Charlie Wilson is a survivor. His five-decade career has endured substance abuse, cancer and the 2010 breakup of his legendary Gap Band. Through it all, the singer, 62, has released seven solo LPs and become a go-to collaborator for Snoop Dogg and Kanye West. His latest challenge? Recovering from crippling back issues and surgery, then shaping up for a 28-show tour with fellow soul men Kem and Joe that launched Feb. 12 in support of Forever Charlie, which bowed at No. 2 on the Feb. 14 Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
The Setback: “I was still doing concerts even though I was having serious back problems. When I performed at Steve Harvey’s 2013 Neighborhood Awards, I did the show from a chair because my legs wouldn’t allow me to stand up. When I returned to Los Angeles, I went straight from the airport to see a doctor. Turns out I had a herniated disk from jumping around onstage. I didn’t know I had hurt myself that bad. I’d always said I’d never let anyone cut me — but that doctor had me walking the next day.”
Charlie Wilson Talks New Uptempo Album & Recording With Kanye West
The Diet: “I quit carbs for 30 days and just ate fish, chicken and salads to take down the swelling I’d acquired laying up after my operation. I went from surgery into Thanksgiving and Christmas with all those pies, cakes. It took a long time to get that thickness off of me. I needed to start at the table first — pushing back from it.”
KANYE WEST ft CHARLIE WILSON ” Bound 2 ” Live… by UnderProject
The Workout: “We’re putting cardio in high gear. Between practicing new songs, my wife, Mahin, and I have been jogging and walking three-and-a-half miles a day, five days a week, to help me to get back into the swing of things. If I can get 90 minutes in with jogging and walking, then I know I can do my show, especially those up-tempo paces.”
Charlie Wilson on the GRAMMYs Red Carpet
The Payoff: “There are going to be a lot of babies made from this tour. I was in South Carolina recently, and this lady threw her panties at me, ran onstage and grabbed me. She was pantiless and hugging on me. I told the guards not to hurt her. But, boy, she was crying and squeezing so tight I could feel her body shaking. So I had to sing most of the song while she was holding me. We let her do that until I felt her release the pressure a bit. Then the guards pulled her away from me. That’s the first time in a long, long time I’d had panties thrown at me. I didn’t think that would ever happen again!”
An edited version of this story originally appeared in the March 14 issue of Billboard.