It’s no big deal to find three champions of old-school R&B in Las Vegas on the same weekend. The surprise is seeing the 64-year-old up there on the charts with the 31-year-old.
“I look at myself as the bridge between R&B and hip-hop,” says Charlie Wilson, aka “Uncle Charlie” to a younger generation of performers. Wilson’s “In It To Win It” tour visits the MGM Grand Garden on Friday, with Bruno Mars back at the Park Theater on Friday and Saturday.
It’s quite the coincidence, considering Wilson and Mars now share a piece of “Uptown Funk.” (Wilson and four other writers of the Gap Band’s 1979 tune “Oops Upside Your Head” were added to the credits of Mars and Mark Ronson’s ubiquitous hit after the music publisher of “Oops” pressed legal action.)
Johnny Gill is Wilson’s opening act, and at age 50, he lands right between Wilson and Mars. “There’s nothing that none of us do or have done that hasn’t been done before,” he says. “But just watching it come full circle, it’s pretty cool.”
Mars is “helping to bring me back to the forefront. Because most of the stuff he’s doing is retro: that real, genuine, true soul.”
But Gill also has to chuckle. “The craziest thing is that he’s considered new,” he says. “But if I were to try that, and go back to that old vintage style, they’d look at me and go ‘Boy, what an old guy. You can tell he’s still stuck.’ ”
Wilson’s “In It To Win It” debuted at No. 7 on Billboard’s album chart last month, briefly sharing top-10 status with Mars’ “24K Magic” before falling to its current No. 54 spot.
The singer has penned one of the most dramatic comebacks in music history, headlining arenas after drug addiction left him homeless in the 1990s. In his Gap Band years, Wilson was reduced to living in the back alleys of Hollywood Boulevard amid shopping carts covered with a plastic tarp.
Now the song titles on the new album tell the story: “I’m Blessed,” “New Addiction” and “Amazing God.” Wilson recently explained when he started feeling comfortable with telling his story.
“In 2008 I did an interview and took the writer on a tour of where and how I lived when I was on the street in Hollywood. It was very emotional to go and share that part of my life,” he said.
“I can’t forget those days, because I was blessed to be able to rise above it and surpass even my own expectations of what I could do. If I can inspire someone else who is going through addiction, then it is my responsibility to pass along the blessing that God gave to me.”
Snoop Dogg gave Wilson his “Uncle Charlie” moniker and was key among the younger devotees who helped pull him back to the charts with 2005’s “Charlie, Last Name Wilson” album. The collaborations continue with Snoop, Pitbull, T.I. and others guesting on the new album.
“Snoop was one of the first people to give me a shot, which opened the door for the connection between R&B and rap,” Wilson notes. He in turn coaxed Snoop into giving up marijuana for almost a year.
“If I am asked my opinion about something personal by another artist or anyone, I am always honest but positive,” he says of his “Uncle” duties. “I’ve been clean and sober for 22 years, and believe me, no one thought I would come this far in my solo career. If my success, and my faith in God, can inspire someone, I am always there.”
“That’s my real uncle,” Gill proclaims of Wilson. Gill has been joining Wilson for the arena finale, and the two hang out in each other’s dressing rooms. “We’re just sitting in there going, ‘Laugh softly, so you can save your voice.’ ”
Gill just released a new single, “5,000 Miles,” which is remarkable for being from an album, “Game Changer,” he released on his own label in late 2014. “The key word is patience,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get it connected. I’m not on nobody’s clock. This is not a sprint for me; it’s a marathon.”
The album already had the hit “This One’s for Me and You,” featuring Gill’s cohorts in New Edition. And January’s BET biography, “The New Edition Story,” outperformed ratings expectations.
“It is so weird and yet so rewarding, I can’t even put it into words,” Gill says of watching Luke James play him. “He did his homework to figure out and capture the essence of who I am.”
New Edition will be back on tour by late summer, and Gill says they would love to follow Boyz II Men and Backstreet Boys into a Las Vegas residency “if we get that call.”
Gill has learned to appreciate career opportunities as they come. “There was a time when I was sitting at home going, ‘Why aren’t the phones ringing? Nobody’s calling. What is it?’
“To do what I need to do to get back on the bike and continue to move forward to get to where I want to be as an artist has been more than a blessing,” he says. “There’s an old (gospel) song that says, ‘I won’t complain.’ Well, I won’t complain.”