From The Gap Band through today’s chart-toppers, Uncle Charlie’s a soul survivor

Charlie Wilson Photo by Andy Argyrakis
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He pioneered the electric funk scene as leader of The Gap Band throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and then in one of the most monumental (albeit somewhat unlikely) comebacks in modern memory, returned to the top of the R&B charts regularly throughout the 2000s right up through this very week. Indeed Charlie Wilson is an anomaly compared to most 62-year-old artists, and when it came to his AEG Live-produced “Forever Charlie” tour stop at the United Center (accompanied by current king of smooth KEM and longstanding singer/songwriter/crooner Joe), he sold out the house Michael Jordan built just like Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars.

So what exactly is the key to the veteran’s success that’s kept him in the game as a soul survivor (no, make that thriver) for over 40 years? Not only did a near two hour show that ended just shy of midnight pack a whole lot of old school, but there was just as much new school in the recipe…

Charlie Wilson

Photo by Andy Argyrakis

So what exactly is the key to the veteran’s success that’s kept him in the game as a soul survivor (no, make that thriver) for over 40 years? Not only did a near two hour show that ended just shy of midnight pack a whole lot of old school, but there was just as much new school in the recipe, supported by a groove-saturated band of varying ages and four female dancers of multiple ethnicities.

Perhaps the most natural place to start was “Party Train,” one of The Gap Band’s most festive funkers that foreshadowed the vibe to come as the headliner steadily shuffled between group and solo strides. Within either incarnation, Wilson demonstrated substantial vocal strength, keeping right up with the whirlwind of “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me),” belting out the doo wop-derived ballad “Goodnight Kisses” and smoothly stepping through “There Goes My Baby.”

The depth of material presented throughout the night was rather astounding, which possibly contributed to Wilson straddling a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. He definitely deserves kudos for maintaining R&B relevance after all these years, but his need to regularly recite chart statistics seemed in questionable taste considering longevity more than speaks for itself.

However, Uncle Charlie (the now universally accepted nickname first given to him by Snoop Dogg) earned those likeability points back during a jubilant gospel segment, which also prompted his testimony of going from rags to riches, then the downward spiral of drugs, homelessness, prostate cancer, and ultimately, complete recovery both personally and professionally. (The tell all book “I Am Charlie Wilson” drops June 30).

His admirable proclamation of being completely clean for 19 years was followed by another chilling moment: a tribute to longtime friend/departed Zapp front man Roger Troutman with everyone from the ground floor seats to the stands screaming “I Want To Be Your Man.” (The surviving members of the group are also sure to sing it Saturday, April 4 at the Tinley Park Convention Center during a bill that also includes Morris Day & The Time and comedian Tommy Davidson: www.narskimusic.com)

The Gap Band’s mid-tempo monster hit “Outstanding” continued the momentum, especially when expanded to include a few other group and P-Funk morsels. Just as it was ending, Wilson urged fans to clap loud enough to entice an encore, and while walking backstage, added he couldn’t quite hear them. Shockingly, those who hadn’t already gotten a jump on the traffic didn’t get any noisier, and the man who worked until “Early In The Morning” dropped an anticlimactic bomb of never coming back to properly finish what was otherwise an exceptional overview.