Homelessness, Drug Addiction, Cancer: Charlie Wilson Beat Tough Odds to Make Comeback
R&B singer Charlie Wilson is considered one of the greatest in the genre after a career that spans five decades. But his road to success was filled with bumps and detours. He battled drug addiction, homelessness and prostate cancer before coming out victorious on the other side of his hardships.
Former Gap Band singer Charlie Wilson is a fighter. Behind his crisp vocals, luxurious outfits and elegant mannerism lies a story of many fails and struggles that, eventually, became the steppingstones for the 66-year-old Grammy Award-nominated singer.
THE FIRST SETBACK
Charlie and his brothers Robert and Ronnie formed the Gap Band in the early ‘70s and soon became one of the top R&B bands in the U.S.
However, they hit a brick wall in 1986 when their manager asked them to split their publishing deal with him. When they refused, he dropped them and started to campaign against them in the industry, threatening anyone who wanted to hire them since they still had a legal contract with him.
"I couldn't bounce back from that," Wilson told the Associated Press in 2011. "Everywhere we went, he ran interference. He threatened people, and it was a sad situation. Drugs came a lot more. My brothers and I weren't getting along that well."
“Our visit with the specialist started with, ‘I have some good news and some bad news.’ My wife asked for the bad news, and the doctor said ‘Mr. Wilson, you have prostate cancer.'"
Although drugs were nothing new for Wilson, the lack of gigs and the frustrating situation led him to take refuge in cocaine and alcohol. He spiraled down to the point of being homeless and sleeping on the alleys of Los Angeles' Hollywood Boulevard between 1993 and 1995.
Wilson was welcomed among the homeless who knew who he was. They took care of him. But outside of his new friends, the singer didn’t want to be seen by anyone else in those circumstances.
“It was horrifying," he said. "When the sun came up, I ran like Dracula. I tried my best to hide.”
MEETING HIS SAVIOR
It was his cousin—a former drug addict—who encouraged Wilson to enroll in a 28-day program at a drug rehabilitation center.
However, he managed to keep using drugs in the first half of his stay until a social worker came into the picture.
“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 anywhere to go. From there, I started to gather the tools that's helped me for the rest of my life."
The social worker, Mahin Wilson, ended up marrying Wilson. He said of the woman:
“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."
TRYING TO GET BACK ON TRACK
Once Wilson managed to overcome his addiction, he became determined to bring his career back to life. But it wasn’t easy.
The music executives didn’t believe he had anything more to offer, and many doors were closed in his face. But Charlie had made good friends along the way, and when Snoop Dogg and R. Kelly stepped in to help, things started to look better for him.
“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," Wilson said. "I don't even know how they got it."
Charlie released his first album as a soloist in 2005, with collaborations from R. Kelly, Justin Timberlake and will.i.am, among others.
And when he thought he was at the top of the world, life had one more challenge for him.
THE FIGHT FOR HIS LIFE
In 2008, Wilson went for a general checkup at his wife’s insistence. “I have never liked going to the doctor or getting any type of exam. In addition to the physical, Mahin suggested I have a prostate exam,” Wilson recalled on an essay written for CNN’s “Human Factor” in 2012.
That first time, everything came out perfectly, but Wilson’s doctor encouraged him to get another check-up the next month, explaining that black men are at the highest risk of being diagnosed with prostate cancer than any other race.
A month later, Charlie was asked to see a specialist and get a biopsy.
“Our visit with the specialist started with, ‘I have some good news and some bad news.’ My wife asked for the bad news, and the doctor said ‘Mr. Wilson, you have prostate cancer,’” Wilson recalled on his essay.
“My initial reaction was to get up and leave the room. My wife calmly asked me to sit down and have the doctor give us the good news. The good news was that it had been detected early and could be effectively treated.”
Without missing a beat, Charlie and his wife started to research the best treatments, and after undergoing radioactive seed implantation, a form of radiation therapy, Wilson’s cancer went into remission.
THE FINAL BLOW
However, in the middle of his battle against cancer, Wilson received one last blow when he called his father to share the news and, in return, heard from the man that he too had been diagnosed with cancer.
“Unfortunately, he did not tell us that he had prostate cancer. It wasn’t until I called to let him know about my diagnosis that he told me,” Charlie said.
His father died from complications with the disease in 2011.
“It was at that time that I decided it was time for me to start informing as well as performing,” Wilson said.
“I hope that African-American men and their families take a moment to learn more about prostate cancer and help spread the word. Awareness is the key. There are great resources and support for those who need it."
Wilson’s career is still thriving.
His last album to date was released in 2017. The next year, he joined Bruno Marz on his 24K Magic Tour, and more recently, he released a song with Kanye West titled “Brothers.”
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