Charles Bradley backstage at the Corona Theatre. Above and display photographs by Ellie Payne Smith.
ON A RECENT EVENING, while Portugal erupted in marches, rioters torched Athens and Occupy Oakland clashed with police, Charles Bradley stood in the exposed-brick basement of Montreal’s Corona Theatre, ironing his suits and listening to the Marvelettes. He was due onstage in an hour.
Over the past few years, the sixty-four-year-old Bradley has built a life for himself writing songs, touring and recording for the Brooklyn-based soul-revivalist label Daptone. This started in earnest in 2010, when Daptone’s Tommy Brenneck convinced Bradley to enter the studio and, after a lifetime as a James Brown cover artist, record his own material. The result was the twelve-song album No Time for Dreaming. It was only named number forty on Mojo’s fifty best albums of 2011, and it never got close to topping the charts. In the long run, however, it may be one of the most interesting cultural documents last year had to offer.
Musically, No Time doesn’t stray too far from what you would expect from Daptone, which had its first major success with the howling, strutting Sharon Jones. (Like Bradley, Jones is an experienced singer who recorded her first album late in life, when she was almost fifty years old.) The Daptone people are staunch reactionaries; they have perfected that trick of the ear where you think a recently released album was actually recorded in the sixties. Although the label has released albums from a range of genres, Bradley’s and Jones’ music hearkens back to the gritty, less commercial branch of soul known as Southern soul, always a heartbeat or chord change away from the blues. Onstage, Bradley wears a constant expression of pain—real, physical pain, as if his leg is slowly being broken. He uses his James Brown experience well, twirling, strutting, throwing the mic, falling to his knees. He takes tremendous risks with his guttural voice, tossing it around the octaves with such abandon that he moves perilously close to slipping out of tune.
From a critic’s perspective, then, Bradley is a man out of time. When he moves, his limbs don’t swing freely but along predetermined axes, the joints stiffened with age. “I do believe my music belongs to yesterday and today,” he told me. “All life is doing is repeating itself over and over and over again. Soul never died.” Bradley has little to say about contemporary pop—when one interviewer tried to prod him into a conversation about hip-hop, he was met with awkward silence, something very rare with the talkative Bradley. But this indifference is forgivable considering the roughness of his life over the last three decades. “I been searching—I been on my own, taking care of myself ever since I was fourteen years old,” he said. “I done lived on the streets, buses, anywhere—a place to get out on the cold days, find a place to live at, you name it, I’ve been there.”
Bradley was born in Gainesville, Florida, grew up in Brooklyn and has lived all over the US. His tough past has become a fixture in articles about Bradley, and, in fairness to writers, it is something he talks about relentlessly. Rarely has a successful, touring pop musician emerged out of the lifelong, truly abject poverty Bradley experienced—not just a troubled youth, but a full, impoverished adulthood. Bradley’s mother was paralyzed in her bed when a diseased rat bit her in their infested apartment; he has held his friends’ needles as they injected heroin; and, in one last, tragic coda, his brother was gunned down around the turn of the millennium. “What opportunity did I get in life?” he asked. “I wanted an education. I wanted to go to school. But they didn’t want to teach me. So, all I had left was my strength, the honesty to hold on, to keep pushing. I wanted to work a good job. I wanted to be able to come home, lock up my own place at night, I wanted to be able to show love. But they wouldn’t give it to me.”
He claims that, in the eighties, Lucille Ball—yes, that Lucille Ball—chanced upon him and was sufficiently impressed by his act that she offered to find him more gigs. “Now just imagine that. I’m living in the streets. I look funky, I don’t look good, so I went out, I said I’ll get me something to wear, I’m going to look good. I went in the store, stole a pair of pants, stole my shoes, I got a vest, got everything I want. I went back in the store, and stole the cufflinks. Went out the door, police caught me. And I missed my appointment.” One pair of cufflinks; another two decades of obscurity.
Perhaps, however, Bradley’s long-overdue emergence can be ascribed to more than freak chance. No Time was released in January 2011, the perfect moment for a man with Bradley’s past to say to the world, as he does in “The World (Is Going Up in Flames),” “Don’t tell me how to live my life / if you’ve never felt the pain.” His sound may be from another decade, but in an era of recession and austerity economics, Bradley seems absolutely of his time. He believes that he did some things that were “wrong” in the past—petty crimes to keep himself alive—and as a deeply religious man, he ultimately cedes all judgment to God. Despite this humility, however, his pattern of thought contains a simmering rage, a wholesale rejection of the myriad forces—racism, classism, the prison system—that have been used throughout American history to keep people like him down. A video of Bradley performing his most perfect song, “Why Is It So Hard?”, at South by Southwest made the rounds online last April. The song’s lyrics simply tell the story of Bradley’s life, barely rhyming as they do so: "I went upstate New York to a little town they call Poughkeepsie / Got me a job to get away from all that stress / But I couldn't get away no matter how far I went / Looks like nothing's gonna change / Everything still remains the same." When Bradley turns to the camera and roars, his voice breaking, “Why is it so hard to make it in America?”, we feel that he deserves an answer. As the past year has showed us, he’s not the only one who wants to know.
When I asked Bradley if he felt any connection to the Occupy movement, he didn’t bite; “I feel like I’m connected to everybody. I have a clean heart, clean mind, clean soul.” But Occupy, of course, is just one tactic, one symptom, of a time in which acceptance of systemic inequality has begun to unravel worldwide. Bradley described to me how, when he toured in Europe, “Peoples been telling me the same thing. Even in Europe. Peoples losing their house, worth all their life—and now they’re taking it from them. Peoples don’t know which way to go. I got a sister, homeless, living in a homeless shelter. What, work harder, all your life? What are we coming to?”
Now, forty years too late, Bradley has proved that soul can do something it has always claimed to do: take the heartbreak, suffering and pain of the downtrodden and throw it back in the face of the world. Bradley has a great soul scream—an affectation perfected by Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and many others—but that same scream means something else leaving his mouth. Bradley described the night to me, twelve years ago, when he pushed his way through police lines to see his brother’s body. “I said, ‘You can’t stop me, this is my brother’s house,’ and I pushed my way in. But I tell you, young man, I regret it. Because when I went in there—when they shot him in the head, they shot him in the head with a hollow-point bullet. And his brains was on the floor, and his skull. And I just went out of my mind.” Bradley wrote “Heartaches and Pain” about that night, and when he screams out the song to a roomful of people, it chills to the bone. “I scream because I don’t know what else to say, it just hurts so bad,” he told me. “It’s just so emotional. And I don’t know how to say it, or what to say to you. But I feel it in me. My spirit is beyond comprehension of my wisdom and knowledge. Us speaking in words. All I know how to do is show you my heart.”
It wasn’t worth it, of course. He remains haunted by the cost he had to pay to finally do what he has always wanted to do; “Nobody should have to go through the things I’ve lived through.” He has not forgotten friends from the street who didn’t make it, and it is perhaps for this reason that he speaks so relentlessly of redemption and love. When I turned off the recorder, he spread open his arms and said to my photographer and me, “You guys are really making me open my heart, cause I’m sitting here, and I’m feeling so much love coming to me.” This is the sort of statement that can make one feel inadequate.
Despite the tempestuousness of his life, though, Bradley is an extraordinarily calming presence to be around. He exudes a paternal spirit toward anyone he encounters, and constantly refers to his extremely young band as his “family.” (He irons their suits, too.) As Bradley showed my photographer, Ellie, how he applies his stage make-up (“You seem very good at that—did you ever wear makeup before, Charles?” “Only on stage, sweetheart”), I stood in the hallway with his bandmates. They were arguing about the age of the trumpet player, a recent NYU jazz dropout. “Oh right, you are twenty-one!” someone finally relented. “I was at your birthday party.” Hanging out with a bunch of young journalists, musicians and promoters, all drinking on the job, Bradley was still the life of the party. But mention the police, or the border, or poverty, and Bradley’s eyes flash and he goes right back into the story of his life. He tells this story because it is, in the end, such a common one.
There were only more tipsy young people waiting for Bradley upstairs. The Corona Theatre was sold out, and Bradley appeared to be the oldest person in the room by a good three decades. He began with “Heartaches and Pain” and continued on through a set that drew almost entirely from No Time for Dreaming, save for covers of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and Clarence Carter’s spookily sexy “Slip Away.” In between songs, he would stretch his hands forward and shriek, “I love you” to the audience, eliciting a deafening roar. Pretty much everything he did on that stage—dance, strut, scream, even drop down on his knees to utter the Lord’s Prayer—had the same effect.
There was something undeniably perverse about an overwhelmingly young, largely white audience—tickets were close to $30 each—taking such obvious pleasure from the staging of this man’s suffering. Bradley himself maintains that people are not drawn to his story through romanticization, but identification. Soul, like the blues before it, is founded on the idea that you can approach sex, death, love, poverty and heartbreak with the same notes and energy—pleasure and pain can run together. An optimist might also point out that, had he been discovered any earlier, Bradley would likely have been billed as a naïve artist along the lines of Daniel Johnston. Perhaps that kind of compartmentalization of the suffering endemic to American life is growing less tenable. Maybe—and it is, admittedly, a big “maybe”—we are approaching a point where an album like No Time For Dreaming can be received not just as a fetish object, but as a canny and persuasive reading of the times.
Bradley, whose first and last love is performance, doesn’t seem to give a great deal of thought to such questions. He’s getting old now. As the night went on, he began dropping to one knee instead of two, and reserved his howls and screams only for the absolute apex of songs. At the end of the concert, however, Bradley plunged into the audience and was lost in the pit for a good five or ten minutes, shaking hands, hugging, immersing himself in the first generation in sixty-four years to take him seriously.
After the show, we slipped downstairs to say goodbye, and Ellie gave Bradley a big hug. “Thanks sweetheart,” he said, visibly exhausted. “I feel better already.”
Related on maisonneuve.org: