When Charles Bradley sings about pain and heartache, you'd better believe he knows what he's talking about. More than a talented rhythm 'n' blues singer, more than an extraordinary showman who delivers, night after night, Charles Bradley is pure soul.
The voice is a deep, skeleton-shaking wail, more like Otis Redding than James Brown, to whom Bradley is most often compared (he made his first dollars as a singer by impersonating Brown, as Black Velvet, in the mid 1990s).
Daptone Records signed him in 2011, pairing him with a seven-piece backing band called the Extraordinaires. The band is punchy and funky, with a dynamic sax-and trumpet horn section.
When 65-year-old Charles Bradley is on the stage, however, the band—good as it is—blurs into the background. When that wallop of a voice comes out of the man with the weathered, lived-in face, your attention does not stray.
This was my second interview with Bradley in two years. Then, as now, I was surprised at how fragile he sounds on the telephone, the voice that can fill an auditorium barely a whisper, his replies to my questions thoughtful, and tentative—at first.
When he talks about the road that got him here, he remembers every detail. The scars are very real.
CS: What do you do to take care of your voice?
Charles Bradley: I use honey and olive oil. I mix it up together, and sometimes I'll take a Bayer aspirin and mix it up with a little water, and gargle with it. When I'm offstage, I'm a loner. And I'm mostly alone. And I just get myself ready for the next day. When I finish one show, I just go to myself and not talk too much, and do the things that I have to do to keep myself going.
Does the voice always come back when you need it?
Charles Bradley: So far, thank God, it's always come back when I needed it. When I wake up in the morning, my voice is not really that good. But after I get up and start moving around, and doing my daily chores, then it comes back. I know what to do. You live in this body, so you have to learn how to take care of it.
Onstage, you sound like you're tearing your vocal cords apart.
Charles Bradley: Well, I do every show like it's my last show. I can't take it with me when I leave, so while I'm here I'm letting people know that I'm for real. And hope that God gives me the strength to keep going.
CS: You were born in Gainesville, Florida. A town I know well. How was it you ended up going to New York when you were a kid?
Charles Bradley: Last time I saw my mom, I was about 6 years old. She left Florida because she was going through a lot of changes. And my grandmother kind of took care of us. I forgot who my moms were. She came to Florida and told my grandmother she wanted to take us back to New York, so we could get to know her. My grandmother told her no.
So my oldest brother came to school and told the teacher that my grandmother was sick, and he had to take us out of school real fast. So my brother took us out of school. Instead of us going home, my mother met us at the train station. And all of a sudden we were going to New York.
And that’s how I got back with my mom. But then, when I was about 14 years old I ran away because I felt that I wasn’t wanted. Then I came back. And then I just left home for good. That’s when I found my way into all kinds of trials and tribulations. But somehow I got through it.
I left, and never came back until 1994, when we were talking on the telephone. I was living in California, and she caught the Greyhound bus. I was living a corner room—six dollars a night, to tell you what kind of room that was. My mother came down, and she wanted to get to know me.
She said “Son, why don’t you come back home?” and I said no. She said “Give me a chance to really know you. I know I did some things, but we’re all human.”
I was working in Menlo Park. I lost my job. I worked there 17 years, and only missed three days. I was working from 5 in the morning, sometimes, till 8 at night. I was constantly doing all the overtime I could because I wanted to buy me a little house.
I came into work that Friday, they told me they didn’t want me no more. They told me I had to leave. They gave me $1,100 and part of my retirement, and told me that I had to leave. I said “Don’t do this to me.” I said “Man, I’ve been working for you guys for 17 years, going to your private homes, cooking dinners for you, doing parties for you, and you’re gonna get rid of me?” They said, it’s not your work ability, we just can’t afford to keep you on no more.
Did you ever reconcile with your mother?
Charles Bradley: I'd say '94, '96, that's when we really came together. She told me a lot of things about her personal life, things that she went through, and I listened to her and told her about things that I was going through. There were some things that happened to me that she never knew. And when she found out she said "Oh my God, son, why didn't you tell me?" I said "I tried to tell you. But nobody would listen to me. It felt like they put me in a shell of my own." We talked and she said "Son, come and live with me."
We got close. And then when I was home maybe three years, my brother got killed. And when he got killed, that’s when my mother fell apart. My brother was living two doors down from her in Brooklyn; he bought a house because he wanted to be near her. He was the guy who was trying to mend all the wounds and bring the family together. When he got killed, he left my mother $35,000, and she said “I gotta get away from this.” So she went down to Florida and bought a little small house. Then she started missing us, and she came back.
At that time, my family was at war. Me and my brothers and sisters were arguing and fighting and stuff like that. So I left the house that my mother let me stay in, and my friend had a building that was abandoned. He said “Charles, you can live in my building if you’ll watch out for people stealing copper pipes.” I said “I need a place to live, because my family, one of us is gonna get hurt.”
So I went to live in this building. There was no light, gas or heat in there, but it was a place to live at. I put plastic in the windows in the wintertime. I’d get a little plastic bag filled with clothes, and a blanket, and I’d stay in that space until the next morning.
Then I’d get up and go on the subway trains, which was home. And stay in the subway trains. And look for me a little job, pick up bottles. And then a friend, a Russian guy, he taught me how to do handyman’s work. Then I learned how to master James Brown, while I was doing handyman’s work. I just wouldn’t give up. I just kept going.
I used to be around people, watching ‘em shooting up, gettin’ high. They’d try to get me to do that, but I’ve always been scared of needles, thank God I was. And I never took a chance to try.
If it hadn’t been for those hard times, do you think you’d be able to sing the way you do now? It’s almost like you’re channeling what you’ve been through.
Charles Bradley: As a baby coming up, as far as I can remember myself back, I've seen so much violence, seen black and white fighting. I remember when I was a baby, in Florida, I couldn't go across that fence. There was a fence, the whites there, the blacks there. But there was a man who had a little trailer, and I used to go by there and stand by the bamboo, and he used to pick me up and bring me across the fence. He was the first person that showed me a TV—I'd never seen a TV in my life. I wondered how did people get inside the TV? He'd give me ice cream, and put me back over the fence before my grandmother called me.
I never knew why there was racial fighting. Because this man was a good person to me. He was a friend to me. And as I grew and started knowing about Martin Luther King, and watching all the violence ... sometimes I'd think the world was so evil.
I can look at a person now, even today, and look in their spirit and know where they’re coming from. They can show me love, and I can look beyond that love and see where they’re at. And it hurts me sometimes I can see all that stuff. But I don’t let them know that I see it; I just love ‘em back.
And hug ‘em, say “Thank you, brother” or “Thank you, sister.” And I walk away and hope that my love, and my respect, can make a difference in people that feel that way.
And that comes out in your music. I can see it in your face. I can hear it in the way you phrase things.
Charles Bradley: I don't know what it is, but it seems like the older I get, I like to perform and give the people my love, but when I'm finished, I just like to be alone. I just look at people sometimes, and they want to love me and care about me, but my memories, my hurts ... I just don't want to be bothered.
I’m not in this world to hurt or harm anybody, but by myself I feel complete. I feel peaceful in spirit. And I don’t know why. The older I get, the more I want to be alone.
When I get up in the morning and I go out my door, and I look in people’s faces and they come after me and say “Charles, you’re a nice person,” I can see a blank in their spirit and their heart that somewhere in their life, their spirit has crossed me someplace. Has hurt me. When I see that, I don’t want to hurt them back, I just want to depart myself from them.
It’s very rarely that I meet a person that’s strictly from the soul, that I feel, and know their spirit is real. And when I do meet them, they’re like a spirit that comes by, and you want them to stay. And they go, and you never seem them again.