PLANT CITY — Fans can expect two things — without fail — at a Charlie Wilson concert.
One: a high-energy, powerhouse of a performance. Backed with a live band and flanked by leggy dancers in colorful costumes, the 63-year-old Wilson zips almost breathlessly through a cascade of hits from his solo career and from his days as leader of the Gap Band.
Two: a sincere testimony about the importance of his faith and how it saved him from drug dependency and homelessness.
Fans attending Wilson's March 12 show at the Florida Strawberry Festival undoubtedly will get both, Wilson said.
"Someone needs to hear my story," he said. "Someone needs to know God still lives."
For years, Wilson has shared how God rescued him from a life of despair that stemmed from an ugly cocaine habit. He's even detailed the experiences in his autobiography, I Am Charlie Wilson.
But one night, Wilson left the story out of the show.
Wilson thought the omission went unnoticed – until a fan stopped him as he was leaving the venue.
"A woman stopped me and said, 'Don't ever not talk about your testimony,'" he said.
Wilson said he's kept his promise and now understands why his story remains critical to his show.
Fans have credited him with helping them overcome their own habits, Wilson said.
"I think I'm doing the right thing," he said.
When it comes to music, Wilson has done it right for more than 40 years — and that's one of the reasons he drew the attention of Strawberry Festival organizers.
"I've seen him in concert and he's better than advertised," said festival general manager Paul Davis. "He puts so much into his show it belies his age."
True funkateers know that the roots of the Gap Band stretch back to the late 1960s, when Wilson and brothers Ronnie and Robert founded the group as the Greenwood, Archer, and Pine Street Band. The brothers later shortened the name, an ode to the center of the city's black business community, to just the first three letters of each word.
The brothers earned a solid reputation performing at venues around Tulsa, before relocating to Los Angeles in the 1970s. The group caught fire when Shake from its self-titled 1979 album became an R&B hit. In 1980, The Gap Band III reached the top of the R&B charts, buoyed by popular radio jams Burn Rubber on Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me) and Yearning for Your Love.
A string of hits followed throughout the decade: Early in the Morning, You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Outstanding and All of My Love.
But in the midst of the group's phenomenal success, a feud and subsequent split between the brothers and their manager over a publishing deal slowed their performing and recording to a crawl. Booking work became nearly impossible and it was during this downtime that Charlie developed a debilitating drug habit that would consume him for years.
Wilson lived on the streets of Los Angeles until 1995 when a cousin persuaded him to check into a rehabilitation program. It was in recovery that Wilson found redemption and love with the help of his counselor — and now wife — Mahin.
The pair celebrated 20 years of marriage last year. Wilson said staying close to his wife is his secret to marital happiness.
"If we go somewhere, we both go," he said. "If I'm mad, she's mad. It takes a long time to learn somebody."
In the last decade, Wilson – who released his latest CD Forever Charlie last year – has reinvented himself as a soulful crooner. Tunes like Without You, There Goes My Baby and Goodnight Kisses have won him a new legion of fans – many of whom know him as "Uncle Charlie" and not as the leather-jacket clad frontman of a legendary funk band.
But the latter guy is still around, Wilson said.
"The music your mother loves — that's me," he said. "I'm still the same guy."
Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this story. Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]