Back in 2001, Charlie Wilson was working toward his Recording Arts Associate’s degree at Full Sail while playing the keyboard with several local musicians, including hip hop group Solillaquists of Sound, local blues artist Brenda White, and singer-songwriter Sisaundra Lewis (you may know her from last season of NBC’s reality competition The Voice).
“I was constantly working while I was in school,” he says.
That constant work found him in the studio one afternoon at the same time as *NSYNC, who were rehearsing for their upcoming tour in the next room over. Charlie decided to take advantage of the potential connection, so he walked in and introduced himself to Kevin Antunes, the group’s musical director.
“While I was in school I stayed in touch with Kevin, I networked, and eventually he called and said Justin [Timberlake] was looking for someone for his tour and he asked if I was available,” says Charlie. “And of course I was available.”
Justin Timberlake’s “Justified” tour kicked off about six months after Charlie graduated, and from there, doors started to open and more relationships were built. It’s been pretty much non-stop since then, says Charlie. His resume as a professional musician has grown to include gigs on tours with the Backstreet Boys, John Mayer, Justin Timberlake (again), Ciara, and Rihanna (twice). He’s currently playing keyboard on Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour.
Cirque du Soleil’s latest production is a live rock concert complete with dancers, acrobats, and aerial artists accompanied by Michael Jackson’s original vocal tracks and video of the late performer. Charlie joined the show (which includes some members of Michael Jackson’s original band) in the middle of the tour. He was flown out to Dubai where he spent a month slowly being integrated into the production – a copy of the stage’s keyboard rig was set up in a separate room and while the band performed live, Charlie played along backstage to get the hang of things.
“I used to watch videos when I was a kid of Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett [Michael Jackson’s drummer] and be amazed, and now I’m playing on stage with him every day,” says Charlie. “It’s surreal to be onstage with them and get to play along with Michael.”
Charlie’s favorite aspect of touring is the closet-knit family environment that comes with living on the road. And while he loves his job, he is quick to point out that being a touring musician goes way beyond just performing for a couple of hours every night.
“Your look, your attire, your physical fitness, and your professionalism all matter,” says Charlie. “It’s not just about playing the instrument. You have to be able to have the energy to get through the show, so you have to be on a regiment.”
Charlie is on tour with Cirque du Soleil until August, then he’ll go home to Los Angeles and head into the studio with his partner (the Optimist) to work on writing new music. (He’s worked on tracks for Timbaland and the Cliff Jumpers.) Looking back, Charlie credits a lot of his success in the industry on that decision to be assertive and introduce himself to Kevin. It’s something he encourages other students to do as well.
“Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to people,” says Charlie. “I stayed in touch with Kevin; every time he did something great I would congratulate him. Don’t be a bug, but don’t be afraid to stay in touch. It’s absolutely my best advice.”