Charlie Wilson has overcome drug addiction, homelessness and prostate cancer. He's made a comeback by singing his way to the top of Billboard's Adult R&B chart for six weeks with "Charlie Last Name Wilson" and nine weeks with "There Goes My Baby," and he picked up two Grammy Award nominations last year along the way. But there's still one triumph that R&B and hip-hop's favorite uncle has yet to achieve: mainstream crossover.
"To be a winner in so many ways is great, even though I was derailed by Maxwell at the Grammys [who won best male R&B vocal performance]," Wilson says with a hearty laugh. "And I'm thankful for my loyal urban AC fans. I just wish more people would take a page out of country. They don't care about age . . . it's about the song and the performance."
Wilson has both covered on "You Are," the lead single from his third solo album, "Just Charlie" (P Music/Jive, Dec. 7). After only nine weeks, "You Are" is closing in on No. 1 on Adult R&B (it's currently No. 4), and it's No. 24 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. The romantic ballad and its timeless message could be the singer's ultimate crossover ticket, besting recent singles "There Goes My Baby" and "Can't Live Without You" on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, where those tracks peaked at Nos. 15 and 19, respectively.
"You're not going to lose with Charlie on the air," says Clear Channel/New Orleans director of urban programming Derrick "DC" Corbett, whose station duties include adult R&B WYLD-FM. "He and Mary J. Blige are the pre-eminent voices on the format based on longevity and chart success over the past five years."
As for making the mainstream leap, Corbett adds, "Charlie is on a run right now because of his last two records, while the younger generation knows him from being on songs with Kanye West, Lil Kim, Snoop Dogg, T-Pain and Justin Timberlake. With a concentrated label push, he can be the exception to make that mainstream leap."
Featuring only one cameo - Fantasia on a sexy, urgent cover of Zapp & Roger's "I Wanna Be Your Man - "Just Charlie" capitalizes on Wilson's skillful fusion of contemporary and old school. The singer co-wrote and co-produced the majority of the album, working once again with Gregg Pagani ("There Goes My Baby") as well as the Insomniax and P Music Group producer Wirlie Morris.
"Some writers are time-locked and don't continue to reinvent," Wilson says of his approach in selecting songs for the album whose theme he describes as "men appreciating women." "And I'm trying to cut records where people can at least remember the melody. At the same time, I'm not going to cut a record where I'm trying to be something that I'm not."
Acknowledging that the Dec. 7 release date makes for a limited marketing campaign, both Jive senior VP of marketing Lisa Cambridge-Mitchell and Wilson manager Michael Paran of P Music Group are focusing first on the singer's core fan base through advertising and social networking sites. "Just Charlie" became available for preorder on iTunes on Nov. 16. A video for "You Are" will be released shortly.
Also being utilized are Wilson's strong relationships at radio with syndicated hosts Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey and Michael Baisden. In the planning stages are a major tour next year as well as another promotional push that's centered on Valentine's Day. In advance of the "Just Charlie" release, Wilson's name has been getting plenty of extra play thanks to his guest appearance on several new West tracks that the rapper offered free online every Friday in the lead-up to the release of his own new album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." Among the tracks that West released during the last several weeks was "See Me Now" featuring Beyoncé and Wilson.
"At many labels, there's always an excuse when it comes to adult artists," Paran says. "But Charlie is in a great position. The way 'You Are' is happening, every time Kanye West blows out a tweet about him . . . all of this is organically fueling mainstream buzz. He's primed, it's going to come."
Either way, the former Gap Band member remans passionate about his calling. "I can still sing, and I can still put in the work. I'm going to be on point until they drop me in the ground."