A broken home. Teenage homelessness. The murder of a sibling and best friend. The 64-year-old soul musician Charles Bradley has lived a life full of heartache, pain, and now, victory. It’s a story only possible in America, and best told in his words.
Bradley was born in Gainesville, Fla., where he was raised by his grandmother until the age of eight. He doesn’t remember much from his early days, but some of his grandmother’s advice has stuck with him. “She always used to tell me, ‘Be careful with the words you use. Somebody sees a picture behind every word you say,’” Bradley said in tone of humility and gratitude. He jumps at the chance to share every bit of wisdom he’s got.
At age eight, his mother decided it was best for Bradley to move to Brooklyn with her. The New York world was a change of pace for the Florida native, but it presented the boy with new opportunities and experiences. One of these was seeing the one and only James Brown.
James Brown’s Live at the Apollo Theater 1962 is one of greatest live albums of all-time. It’s an indelible testament to the power and control a performer can have over his audience. The guttural screams from that crowd don’t happen for anybody. That this was the first concert the 14-year old Bradley had ever attended now seems like more than a simple twist of fate.
When asked about the concert, you can hear a jolt of electricity go through Bradley. “What stuck out about it? Everything! The way he came on stage, the way he moved, the way he connected. He had us in the palm of his hand. I knew from that moment that it was what I wanted to be doing,” he said.
Unfortunately, shortly after that show, Bradley made the decision to run away from home. It was a decision that would lead to decades of obscurity. He called the subway home for two years. Through Job Corps he was able to find a job in Maine as a chef. After a few years, he hitchhiked aimlessly across the country, all the way to Alaska, and eventually landed in California. This was not the life he had imagined.
Flash forward to 1996, when his mother begged him to come home so she could “truly get to know him for the first time.” Bradley was immediately back in Brooklyn, but the joyful family reunion was short-lived.
Soon, Bradley had an allergic reaction to penicillin that put him on his deathbed. The situation was so dire that Bradley’s brother Joe had to force him through it. “Joe told me that if I don’t feel like living for myself, get through it for him. He needed me by his side,” Bradley recalled of his brother.
Tragically, Bradley’s brother was shot and killed just blocks from their mother’s home shortly after Charles regained his health. Joe was his best friend and confidant. When asked about him, Bradley can only do so much in holding back tears. He tells a simple story that speaks volumes about both their love for one another and the extreme poverty they lived through.
“Joe and I used to have a game where we see how many pennies we could find on the side of the street. That was our thing. I still think of him every single time I see a penny,” he said, voice trembling.
During this time, Bradley was performing as a James Brown impersonator under the name “Black Velvet.” He enjoyed it, but yearned for more. “The public kept me in that mold for a bit,” he said. “It was the only thing I had until the Daptone guys found me.”
He was a perfect fit for Daptone Records, a label specializing in reviving the spirit of 1960s and 1970s funk and soul. The first time he got together with the group of musicians, he asked them to play while he wrote lyrics off the top of his head. Ten of the tracks from Bradley’s critically-acclaimed debut album have roots to that session.
Performing the heartfelt lyrics was an incredibly difficult thing for such an unpolished artist to do. “A lot of those lyrics deal directly with the loss of my brother. Part of my grief process was up there on stage,” Bradley shakily said. “I didn’t even want to do it until I was reminded how blessed I am to even have this opportunity.”
Bradley’s live show is a whirlwind of unbridled passion and emotion. He has the transcendent power to capture the collective pain of the crowd on his shoulders. Pain is universal, and to Bradley, there is power in numbers. “My heart is bigger than my vocabulary, but no matter what shape you’re in, we are all on this planet together,” he said. “This is my gift. I want to share it.”
Charles Bradley is an American treasure. This is not soul for soul music’s sake. It is a desperate cry for help and an elated shout for joy. It is a piercing expression of a man who has tasted both how wretched and how glorious this life can truly be.
Photo: Christopher Garcia