december 2009

This is the man we want Charles Wilson to be, taking the smooth groove of Philly soul; the gospel-infused, horn-driven smolder of Memphis soul; the urban romanticism of latter-day Smokey Robinson; and a clear, poetically articulated vision of the world he wants to live in, then molding these elements into a seamless signature sound.

The Truth, Unvarnished and Powerfully Persuasive

By David McGee

Charles Wilson

Still a young man, Charles Wilson has bounced around a lot since starting his performing career as a teen in his native Chicago and cutting his first single, “Trying To Make a Wrong Thing Right,” in 1964. His uncle, Little Milton, played on some of his recordings, he’s toured with the likes of Bobby Rush, Tyrone Davis and the towering Bobby Blue Bland, but he’s never quite made it to the top of the mountain. His deep catalogue—albums cut over the years for Ichiban, Ecko, Traction, CDS and his own Wilson label—have found him searching for the proper stylistic and lyrical fit: he’s drenched himself in Southern soul (Blues In the Key of C); dance music; “programmed party soul,” as one critic termed it; and frolicked in the Clarence Carter territory of cheating and sexual innuendo (It Ain’t the Size, for one; Mr. Freak, for another). In 2004, though, recording for Delmark, his If Heartaches Were Nickels put him back in front of a real band of fine players (including the amazing guitarist Carl Weathersby) and he delivered, on cut after cut (including uncle Little Milton’s “Hattie Mae” and Travis Haddix’s “Doctor Doctor”), the kind of soul-drenched, soul-baring performances his previous work had hinted at but never fully delivered. In 2005 and 20006, he did himself no favors by mixing old songs with new on If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It and Sexual Healing, when he might have seized the moment and served up all-new material instead of supplementing those discs with previously released numbers. His is a frustrating catalogue, because he’s been so close to being the man to carry the soul banner of Solomon Burke and Tyrone Davis (for starters) into the new millennium, but hasn’t effectively established an identifiable persona for himself on record. Clarence Carter made an art form of cheating songs—and let it be said, nobody has ever so enthusiastically wallowed in and promoted adultery-in-song on the epic scale of the irrepressible Mr. Carter—so why challenge him when you can sing a ballad or a lover’s plea with the kind of authority Charles Wilson seemingly asserts at will?

Welcome, then, to Troubled Child, not a summation of a career to date, but a promise at long last fulfilled. This is the man we want Charles Wilson to be, taking the smooth groove of Philly soul; the gospel-infused, horn-driven smolder of Memphis soul; the urban romanticism of latter-day Smokey Robinson; and a clear, poetically articulated vision of the world he wants to live in, then molding these elements into a seamless signature sound. He wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter either: “Where My Baby Went,” the album’s first number, direct from Bobby Blue Bland’s songbook, kicks off with a roll of the drums, a sprinkling of electric keyboard and a warm, enveloping wash of horns before Wilson enters with a hushed, “Well…,” followed by a tender, falsetto crooning of “oooh, baby…mmmhhmm” (worthy of Eddie Kendricks)—at which point you need to listen close to hear him whisper, “Bless you,” as the horns rise and he dives into the lyric: “Show me a man with millions/That live high all the time/I’ll show you a man worked harder/And still can’t save a crying dime/I’m driving a broken down car/it costs me my every cent/show me a man in a Cadillac/And I’ll show you just where my baby’s at…” Which is the beginning of a tale concerning a fellow who works hard, disdains materialism and stands by while his woman goes for the gold instead. It’s an amazing performance—Wilson has every right to be stomping and thrashing, bringing the heat down on his acquisitive paramour, but as the horns rise and pump behind him, pushing fervently forward in an anguished rush, Wilson stays cool, restrained, contained, a man alone but surprisingly sanguine, his equanimity saying “to thine own self be true.” Right there, first cut, Charles Wilson has stepped onto a larger platform, one that embraces a heart-rending humanity and ennobling selflessness in demonstrating a firm resolve to walk the line, to keep a close watch on that heart of his, to see a world beyond his own and to feel for it, to want to make it better.

wilsonIn writing these words your faithful friend and narrator worries he’s making Wilson out as having undergone some transformative, mystical experience in which he’s forsaken meat for vegetables and fruit only, wears love beads and sits cross-legged in Spartan living quarters, pondering the meaning of existence and other existential conundrums while quoting Deepak Chopra. Not quite. This is probably the same Charles Wilson of yore, but one more mature, certainly, and more focused on his gift, what it means, how he can use it to good purpose. In short, instead of an endless party and matters of the flesh, he’s now advancing a thesis best summarized as “all you need is love”—not merely when it comes to getting on with members of the opposite sex, but in making life more sustainable on this mortal coil. You get this on the one hand in the slinky, sensuous grooves of the Natural Four’s exquisite treatise on enlightenment, “It’s Love That Really Counts,” a title Wilson has clearly taken to heart, as his plaintive, earnest—but still direct and clear—vocal emphasizes as this beautiful, TSOP-style arrangement makes clear in supporting the text with sumptuous strings, soothing horns and cooing female background voices that enhance the gospel urgency of Wilson’s upper register pleading while the song builds and pulses to its bracing fadeout. With its insistent, shimmering wah-wah; dramatic, doom-laden strings; flugelhorns; a variety of percussive effects—chimes, congas, triangle—along with ripples from an electric piano or celeste, the Sam Dees-penned title track is a dark, deliberate dissection of the particulars of tenement life that stack the odds against a young boy, “grown before his time,” never knowing his father, rarely seeing his mother, “and the hurting part is no one seems to care—a hard life in the ghetto is an everyday affair…troubled child…he’s a lot like…he’s a lot like…me…oohh, oohh…sound a lot like me…searching for untold memories…” Like Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto,” “Troubled Child” simply poses the dilemma, doesn’t proffer easy bromides about society rectifying its abnegation of responsibility to the greater good and rescuing the lad, but rather suggests a problem without solutions, asking only in subtext what we’re going to do about it. It can’t be an accident that a surging, horn-driven, Memphis-ized version of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” follows “Troubled Child”—even though it’s addressed to a potential lover (“I want to love you baby/oh, and treat you right”), its sequencing suggests Wilson hears it as a postscript to “Troubled Child,” the answer he could only hint at in the title song. If this tunestack is purposely designed to advance the larger message Wilson is delivering throughout, then the final track hammers the point home definitely. “Put Something Into It,” a funky, percolating advisory written by Wilson’s co-producer Steve Gomes, replete with a hearty, responsive background chorus, horns alternately pumping and ascending, and chatty, emotive discourse from Benjie Porecki’s Hammond organ, offers the sage advice that the love you take is equal to the love you make, so expend the requisite effort, from “the givin’ side of love.” That’s what Mr. C has been saying all along—give, don’t take, put something back in, and get something worthwhile in return, something with spiritual, not monetary or sensual, value. If he seems to be celebrating the power of his message at the close of this remarkable journey he’s taken us on, let him. Allowing him a hallelujah moment is the least we can do to express our gratitude for his laying out the truth, unvarnished and powerfully persuasive. We can take it from here.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024