Charles Bradley has taken a lifetime to get here; he’s determined to stay around now he’s broken through.
Words: Chris Wells.
“I get so emotional when I watch that video; I have to get up and walk away. I don’t think I’ve seen the whole thing right through to this day.”
Charles Bradley is talking about his movie, Soul Of America, a revealing documentary of his life. Released in – as the saying goes – selected American cinemas [and recently aired on UK TV], it profiles both Bradley’s remarkable 60-odd years of struggle and his noble, ultimately successful, attempts to break into the music business, dragging himself out from some deep and very dark places in the process.
There have been a lot of those. Echoes regulars may be familiar with parts of the Charles Bradley saga, having latched onto his 2011 debut album, No Time For Dreaming and perhaps found themselves wondering where this old guy who sounded a lot like James Brown had suddenly sprung from – not to mention how come he’d ended up working with Thom Brenneck and the Daptone guys. The latter, at least, is easily explained: label boss Gabe Roth happened upon Bradley’s James Brown tribute act, Black Velvet, one night in a New York bar and invited the veteran singer down to his studio. An introduction to [and friendship with] guitarist and producer Thom Brenneck then began the process of sieving all Bradley’s life experience through the funky music habitually provided at the famous ‘House Of Soul’ studios in Brooklyn. As to the long and tortuous trail that led to this recent point of upswing, well, when you put it all together, it’s a wonder the man is still with us.
This, if you can believe it, is the potted version. Charles Bradley was born in New York and began to grow up there, although his mother, in those days “pretty wild,” as he describes it, wasn’t really in any condition to look after him. He was getting more settled with his grandma in Florida when, aged eight, he was kidnapped back by his mum. Charles had an elder brother, Joseph [the brainy kid in the family, the one Charles looked up to] and a younger sister, Virginia, who took him along to see James Brown at the Apollo when he was 14. It was an experience that made the deepest impression.
When he was 16, Charles joined Job Corps, a free, Government-run training scheme that saw him learning, amongst other things, to become a chef. He also formed his first band: after a couple of vodkas, he’d stand up and pretend to be JB while his buddies laid down the funk behind him, and they won a few talent contests. It was fun, but it didn’t last: the Vietnam war took away most of his bandmates, and then Charles moved upstate New York to work nine years in a mental hospital.
After that, he got the hitch-hike bug and travelled around the country for several more years, picking up jobs as he went. Along the way, he ran into trouble with the police: they did things to him in the woods in Florida one time that he still prefers not to talk about. When he stayed for a period in San Francisco, he got into a dispute with a neighbour who refused to pay for some speakers Charles had sold him. Side-stepping a knife lunge, Charles gave the guy a blade slash of his own and ended up in jail for 25 days [and with three years’ probation] – because, he says, the police believed the white guy’s word against the black man’s. On returning to his work as a demolition man, he almost cut off his own hand with a grinder. Then he almost cut his own throat with it.
Thereafter, he returned to Brooklyn, where he’s lived the past 20 years in the projects, working as a handyman, doing weekends playing James Brown in his Black Velvet tribute show. One night he got mugged: his assailants hit him on the side of the head with a metal pipe and almost ripped off his ear.
As if this wasn’t enough, then even worse tragedy struck: some 14 years ago, his brother Joe was fatally shot in an attack at his apartment. Having heard the police sirens, Charles ran inside the building to discover his brother’s body. The shooter had used a soft-core bullet and the sight of the wound to his brother’s head almost took Charles over the edge. As a result, for a long time afterwards he was depressed and took to wandering the streets. He says, with characteristic frankness, that he thought he was going out of his mind.
The one positive element about his life at this time was his mother. Having long forgiven her for her lack of support during his early childhood, Charles’s return to Brooklyn came just in time to save his mum from neglect and a rabies infection: she spent six months in hospital before Charles was able to move her back into her house.
Soul Of America covers a fair bit of the above. It ends with Charles’ debut album launch show in New York, just before he gets on the plane to Europe for the first time to play his opening series of live dates as himself, Charles Bradley, instead of pretending to be his caped hero JB. It is, as Charles describes, emotional stuff: you can see he’s afraid to leave his aged mother behind in case something happens.
The good news, of course, is that it didn’t: mum is still right there, aged 89, as Bradley releases his second album, Victim Of Love, and with the money he’s been making from his new-found success in the music business, Charles is refurbishing his mum’s vast basement, transforming it into his own apartment, a safe haven away from the projects.
How is he feeling about being an overnight success after all these years? His answer is understandable.
“It’s bittersweet. You hold on so long and at the age of 63 I finally met someone who believed in me and gave me an opportunity. All the things that have happened to me… it’s hard to believe. I keep wondering when someone is going to pull the rug from under me.
“I was talking to Thom Brenneck yesterday and asked him if he believed we’d get this far, and he said, ‘No’. He’s always been honest with me. He’s always been right and supportive.
“Thom said to me, ‘I know what some of my ancestors did to your people, but I’m not like that and I’ll support you’. And that’s definitely the way I look at it: I tell kids in the ghetto now, you can’t think that people are all the same based on what happened in the past. You can’t hold it against them. Some of them are trying to come towards us, and you gotta be ready to open your arms to them.”
And what about being Charles Bradley up there on stage and not bringing out all those instinctive Godfather moves? How’s that working out?
“It’s a feeling that I like. The band is pumping the music to me and I feel it inside. I try to block James Brown out and look inside myself to find me. I’m finding things out about myself.
“I wanted to be like James Brown for so long, but now I realize that, as he was a person of character, I am also a person of character.”
It’s helped, says, Charles, that Thom Brenneck pushed him into putting his extraordinary life into his lyrics. On the first album, the final track, Heartaches And Pain, told the story of his brother’s death. It took a while for Brenneck to convince Charles that such a thing might actually be therapeutic, but in the end he went with it and, says Charles, he’s now getting close to the point where he can sing the song on stage without breaking down every time.
The new album is more optimistic still. It also spends less time in JB territory, moving Charles across into a wider ground of late-sixties/early-seventies soul that includes a bit of Temptations, a little southern soul balladry and some strong funk.
The writing has become more natural for him now, says Charles. He’s getting used to the idea that people might be interested in what he has to bring.
“When I’m doing it, and in deep thought, and Thom is helping me with it, I feel like, ‘Wow, I’m bringing up some stuff here’,” he says.
“The best way for me to do it is for me to let it out real fast when I’m listening to the tape. I capture my thoughts best like that. But music is what has kept me going all these years. Without music, I don’t know what I would have done. I needed a way to let out my pain. I think I’d be in jail or pushing up daisies [without it].
“Sometimes I don’t know how I didn’t go crazy, looking back on those old times. I realize now that people who come up and talk to me are just people like myself. And I really enjoy it. I come forward humble, with all my love and respect. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m finally here.”
Charles Bradley’s album Victim Of Love is out now on on Dunham/Daptone Records.