Charlie Wilson has been alive for 58 years, and has been singing for nearly all of them — first in his church choir and then in the Gap Band, the pioneering funk group he formed at the age of 14 with his brothers Ronnie and Robert.
That long, remarkable career has reached an unlikely new peak with Wilson's success as a solo artist. This weekend, he'll be headlining the African American Heritage Festival on a bill that includes other R&B acts Chrisette Michele, Estelle and Lil Mo. Wilson credits his continued good fortune to his instrument.
"The sound of my voice never went out of style," he said.
Even when the Gap Band's career wound down from its early '80s peak of hits like "You Dropped A Bomb On Me," the gritty, brassy grain of Wilson's voice was emulated by the next generation of soul singers.
"Some of those people I inspired had my style of singing, continuing in the late '80s and in the '90s," he said.
In the ''90s, Wilson began the second chapter of his own career, as his signature sound was revived in the form of hip-hop samples, particularly by West Coast 'G funk' artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. When the latter rapper remade the Gap Band's "Oops Upside Your Head" as "Snoop's Upside Ya Head" in 1994, he drafted the song's original singer to appear on the track. Wilson ended up on several songs on "Tha Doggfather" and on nearly every Snoop Dogg album since.
Soon after, Wilson was going on tour with Snoop Dogg, crisscrossing the globe as part of the rap superstar's live band.
"I started doing a lot of shows — Lollapalooza, Live Aid — everywhere Snoop went, he took me with him," Wilson said.
Even the nickname that ended up being the title of Wilson's 2009 album "Uncle Charlie" came from the rapper.
"That's how it all started, with Snoop calling me 'Uncle' Charlie," he said, a handle that's become more and more widely used as Wilson has taken on an avuncular role to so many younger artists. "After I sang on seven or eight records of his, that turned into me being a real uncle to him and his wife and his children."
Collaborations with Snoop Dogg and others helped raise Wilson's profile outside of the Gap Band. He was able to re-launch his solo career with 2005's gold-selling "Charlie, Last Name Wilson," which featured superstars like R. Kelly and Justin Timberlake.
Turn on an R&B station today and Wilson may be the only singer pushing 60 you're likely to hear new music from. Five of his solo singles have hit No. 1 on the Urban Adult Contemporary chart, including 2010's "You Are," which recently topped the chart for 15 weeks. And in the past year, he's appeared on at least half a dozen songs by Kanye West, including the hits "All of the Lights" and "Monster."
Often, Wilson's voice ended up being one of many providing backing vocals, but he recalls that many of the recording sessions began with his laying the groundwork.
"My voice was the first one that went down on all of those records," he said.
Charlie Wilson's comeback was almost cut short by a 2008 prostate cancer diagnosis. But the cancer was detected and treated early, and Wilson was soon back in good health. He became a spokesman for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
"The foundation gave me the opportunity and the platform to speak especially to African-Americans, because we're two times as likely to be diagnosed with this disease than any other groups," he said. "People ask me, why does this affect the African-American community the worst? Some of us don't like to go to the doctor, some of us don't want to know what's wrong with us, we don't want to know, and knowledge is key."
After that health scare, it seems like Wilson is working harder than ever to make the most of the time he has, releasing albums two years in a row in 2009 and 2010.
"Back-to-back albums are like [the Gap Band] used to do back in the day, it keeps you motivated and keeps you in the studio coming up with new ideas," he said. "And I'm going back in the studio in a little bit to start on the next one."
If you go
Charlie Wilson performs at 7:45 p.m. Sunday as part of the African American Heritage Festival. The free festival is noon-10 p.m. Saturday and noon-9 p.m. Sunday in lots B and C, between M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, 1101 Russell St. Call 410-244-8861 or go to africanamericanfestival.net.