Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’ “Endless Love.” The ice in the bag on his knee melts slowly, but Wilson’s energy never flags: He conducts an imaginary band, lifts a dumbbell, shimmies his shoulders in time with the beat and frequently dissolves in laughter, especially after acting out salacious rhymes from a Pitbull verse.
“Everything’s been growing,” he explained the week before. “I had prayed for things I wanted to do: [move] from clubs to theaters, theaters to arenas, arenas to stadiums. Things are progressing for me. Haven’t got to the stadiums yet. But you have to watch what you pray for – you might just get it.”