More than any other American art form, soul music mixes sadness and joy to devastating effect. And while legends like James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding were experts at combining tragedy and ecstasy, no one’s story will ever measure up to Charles Bradley’s.
Born in Gainesville in 1948, he was shuttled eight years later to live with his mother in New York City. By age 14, Bradley had run away, surviving on the streets for three years before joining Job Corps. After training as a chef, Bradley got a job in Maine, and over the next 30 years, bounced between New York, Seattle, Alaska and California, cooking for a living while searching for a steady gig as a musician.
Bradley returned to New York City in 1994 but nearly died after a local hospital failed to discover his penicillin allergy. Shortly after that, his brother Joseph was killed in a random robbery, which devastated Charles but also motivated him to get serious about his musical dreams. So he began securing regular gigs performing as a James Brown impersonator in small Brooklyn clubs, which is where Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth discovered him in the early 2000s. And even though it took Bradley and Daptone musician/Dunham Records owner Thomas Brenneck nearly 10 years to piece together Bradley’s first album, “No Time For Dreaming,” once it came out in 2011, fans and critics alike were immediately blown away by the 62-year-old’s impassioned live performances, blistering vocal abilities and unabashed love for his audiences.
Folio Weekly: Have you ever toured in your home state of Florida, Charles?
Charles Bradley: This is my first time down there, and I’m looking forward to it — especially Jacksonville, because my family’s from Gainesville. I told my brother, so hopefully he’s going to come see me.
F.W.: After a few years touring and recording as a solo artist, do you still feel lucky to have finally achieved success so late in life?
C.B.: It’s amazing. It’s something that took so long, but I thank God for answering my prayer and letting me maintain my voice and ability to perform. I tried for 42 years to make it in the music industry, but I never made enough to support myself. I wanted it so bad, though, and I never gave up. Even at my age, there’s no stopping me because I love what I’m doing.
F.W.: Your second album, “Victim of Love,” came out earlier this month. How does it differ from the first album, “No Time For Dreaming”?
C.B.: The first one was real hard for me because it was like coming out of the darkness. And the second one … I don’t want to say it was easier, but I’ve come out of that darkness and into the light. And now it’s, like, “Wow.” I’ve been able to open up, and I’m so happy to be given that chance. Now I’m coming with the best of my abilities — with the love and respect that I have inside me. I’ve got many more albums inside me because I just want to thank all the people who’ve helped me and given me a chance.
F.W.: For many years, you performed as a James Brown impersonator. What was it about the Godfather of Soul that first captivated you?
C.B.: James Brown comes from the era that I came from. My sister took me to see him at The Apollo Theater in 1962, and when I saw James Brown on stage, I said, “Wow, I want to do something like that.” It hit me like lightning. I went home, got a mop, tied a string on it, and went nuts. Later, when I was in the Job Corps, that’s when I really started doing James Brown. [My co-workers] got me fired up one day, gave me some gin, gave me the microphone, and I went crazy again! The first people I performed for were happy, they loved me, and I said, “This is where I want to be.” And I ain’t never stopped.
F.W.: When you perform now in bigger venues, do you still feel the same connection to the audience that you did when you started?
C.B.: I’ll always have that heart. I can see how much they want to hug me, and they can see how much I want to hug them. When I get on stage and start singing, I feel that love, you know? I’m connected with the whole picture — it’s so magnetic and powerful.