When Charles Bradley sings, the promise of something we call America becomes real. That promise may be broken, bleeding, scarred, but it's undeniable. To call the 64-year-old New York native a soul singer is to understate the case.
Bradley's voice is the scream of an American nightmare and the transcendence of an American dream. It's scary how beautiful and powerful the promise that voice keeps can be.
Prior to 2002, Bradley's name was known only to a few soul-music fanatics, or to those who'd stumbled into a New York club to see a James Brown impersonator known as Black Velvet. He had never properly recorded, and he barely had an identity separate from the Godfather of Soul. He was just surviving in a city he had no choice but to call home.
Bradley's American story changed when Daptone impresario Gabriel Roth and guitarist and producer Tom Brennek heard him perform one night in New York. They felt the power in his wail and saw the wild skill of his presence onstage. The songs he needed to sing, the story he needed to tell, would come much later.
Born in Gainesville, Florida, Bradley was raised by his grandmother until the age of seven, when he finally reconnected with his mother and moved to New York. He'd never seen such a city or such an ocean, and he'd never heard of a singer named James Brown. As a teenager his favorite song was "Save the Last Dance for Me," by Guy Lombardo, but his sister took him to the Apollo Theater in 1962 to see Brown perform. Everything changed.
"I'll never forget it," Bradley says from a hotel in Georgia during his current five-week tour. "The way the lights shone on him, the way he ran onstage, the way he threw the microphone, the way people were screaming. I knew I wanted to be like that. The dance James Brown did was called 'The Slide.' Everybody was doing that dance at the time, but James Brown made it his own."
By the age of sixteen, Bradley had run away from home and was living on the streets and in the subways. He found work in the Job Corps system, which taught him the cooking trade and also gave him a built-in audience, and the chance to form a band and sing the songs of his idol.
"We would go to different Job Corps centers and perform," Bradley recalls with just a hint of wistfulness in his voice. "My job was cooking, but on the side I was doing music. I'd go from one girl's Job Corps center to another; they were separate at that time. The shows were really big when everyone came together.
"But then my band got drafted into the Vietnam War. I took a job in upstate New York, cooking at a hospital, but they kept changing my shifts around. I had to call in sick just to do my music. So I resigned and went searching for my dreams."
Bradley took to the road and hitchhiked as far as Alaska; he had no idea where he was bound. That itinerant, homeless life marked the singer and changed him forever.
"I came in with the Ku Klux Klan, and I came in with the Hells Angels," he says. "I met the strangest people on the road. I had hitchhiked to Nevada, and I went into a bar to have a drink. A man came up and put his finger in my chest. The bartender put his gun on the bar and told him to leave me alone. I talked to the guy and told him that he had to get to know me as an individual, and then he could judge me. We talked and talked. I learned that when he was a child everyone used to pick on him, and eventually he joined the Hells Angels. We became friends. He wanted to get me on his motorcycle and take me to the next town or down to the hot springs to have a good time. I said, 'No thank you!'"
Bradley ultimately returned to New York, the city that had inspired and then broken his dreams. The pieces came back together when he began recording for the Daptone group, and though the initial singles barely caught on, he eventually began to write, or rather speak, his songs, the ones that would form his first album, the ironically titled No Time for Dreaming. The loss of his brother, shot in the streets of New York, brought all of those songs out.
"When my brother was killed I was in a deep depression," he explains. "I needed someone to talk to. Tom [Brenneck] invited me to his house in Brooklyn. We just started talking. He got out a tape recorder and just recorded everything I said. That became the first song, 'Heartaches and Pain.' He said, 'I'm serious. I want to record you.' And then another song followed, and then he wanted a third song. I didn't know what that would be, but there were a lot of things waiting to come out."
Listening back to Bradley's first album, you hear a man making something, building something, out of the inchoate emotions of a lifetime. When he sings "Heartaches and Pain," his words matter, but it's the sum of everything he's lived, everything he's seen, fused white-hot into his voice and the urgency of a brilliant funk band.
For his second album, Victim of Love, released last month on the Daptone label, Bradley and his collaborator Brenneck draw on rock and pop influences, from creamy Motown vocal harmonies to Curtis Mayfield-esque psychedelic soul. At the core are Bradley's growls and pleas, expressions of unalloyed joy and agonizing confusion. The sound may be richer and more detailed than his first album, but the songs are just as spontaneous.
"For this album, we came up with a lot of it on tour," Bradley says. "I remember one mic check when Tom grabbed a guitar and started playing something. I liked it and just began ad-libbing words to the melody. When I went back to New York, we listened to what we recorded on those tours, and we picked what we liked to make the album."
In the end, Charles Bradley's late-in-life success should never have happened. In his American story, pure chance and sheer will come together for a sound and a presence that can arrest an audience and make them believe that the promise is still worth the believing — and still very much worth the dreaming.
"Every night, I try to perform like it's my last day on earth," Bradley says. "If I can feel it deeply, if the band is really cooking, if I can feel the music in my heart, I can go some place. I can go past my bounds. It just comes out of my heart. All I can say is, when I come to town I'm going to open my heart and give you all I got."