Tony Cummings reports on the hard life but renewing faith of soul singer CHARLES BRADLEY
The emergence of 64 year old Charles Bradley to become a critically acclaimed recording artist is, in these youth fixated times, an amazingly unlikely success story. But when one hears his lifetime tale of hardship and disappointments it takes on the dimensions of an epic, the singer undergoing decades of walking the rough roads of life before his debut album 'No Time For Dreaming' and a documentary film directed by Poull Brien, Charles Bradley: Soul Of America, shot Charles into the spotlight.
Charles was born in Gainesville, Florida in 1948. He was raised by his maternal grandmother until the age of eight when his mother, who had abandoned him at eight months of age, took him to live with her in Brooklyn, New York. In 1962 his sister took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown perform. Bradley was so inspired by the performance that he began to practise mimicking Brown's style of singing and stage mannerisms at home.
When he was 14, Bradley ran away from home due to his poor living conditions - his bedroom was in a basement with a sand floor - and lived on the streets during the day and slept nights in subway cars for two years. Later, he enlisted in Job Corps which eventually led him to Bar Harbor, Maine to train as a chef. One time while working, a co-worker told him he looked like James Brown. When asked if he could sing, he was at first shy but eventually admitted that he could. He overcame his stage fright (when a crew member pushed him through the curtains onto the stage) and performed five or six times with a band. After his bandmates were drafted into the Vietnam War, the act never re-formed. Bradley worked in Maine as a cook for 10 years until deciding to head west, hitchhiking across the country. He lived in upstate New York, Seattle, Canada and Alaska before settling in California in 1977. There, Bradley worked odd jobs and played small shows for 20 years.
In 1996, Bradley's mother called him and asked him to move back in with her in Brooklyn so she could get to know him. It was there he began making a living moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator in local clubs under the name Black Velvet. During this time, Bradley experienced more hard times, including almost dying in a hospital after being given penicillin (to which he has an allergy) and waking to the police arriving to the scene of his brother's murder just down the road from his mother's house.
While performing as Black Velvet, he was eventually discovered by Gabriel Roth, co-founder of Daptone Records, a company committed to bringing old school soul and funk back into African American music. Roth introduced Bradley to Daptone artist and his future producer Tom Brenneck, then the songwriter and guitarist for The Bullets, and later for Menahan Street Band, who invited Bradley to his band's rehearsal. Bradley asked that the band simply perform while he made up lyrics on the spot. After writing several songs, with Daptone releasing some of them on vinyl starting in 2002, 10 were chosen and released as Bradley's debut album 'No Time For Dreaming' in 2011. It met with major critical acclaim. Washington Post wrote, "Bradley's voice overflows with the ingredient most crucial music - soul. . . He's the real thing." Two years later Daptone released Bradley's 'Victim Of Love' album.
Wrote Wes Jakacki in Christianity Today, "On his second album, 'Victim Of Love', Bradley moves beyond telling his own story to spreading the message of hope and grace to others. 'Victim Of Love' follows a bit of a narrative, as Charles starts the album singing cheerful blue-eyed soul in 'Strictly Reserved For You', 'You Put A Flame On It' and 'Victim Of Love' before hitting the deep psychedelic storm of 'Confusion' and 'Where Do We Go From Here', decrying the greed and corruption that ensnares this world. But then comes the gospel song 'Crying In The Chapel' before the album's closing and primary statement, 'Through The Storm'. Here, Bradley finds himself on the other side of hardship, thanking God, friends and fans for their graciousness and for turning him into a true victim of love. 'When the world gives you love,' he sings, 'it frees your soul.'"
Several journalists have commented on the amazing power of Charles' live performances. He told tinymixtapes website about two of his memorable concert experiences: "One was down south - we were playing at an outdoor concert and a storm came. It was raining, so they cancelled the show. Everyone was angry. All the people were standing out in the rain and the mud. I looked out and said, 'Oh my God, all these people standing out in the rain and mud [.] to see me sing a song.' I said, 'That's not right. I'm on the stage, underneath this tent and I'm not getting wet. They're out there just to see me perform.' I said, 'If you guys can stand out in the rain like that, I can come out and get wet with you.' I had a white suit on. I jumped into the mud and we started to have a good time. They were hugging me, we were loving and crying together. I was just really into it. As I came back onstage, I grabbed the microphone and got a shock through my whole body. The electricity shocked me. That's a memory I'll never forget, long as I live. We were like one out onstage.
"The other I remember, I was in Canada. [A person] came up to one of
[my] band members and said, 'Can you ask Charles Bradley to talk with me?' The band
member came to me and said, 'Charles, that young man wants to talk to
you.' I said, 'What does he want to talk to me about?' [My bandmate]
said, 'Charles, I think you need to talk to him because he's pretty
upset.' I said I would speak to him after the show. When I came
offstage, the kid was standing right by the door. 'Charles Bradley, please
talk to me.' I said, 'Young man, what is wrong? Why do you want me to
talk to you?' He said, 'I just lost my mom!' I said, 'Oh God, how old
was your mom?'
'My mom was 57 years old.'
'How old are you, young man?'
'I just turned 18.'
"I said, 'God, please tell me something to teach to this kid.' [Then I said,] 'Young man, sometimes in life God brings an angel into the world, and he gives you all the love that angel can give you. But when that angel gives you all the love God told them to give you, God calls them home. Your mother, she gave you all the love and wisdom she had in her soul. She made you a leader to go forward to change the world and make it a better place, through the love she gave you. Now that you've got that love, her work was done. God called her home. Now it's up to you to be strong, to keep the love and dignity and quality that God gave you to go forward. Don't be a follower, be a leader.' That kid just grabbed me and cried. I said, 'I want you to go out into that world and be somebody and show the world the love God has stored in your heart.'"
Charles Bradley's story has been widely told, and he wants it that way. He told Christianity Today, "I want people to know not just the artist, but me as a person. That's a beautiful thing. Just imagine me coming to your house, and you don't know me, you just know me as a musician. But who is that guy, other than a musician? I am letting you know who I am and getting on stage and singing the lyrics of my life story. What greater gift can I give you?"
Bradley's faith is transparent onstage and in person. "A lot of people haven't been through what I have been through, and I couldn't get through it without my faith in God. I believe in the promise of Jesus when he says, 'Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.' I hold God to his word. I didn't know God was going to do something through music, but I know that he knows I love music, and I know he gave me those gifts. He knew I would do great things with it and love others with it."
Charles' final comment demonstrates his deep faith, "I don't throw my life away, I try to serve with my life. I try to give with my life. Give positively. I use my strength, my love, my everything to keep myself strong so that when I hoped and prayed that I would get a chance, I could use it."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.