Essence Festival favorite Charlie Wilson returns to the July 4 weekend event year after year.
Wilson experienced his early stardom in the late 1970s as a member of the Gap Band. He performed alongside his brothers Ronnie and Robert in the funk group that sold millions of albums and released such classics as “You Dropped A Bomb on Me,” “Addicted to Your Love,” “Outstanding” and “Yearning for Your Love.”
The singer’s 2013 Essence Festival appearance comes at a heady time in his post-Gap Band life and career. He received BET’s Lifetime Achievement Award last Sunday.
During the awards show and broadcast, Justin Timberlake, Stevie Wonder, Jamie Foxx, Pharrell, Snoop Dogg and India.Arie performed in tribute to Wilson.
“Charlie Wilson is soul music,” Timberlake said. “His impact colors the work of many artists, which is basically my nice way of saying I and a lot of other artists have stolen from him.”
Lifetime achievement awards usually come to artists whose greatest achievements happened years or decades previously. But Wilson, in addition to his stellar history with the Gap Band, has been a hot solo star since 2000.
Wilson’s solo career more than rivals the Gap Band’s success. Beginning with his 2005 album, “Charlie, Last Name Wilson,” and continuing with 2009’s “Uncle Charlie,” and this year’s “Love, Charlie,” all but one of his albums have reached the Top 5 of both Billboard’s R&B albums chart and the all-genre Billboard 200.
“Just the thought of BET honoring me, it’s an incredible feeling,” Wilson said a few weeks before the BET Awards ceremony and broadcast. “But I’m the only recipient of the BET Lifetime Achievement award who is having success right now.”
Both Wilson’s minister father and his older brother, Ronnie, encouraged him to go the solo route.
“My father said, ‘I’ve seen it in a vision. But you have to move quickly. You don’t have much time before the door closes on you.’ And Ronnie had a dream where he passed me the microphone and I was the only one up there, by myself. Ronnie was like, ‘Man, you gotta go do it.’ So I got moving.”
Obviously, it was good advice. His Essence Festival main-stage performance and a European tour are coming quickly after his BET honor. The latter burst of activity follows “Love, Charlie,” released Jan. 29, the singer’s 60th birthday.
“This is one of the best records I’ve done,” Wilson said. “I was hands-on for everything. A lot of love went into this whole album. That’s why I call it ‘Love, Charlie.’ ”
That hands-on approach included the singer’s insistence that the inspirational “If I Believe” be the album’s opening song. “If I Believe” reflects his faith, his triumphs over addiction and illness and his spectacular comeback.
“My trust in you,” Wilson sings, “will never leave because you know my destiny. So I know if I believe, I can do anything.”
“I always wanted to do a song that speaks about how God has truly blessed me,” he said.
But the singer found resistance to placing “If I Believe” at the beginning of an otherwise secular R&B album.
“I got a lot of flack about it,” he recalled. “They were like, ‘Yeah, we believe in God, too, but you should put it down in the middle of the album somewhere.’ I’m like, ‘Naw. This is where we fall out, because I’m going to put God first.’ ”
Contrary to predictions of reduced sales because of the prominent placement of “If I Believe” on “Love, Charlie,” the album is another hit for Wilson.
“I needed to have a song on my album that would speak volumes like that,” he explained. “Because I believe if you are going through something, sometimes that hip-hop song or that R&B song won’t get you up off that bed and out of the agony and depression that they’re feeling. You need a song of faith that will enlighten you and give you strength and hope. That’s why I recorded that song.”
Wilson’s thrilled to be returning to the Essence Festival.
“It’s great a feeling to be called back so many times,” he said. “Because the Superdome is so big, if you can capture that crowd, that’s a special feeling right there.”
As always, Wilson intends to give his Essence audience in New Orleans and the audiences he’ll see shortly thereafter in London, Paris, Switzerland and the Netherlands everything he’s got.
“I love the fans, I love the people,” he said. “I go hard every time I hit the stage because it’s where I live the most. I don’t know who’s next after me, but they better look out. Uncle Charlie’s on his way.”