ATLANTA (AP) – Over the years, the Grammys have served as a backdrop for heart-tugging comeback stories. If Charlie Wilson should win either one of the awards he's up for on Sunday, it may mark one of the more unusual – a successful resurgence after a series of setbacks, including spending two years homeless.
“People really don't know how I laid in the streets,'' Wilson said. “From that to this, I cried when they told me I had a Grammy nomination. It still doesn't seem real to me, because so many doors have been shut on me so many times. … Everything was derailed.''
Wilson, nominated for best R&B album for “Uncle Charlie'' and best male R&B vocal performance for “There Goes My Baby,'' has one of the most recognizable voices in R&B. His crisp tenor anchored hits like “Outstanding'' and “You Dropped the Bomb on Me'' as lead singer of the Gap Band in the early 1980s. The group, which included brothers Ronnie and Robert, were among the top R&B acts in the nation.
But Wilson says the Gap Band hit a roadblock in 1986 when they asked to split their publishing deal with their manager; Wilson claims the manager dropped them and then had them blackballed in the industry, threatening anyone who tried to sign them since the group was still under contract with him.
“I couldn't bounce back from that,'' he said. “Everywhere we went, he ran interference. He threatened people. It was a sad situation. Drugs came a lot more. My brothers and I weren't getting along that well.''
Slow cash flow and a cocaine and alcohol addiction drove Wilson to become homeless, as he slept in the alleys of Los Angeles' famed Hollywood Boulevard between 1993 and 1995.
Some of the homeless who knew of the singer took care and protected him, finding him food and building a place for him sleep. He used a brick for his pillow, a cardboard for a bed and shopping carts to surround him.
Outside of his homeless friends, Wilson didn't want to be seen by anyone else. During the daytime, he would hide away from the public until dark.
“It was horrifying,'' he said. “When the sun came up, I ran like Dracula. I tried my best to hide.''
Wilson, who was about 130 pounds while homeless, didn't realize how much weight he lost until his cousin – a former drug addict – saw him and told him about his frail frame. She persuaded him to check into a 28-day program at a drug rehabilitation center.
The now 180-pound Wilson says he still used cocaine during the first part of his stay there, until he was called into a social worker's office.
“She asked me what I am going to do when I leave here?'' he recalled. “That's when I broke down and cried. I thought about it and knew I didn't have nowhere to go. From there, I started to gather the tools that's helped me for the rest of my life.''
The social worker soon became his wife – Mahin Wilson. The singer, who has been off drugs for about 15 years and still lives in California, said he wouldn't have made it this far without her.
“She's been with me every step of the way,'' Wilson said. “We go everywhere together. God just sent me this angel. She would just hang with me. That's a true backbone you need when you're going through something.''
Mahin Wilson said it was tough when the singer would have withdrawal symptoms. But she knew that she was placed in his life to help him recover.
“During his stage (of recovery), he wanted to pick a fight or argue – anything,'' she said. “Knowing that, it led me to say to myself, 'OK, this is my husband and I'm going to stick with him.'''
Once Wilson got his life back on track, he wanted to revive his career, but found other obstacles. He said numerous record labels wouldn't give him a chance and people who he worked with before thought his soaring vocals were no more.
He credits Snoop Dogg and R. Kelly for helping him resurrect his career. He put out a CD in 2001, and Kelly wrote his 2005 comeback hit, “Charlie, Last Name Wilson'' and produced the album of the same name, which went gold.
“As soon as everybody knew R. Kelly was working with me, everybody who told me 'No' stuck their head up and was calling my cell phone,'' he said. “I don't even know how they got it.''
Snoop Dogg said he looks to Wilson for inspiration. The rapper started working with Wilson in 1996, featuring him as a guest on five of his albums, including the 2003 smash hit “Beautiful,'' featuring Pharrell.
“He's been more of a family adviser, more of a father figure, more an uncle than a musician,'' the rapper said of
Wilson through e-mail. “Musically, we get down and have the most fun in the world when we are in the studio. But I really appreciate him for the things that he does away from the music such as being a man and letting me know what it is to be a man.''
Homelessness wasn't the only problem Wilson had to overcome. In 2008, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
But his doctor told him they caught the cancer early and he was treated with radiation implants.
Last year, he proved his 2005 success was no fluke with his latest album, “Uncle Charlie.'' It debuted No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200. His single “There Goes My Baby'' spent 10 weeks at the top spot on the Billboard R&B Adult Contemporary chart, and 52 weeks on the chart in total.
Now, Wilson is healthy and working with the Prostate Cancer Foundation, spreading the message through his concert tour for black men to get tested. He's also performed in Iraq and Kuwait to perform for U.S. troops last year.
With his recent accolades, Wilson believes he has finally proved to doubters that his music is timeless, saying the best is yet to come.
“They were laughing at me,'' he said. “But I know I can out-sing you and out-step you. As long as I got the knees and the legs, God already gave me the voice, I'm going to get you. I'm here and it's just the beginning. So look out homie, Charlie Wilson is going to be around here for a while.''
Photo: Charlie Wilson
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