Charlie Wilson's In It To Win It

Q&A: The R&B icon hits the road Feb. 8 to promote his new album

  • by Gary Graff
  • Published: February 10, 2017

Charlie Wilson

Charlie Wilson has made his way to arenas the old-fashioned way. He earned it. The Tulsa-born R&B stalwart had been going at it -- with the Gap Band and since 1992, on his own -- for more than four decades when he hit the big rooms to promote his 2015 album "Forever Charlie." Along the way, he picked up love from those who came in his wake, guesting on record and in concert with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Eurythimics, Pharrell and many others.

Wilson's latest album, "In It To Win It," drops Feb. 17, with guest features from Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, T.I., Robin Thicke, Lalah Hathaway and others. The AEG Live-promoted tour of the same name hits the road Feb. 8 in Norfolk, Va., with dates so far booked into late March.

So how's the tour shaping up?

Wilson: It's going to be awesome, man. I have a full ensemble, everybody on horns and dancers, and it's crazy. And, of course, I've got Johnny Gill and Fantasia with me this time. We're about to rock every arena in the country.

Arena is the operative word. You've become one of, really, a handful of R&B singers who can do arenas. That must be gratifying.

Wilson: Y'know, I didn't think about it the last time, last year. The show I was doing in the theaters was a bit strong, and I knew what I wanted to do on the outside of that. It couldn't happen on a theater stage because I wanted too many bells and whistles there, so I said I wanted to take it to a bigger stage, and everybody thought I was crazy.

And they were being cautious?

Wilson: Oh yeah. They said, 'Man, we're gonna look stupid if we don't sell no tickets,' and I was like, 'Man, I'm not interested in what people think of me no more.' I'm just way past that point. We need to go try this.

So were you holding your breath when you first announced it?

Wilson: We all were, I think. And we put it in the arenas and  97 percent of the arenas sold out when we put 'em up. That was last year, and here we go again.

What's the main adjustment for you performing in venues that size?

Wilson: I think you've just got to pay attention to the space, the 40-ft. width of this and 30-ft. width of that and just know that it's not 8-ft. this way, 7-ft. that way anymore. You've got to work the whole thing and you've got a lot of people to the left and to the right and on the floor and to the top and to the back. You gotta work it. It's rough when you don't know what you're doing, but hey man, I'm having fun, so the mo' the merrier.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of your first solo album. Does it feel like 25 years, 25 minutes, 250 years...?

Wilson: (laughing) It seems like 25 minutes because I have not been counting the years of what it is I've been doing. I've just been doing and floating and having fun and going from there to there, and I have not taken time to look at numbers because once you start looking at numbers, then you start thinking about what your age is. And I don't trip on numbers, except for what I put in the band. Those are the only numbers I'm looking at.

The fact that you're out there selling out arenas, though, speaks to how you've been able to maintain stature as a contemporary artist — no mean feat for a guy who's been doing it since 1972. And survived prostate cancer, no less.

Wilson:  Absolutely. You have to. People always look at me and say, ‘How's he doing this?’ and ‘How's he so relevant?’ It's because, man, I really put work in. I've never been a boastful guy like Muhammad Ali or anything, but it's time to stand up and say y'know what, I'm one of the best there is now. If your ears don't like it, that must be your ears. I work hard at what I do, even from getting up in the morning and working out three hours a day, then going and recording and practicing and this and that — just like it was when I was a young buck. So I've still got that young spirit inside me, and that's the kid that wants to play all the time.

Is that what you think separates you from some of your contemporaries who haven't stayed as current?

Wilson: A lot of people don't want to do the work. They just want to use their name that they had from years ago and think that's gonna get'em back in the door. Man, you've got to put some work in out here. A lot of people can still sing, but you've got to put the work in. A lot of people don't want to work hard like they did when they were younger, but if you don't then you lose.

And, as the album and tour title says, you're in it to win it.

Wilson: Yes I am. I'm having a great time and doing what I love to do in this music. Once you can do something very good and you've been doing it long enough, you're gonna have fun at it. If I wake up one day and realize it's work, that's when I'm gonna stop. They'll say, ‘What happened to Uncle Charlie? Well, he just woke up one day and said he ain't having fun no more.’ But that hasn't happened yet, so I would love to continue for it to be fun for me, forever.

  • by Gary Graff
  • Published: February 10, 2017