Party Train: The Gap Band Story

Bringing the heat and creating refrains that still haunt brokenhearted romancers to this day, the Gap Band's potent mixture of party and pain was stunning.

Baltimore, 1981: Clad in a goofy white tuxedo and matching patent leather shoes, I was just another high-school nerd chilling in the corner at the senior prom. Stood-up by a pretty girl whose name now escapes me, misery had never felt so cold. Still, watching from the sidelines as classmates boogied in ball gowns and stylish suits, it was the scorching vocals of the Gap Band belting out "Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)" that helped sooth my Afro-angst.

While the remainder of the Northwestern High School students rushed onto the dance floor the second the song's revving-engine / screeching-tires intro blared through the speakers, at that moment it was all about the words -- at least in the mind of this future English major. "Just because you're not for real, why you wanna hurt me girl", sang lead singer Charlie Wilson.

Bringing the heat and creating a refrain that still haunts brokenhearted romancers to this day, the Gap Band's potent mixture of party and pain was stunning. As the first #1 R&B hit for the Wilson brothers, the fact that such melancholy lyricism ("You took my money, you took my time / Made me think everything was fine / Then you upped and ran away, and made me just go crazy") was masked as a bass-thumping disco-funk anthem only added to the track's hyper brilliance.

Never had a soul man sounded so ready to boogaloo like a buckaroo.

Some folks were already familiar with the group from the groovalistic booty-rocking of "Shake" on its Total Experience / Mercury Records debut The Gap Band (1977) and the goofy "Oops, Upside Your Head" on The Gap Band II (1979). But it was the follow-up disc, Gap Band III (1980), that inspired a multicultural nation of millions.

Not long after that long-gone prom night, I plopped down a few bucks at a Mondamin Mall record store for that LP, making the disc my official soundtrack of the summer. Ever the hopeless romantic, but without a girl to call my own, I must have played the Gap Band's alluring ballad "Yearning for Your Love" a million times. Still, I didn't realize how much the group had penetrated the musical consciousness of my household until one Saturday morning I overheard mom humming the song while dusting the living room.

* * *

Beginning their careers in Tulsa, Okalahoma where big poppa Wilson was a Pentecostal preacher (there we go again, mixing sin with salvation), the Wilson boys were on a path to musical glory from a young age. Getting their early musical education playing for the congregation on Sunday mornings, each of the Wilson brothers learned to play multiple instruments. Though their daddy was a minister, he had no problems with his kids' dream to play secular songs.

"My father's nephew was the blues musician Lowell Fulson. Every time he came around, he had a pretty car, a beautiful woman, and a slick sharkskin suit," Charlie remembered, chilling in a New York City hotel suite 25 years after Mercury Records released "Open Your Mind (Wide)", the Gap Band's horn-laced / Earth, Wind & Fire-inspired single. "Believe it or not, that's how I decided I wanted to get into music.

"Tulsa was the kind of place where you could go to any door and borrow a cup of sugar. Everybody knew everybody. Truthfully, I don't even remember dealing with any racism in our town; we all got along."

Sneaking out of his bedroom window to perform at dirty-floor night spots, young Charlie sang covers of Sam Cooke and Little Stevie Wonder at a venue called Blue Mondays. Laughing, Charlie recalled, "I would be playing for the same people at night that was teaching us at school in the day. We were playing grown folks' music when we was still kids."

Naming themselves after the prestigious Tulsa blocks Greenwood, Archer, and Pine Streets (which was where many black businesses were located), the Wilson brothers were discovered by blue-eyed soulster Leon Russell, who had once collaborated with Phil Spector and penned pop hits like "Superstar" and "This Masquerade". Becoming Russell's backing band, the Gap Band was soon on the road with the Rolling Stones, Elton John, and other early '70s rockers.

"Leon had heard us one play night and snatched up the whole band," Robert Wilson said in 2005. "He basically removed his band and installed us."

The Gap Band adopted the Wild West-meets-soul persona that distinguished it from other costumed black bands of the period. "With the Gap Band coming from Okalahoma, other artists would tease us by calling us cowboys," Charlie said. "We didn't grow-up on a ranch, but we took that style to the stage. We knew that it was corny, but at least it was ours." (And better the cowboy gear than the black Speedo swimming trucks Charlie sported in a scene from the group's groundbreaking "Party Train" video in 1983.)

Gawking at the headliners from the sidelines, it wasn't long before the Gap Band was also doing its own sets. Later, the group recorded its official debut Magician's Holiday (1974) for Russell's own Shelter Records, which was also once the home for blues guitarist Freddie King, folksy Phoebe Snow, and country rockers Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. A second album on the Tattoo label went nowhere. It was not until the young men moved further west and hooked up with Los Angeles businessman and producer Lonnie Simmons in 1978 that they achieved any real success.

Named after Simmons's successful nightclub on Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central (years before buck-wild gangs turned the strip into a shooting gallery), the Total Experience label soon became the home of the Gap Band for its most important recordings from 1978 to 1989. With ambitions of constructing another Motown or Philadelphia International, enterprising Lonnie Simmons aligned his upstart label with Mercury Records (for The Gap Band through 1983's Gap Band V: Jammin') while also working with the Wilson brothers in the studio.

Yet, while the group's rhythmic repertoire would later include many "roof is on fire" jams and cookout anthems, Simmons also helped the Gap Band construct endearing ballads. From future Quiet Storm mainstays like "Yearning for Your Love" to its mighty power ballad "Outstanding" (perhaps one of the most sampled tracks in hip-hop history) to its lovely remake of "Going in Circles", the Gap Band had no problem laying down a little midnight-passion, baby-makin' music. Certainly, Charlie's voice had as much black velveteen as Phillip Bailey or Lionel Richie.

When not in the studio, the Gap Band was back on the road. Touring with artists that included Funkadelic, Kool & the Gang, and Maze, the Gap Band was known for its own show-stopping dance steps to the stage, especially when performing hi-energy songs like "Humpin'" and "Early in the Morning".

"In those days in order to be a successful artist, you had to have a tight show," Charlie says, recalling the heyday of '70s soul extravaganzas. "There was the dancing, but also none of the material was pre-recorded, every instrument was played live. Back then, it was all about showmanship."

Even if baby brother Robert Wilson never had the fame of Bootsy Collins or Larry Graham, his bass-playing skills (especially on songs like "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" and "Party Train") rank high on most funk fan's list of favorites. In an interview with Bass Player magazine in 2005, Robert said, "I never liked players whose main goal was to show that they're technical wizards. Bass is about creating moods, so I go for a sound that's warm but still has enough guts to cut through."

Years after their greatest successes, the Wilson brothers still perform together, though they haven't recorded as a trio since 1988. Charlie Wilson started releasing solo albums in 1992, and continues to this day.

"My brothers and I haven't always seen eye to eye on everything," Charlie told me in 2005. "Sometimes we might get mad and not speak for a minute, but we're bonded for life. Family is the mothership, and that big ship is the Gap Band."

They remain a direct influence on pop, R&B, and hip-hop. From Aaron Hall and Robert Palmer to Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shukar to Justin Timberlake and, most importantly, R. Kelly, all bow down at the throne that is the Gap Band. Hell, even Madonna ("Inside of Me") and George Michael ("Star People 97") have dipped into the Gap canon, sampling its hits "Outstanding" and "Burn Rubber" respectively.

In 2005, the same year Jive Records released the R. Kelly-produced Charlie...Last Name Wilson, the Gap Band was honored with the BMI Icon Award. Joining the ranks of James Brown and Brian Wilson, the group was cited for its "enduring influence on generations of music makers."

In other words, the party train is still on the tracks.

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