When soul singer Charles Bradley screams, "Why is it so hard to make it America?" you truly feel it. Bradley could be singing for anyone really, but it’s his own life story and soul coming through his songs. Tales of tough living and truth laced with classic soul and funk is a winning recipe that will never go away. What sets Bradley apart is his brutally honest, sometimes heart breaking delivery. Maybe it’s so powerful because it’s been stewing for so long, over 50 years.
After spending most his life drifting across the country, Bradley released his first proper album - "No Time for Dreaming" - at the age of 63.
In a phone interview with WickedLocal.com, Bradley talked about his time on the road, his love of soul music and lessons he’s learned along the way.
Bradley’s soul scream has been tempered through six decades of living, most of it hard.
Born in Gainesville, Fla., in 1948, he lived with his grandmother until the age of 8. He never knew his father, and he first met his mother at the age of 8.
During a visit to Florida, Bradley’s mother asked him to move back to Brooklyn with her so she could finally get to know her son.
“I was treated fairly and honest, but when I turned 14, I saw there was a lot of hardships in my family,” Bradley said. “I couldn’t take it. I was living in the basement, where you couldn’t see nothing but dirt and sand, and I only had a small bed on the floor.”
Bradley wouldn’t last long at home, but he’d be there long enough to attend a life-changing concert. In 1962, he went with his sister to see James Brown perform at the Apollo Theater.
Instantly enamored with the music and the man, Bradley practiced mimicking Brown’s style and stage mannerisms at home.
Bradley spent the better part of his childhood living on the streets, running away from home as a teen, sleeping in subway cars for two years.
“I was living in old cars,” Bradley said. “Sometime at a friend's house, I’d sit there and watch TV all night until he told me I had to go.”
At the age of 16, Bradley was still living on the streets. But opportunity knocked when he joined with joining Job Corps, a federal program for helping underprivileged families.
Moving to Bar Harbor, Maine, Bradley began work as a cook, putting together a band in his spare time. Although they only played a handful of shows, it was enough to get Bradley hooked.
“I just knew I wanted to do this for a living,” Bradley said. “I just loved singing and performing from the start.”
Page 2 of 4 - Unfortunately, his fate was put on hold when his bandmates were drafted in the Vietnam War, and he was forced to find work as a chef in Wassaic, N.Y., at a hospital for the mentally ill.
Over the next nine years, cooking for 3,500 people a day, Bradley pined away for his dream. Finally, he decided to follow it, leaving the hospital and traveling west, relying on strangers and hitchhiking most of the way. He lived in upstate New York, Seattle, Canada and Alaska before settling in California.
Years spent on the road, living paycheck to paycheck, hitchhiking around the country shaped Bradley as a man also.
“It really made me learn how to spot good people and the bad as well,” he said. “There were many times that you just get a feeling that even though someone seems nice, there’s something off about them.”
Bradley said he’s seen it all and hung out with almost everyone, from pool playing sharks to Hell’s Angels.
“It was scary and dark sometimes,” he said. “But I do believe that the force inside me, the higher sprit, was keeping the light alive during those times. It also gave me the opportunity to learn to take care of myself.”
Another 20 years went by in California, where Bradley dabbled in music while keeping a job as a chef and things were starting to look up for Bradley in California for a while. He was starting to get gigs and playing with local musicians when he was fired from his job, forced to pause and reevaluate his life, again. 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.
He decided that he was better off at home where he started, and moved back to New York to be with family again.
Loading up a truck with the musical equipment he’d collected over the years, he decided to solely focus on his dream, focusing on his music full time.
At the age of 51, he was finally living his dream. But that dream was again tested.
It was there he began making a living moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator in local clubs under the name "Black Velvet.”
But his hard luck continued, in the span of the year, he was hospitalized with a fever and his brother was killed.
At the hospital, Bradley was given penicillin, which he is allergic to.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said. “Honestly, I thought I was leaving this world. I was sick as a dog. My brother Joseph came there and whistled in my ear. He put his hands on me. He kept whistling in my ear. He said, 'If you don’t want to live for yourself, Charles, please don’t leave me.'”
Page 3 of 4 - With encouragement from his family, Bradley fought through a fever of 104.7 degrees.
“They had to nurse me up, put ice all over my body to break the fever. They would stick this big needle in my back four times a day,” he said. “I’d rather be dead before I live through that again.”
Just when he had finally recovered, Bradley’s brother was shot and in the head and killed.
“I would always go over to his house, and he said, “Charles, I don’t want you to go back to California. I want you to stay here with me. I will take care of you,” Bradley said.
The night before he was shot, Bradley said he spoke with his brother Joe about the family.
“He grabbed me. He wouldn’t let me go. That was the last hug I had from Joe,” he said. “I went home to my mom’s house. I woke up the next morning. My mother came and knock at my door and told me Joe had been shot dead.”
Walking out the door, he was met by his brother’s wife.
“That took all the energy out of me,” he said. “I just fell down to the ground, crying. I went back in the house, pulled the cover over my face, and said, ‘Lord, this is a dream. I know this is a dream. Lord, if you let this be a dream, I promise, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do better. I’ll do good.’”
The rollercoaster of Bradley’s life finally took an upswing when Bradley was at his lowest. At the time, Bradley was performing as Black Velvet, covering James Brown tunes at the Tarheel Lounge in Bedstuy, N.Y., when Gabriel Roth of Daptone Records approached him.
Without missing a beat, Roth recruited Bradley for sessions with the Sugarman 3, and recording his first single, “Take It As It Comes," for Daptone.
Soon afterward, Roth brought Bradley into the Daptone circle, taking him to see the Staten Island funk band Dirt Rifle and the Bullets, who had been playing James Brown and Meters influenced songs.
Thomas Brenneck, a songwriter and guitarist for the Bullets, hit it off with Charles and they began working together, releasing two singles under the name "Charles Bradley and the Bullets."
The project was short-lived. The Bullets reformed to form the afrobeat funk outfit Budos Band. But Brenneck and Bradley pressed on.
As they got to know each other, Bradley confided his full life story to Brenneck.
However, Brenneck knew that Charles had something more to give and after moving to Bushwick himself, he and Charles reunited.
In time, they became close friends and Charles confided his life story in Brenneck. The young producer was moved when he heard Charles tell the painful story of his brother's death.
Page 4 of 4 - Brenneck said, "Charles, we gotta put that story to music." Brenneck had put together a small bedroom studio and was working on instrumentals with a new group soon to be named Menahan Street Band.
His new sound was the perfect compliment for the heartfelt and troubled lyrics that sprang from Charles' story.
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.
Brenneck had just launched Dunham Records, a division of Daptone, and would release Bradley’s "The World (Is Going Up In Flames)" and "Heartaches and Pain" as its second single.
Wholly apart from his days performing as Black Velvet act, the songs on No Time For Dreaming are honest offerings from Bradley, in which he spins his life story for the listener.
Now touring with Brenneck and the Menahan Street Band, Bradley as honed his talents as a singer, entertainer and now, songwriter.
“It feels good to finally have the record out,” Bradley said in an interview. “It’s been a long wait to get to this point and I’m just doing the best I can.”
It’s a sentiment revealed in the title track from "No Time For Dreaming," in which Bradley sings, “I gotta get on up and do my thing,” and “gotta make it real,” over funk guitars and a delicious back beat.
Bradley said although it was a long road to get where he is today, the journey shaped him and his music.
“It’s a happy and bittersweet album at the same time,” he said. “Growing up on the streets from 14-years-old on I’ve had a hard time, just trying to find my way and it was only when I followed my heart into music that I got the opportunity I did.”
For Bradley, singing and playing music doubles as a personal journal, a chance to share his story with the world.
“They’re expecting me to pour my heart out and that’s what I do,” he said.
Bradley sees the renewed interest in what could be considered as "real soul music" as a search for truth.
“I think the younger audiences are being turned on to the music in blues, soul and funk because they’re looking for honesty in the world,” he said. “That’s what I want to give them. Let me sing from my heart, tell you about the life I’ve been through and show them the way.”