Charles Bradley’s later-life revival rules
by Carl Johnson
The poet John K. Samson once lamented a Prairie upbringing by saying, “If I could I would make you raging river, with angry rapids, supplied with rain so you could always meander.”
Charles Bradley has lived most of his life in the raging rapids and now he’s upright on the shore, singing his heart out.
The myth of Charles Bradley is as important as the man’s music. He was raised in poverty and spent his formative years as a transient, working odd jobs and toiling in musical obscurity. After almost a lifetime trying to find an audience for his music he was well into his 60s before he caught his break, capping off an underdog story that even a Vulcan could get a little emotional over.
Given up before the age of one by his mother, he spent his early years in Florida with his grandmother before his mother brought him back to live with her in the projects of New York. There, he discovered a love for music on the streets and churches of the city. His bedroom was a basement dirt floor and by the age of 14 he’d run away from home and was hustling on the streets and sleeping in subway cars. He eventually found work as a cook until his mid-20s before he left the east coast and hitchhiked his way out west.
Twenty years of working sporadically, living hard and singing and gigging with various projects in California followed before he moved back to New York in the mid-’90s to reunite with his estranged mother.
Finding his prospects bleak but not wanting to give up on his music, he began performing as a James Brown impersonator under the name Black Velvet. With his close resemblance to the godfather of soul and his impassioned, weathered voice he found some success in the local club scene. Hard times continued though as he was still living in the Brooklyn housing projects where he witnessed violence on an almost daily basis, including the death of his brother.
Eventually his break came when he was discovered by the founder of the soul-revivalist Daptone music label and Grammy award-winning producer Gabriel Roth. He recorded a short vinyl release with the accomplished Menahan Street Band in 2002, but it would be another decade before his first proper album was released.
In 2011, Victim Of Love came out to pretty much universal acclaim. It was a newly opened time capsule from the ’60s and ’70s soul era, and it hit like a gust of warm air across a miserable February landscape (otherwise known as the mainstream music of today).
Bradley’s vocal delivery was compared to Otis Redding’s, and with the acclaim came new opportunities to play on some of the world’s biggest stages — including Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, and the Newport Folk Festival. A documentary on his life and music called Charles Bradley: Soul Of America was released in 2012 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (and played at the RPL last week).
With the release of a new album and a European tour already under his belt this year, his remarkable ascendance from musical obscurity to the caretaker of soul is nearly solidified.
You’re about to embark on a whopper of a tour that will keep you busy for the rest of the year. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling good. I’m feeling very good. I’m feeling a little hesitant… I think this is a big opportunity for me and I have to find the strength that I can keep going. I’m willing and able to seize this opportunity that God has gave me to really go forward. Gotta keep pushing, gotta keep giving, gotta give your love no matter who you are.
Yeah, it’s a huge tour — Lollapoolza, Regina Folk Fest and then back off to Europe.
It’s gonna be a struggle but I know from the bottom of my heart that I’m going to give my best.
How has life changed for you since the breakthrough of your first album, No Time For Dreaming?
I’m out of the projects and I’ve moved into my mom’s basement. I had it fixed up. It’s livable. I’m trying to get myself established. I have a little money behind me now and I can go and do greater things. You know, in this world you gotta take a little time for yourself. I’m looking to move forward from here.
You released your first album when you were 61 years old. Did you ever lose hope? Were you ever discouraged that you’d never be able to fulfill your musical aspirations?
Sometimes it was so hard I just didn’t want to be on this planet, and I found strength somehow to keep going. Some people don’t believe the way I believe, but I believe there’s a superior being who watches [us] and so I’m doing the look-up. I’m watching out for other people and trying to respect people every day, and I’m following my dreams and that’s how I’m overcoming my obstacles. A lot of people think that I’m weak, that I’m a weak person, but I just show love to everybody and use that love I got inside me to go forward.
You saw James Brown perform when you were a child. Is that where your love affair with music started?
I would say more in the church. I went to a Baptist church and there were always things inside me there that got expressed. If the music has the right spirit and is in the right tempo, people wanna hear it, and that’s where I first learned how to make my music.
Who are some other artists that have influenced you and inspired you to keep making music?
Otis Redding, James Brown and like, the ladies: Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin. These are the people that had the real depth to me. They sing when they’re hurt; they sing when they feel good. They bring their truth out and that’s what I listen for. When I listen to a person singing I’m listening to their deeper soul and their hurt and their goodness, and that’s what makes me want to keep going.
Your music has passion and truthfulness, and it also has an authentic ’60s vibe. What do you think of the music being made today?
I think the music today just don’t have that deepness, that hurt. The people today, they tap me up to “old school.” If you listen to my music very deeply you’ll feel that old school and you’ll hear that feeling, and it shows you that the old school will never die, because that’s where all the truth and hardness is at — and the world today, there’s a lot of things coming up. [The music today] will never be like it was, ’cause they’re using computers; they’re losing the feeling.
You spent a lot of your life hitchhiking around, including some time in Canada. What are your thoughts on this country?
I love Canada so much but every time I come to the border I get a hard time. But it’s not the people — the people I love. So much love. I just wonder why every time I come there, it’s so hard to get in?
Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires play the Regina Folk Festival mainstage at 9:00 Sunday night.