On the first Saturday of Jazz Fest 2013, Charles Bradley strode out on the Blues Tent stage as if he weren’t 65 years old but as if it were 1973 and he were 25 with his whole career ahead of him. He wore a bright purple jumpsuit unzipped to the waist and a rounded afro the size of a soccer ball. When he started singing “In You (I Found a Love)” from his debut album, the trumpet and tenor sax punched out a tight R&B riff over a wah-wah guitar and B-3 organ. Bradley delivered his slow-blues lament about the woman who’d done him wrong in a big, gravelly tenor.
Regulars at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival are used to aging R&B singers, from New Orleans and beyond, being trotted out to reprise their vintage hits. Sometimes they can still sing and sometimes they can’t; sometimes their bands are well rehearsed and sometimes they aren’t—but none of that seems to matter. The whole point of the exercise is to give the audience a personal connection to a long-gone era when singers were soulful and drummers were funky. Maybe you bought those records when they first came out; maybe you discovered them decades later, but here, in the flesh, is the voice from those discs.
At first, Bradley seemed to fit that mold, even if you couldn’t remember any of his records from the ’70s. A minute and a half into “In You,” however, he screamed, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, whatcha gonna do, baby? Stop it! Heeeeeeey!” The band hung back, waiting to see what the singer might do next, for he was clearly off the script now. He was no longer trying to evoke nostalgia for an old era of R&B; he was trying to convince a woman in the here and now to stop treating him so badly. The band picked up his new trail and followed close at his heels as he improvised lyrics and melodies in a cathartic venting of frustration. He moaned in low-pitched resentment, “You broke my heart…,” and then screamed in high-pitched agony, “… in two!”
This was no nostalgia exercise; this was thrilling music in the present tense. In the back of the mind, one remembered why Bradley’s old records were forgotten: because they didn’t exist. Although his voice was a hurricane force of nature, he didn’t record his first single until 2002 nor his first album until 2011. Most of his career really was still ahead of him. Who knows what he might have accomplished if had gotten started in the 1970s?
“If I’d have gotten that break when I was 25 years old,” Bradley says over the phone from his Brooklyn apartment, “the world wouldn’t have known what to do with me. I was so dynamic with my soul. On the other hand, I know so much more now and I know how to deal with things better. Like a lot of people, I say, ‘I wish I was young again, knowing what I know now.’ Today I can use everything I know; I can dig into a lot of my memories. I can do things I was afraid to do before. I used to be afraid to dance, afraid to sing, and now I ask myself, ‘Why? Why was I afraid?’”
His unlikely backstory is recounted in Poull Brien’s terrific 2012 documentary film, Charles Bradley: Soul of America, now out on DVD. Bradley lived his first eight years in Florida without his parents, then moved to New York to join his mother, though he never met his father. Things got so rough at his new home, where he was sleeping in a dirt-floor basement, that he ran away at age 14 and started sleeping in the subways. But that same year, when his sister took him to see James Brown at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, young Charles was changed forever.
“When I first saw him, it was like the resurrection,” Bradley recalls. “I’d seen entertainers but nothing like James Brown on stage—the costumes, the lights, the band, everything. He didn’t hold anything back. A lot of singers today, you can tell they’re trying to take care of their voices, but James Brown gave every show like it was his last show. When he reached for a note, if it hurt, that felt good. I went home and got a broom and tied a string to it like it was microphone and cord. My mom pushed me down until I could do the split.”
The teenaged Bradley was still too shy to perform in public. Finally, when he was 16, working at a Job Corps Center in Maine, the guys at the center urged him to sing in a show at the girls’ dormitory. They told him there’d only be 30 people there, but when he arrived there were more than 100. He froze backstage; his friends slipped some gin into his drink, had him gulp it down and then pushed him into the lights. He did his James Brown imitation and the crowd went crazy.
Brown became both a meal ticket and a millstone for Bradley. On one hand, whatever city Bradley was in, usually cooking in a kitchen, he could always make some extra money by doing his JB impersonation under such stage names as “Black Velvet,” “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” and “James Brown Jr.” But nobody wants to record a Brown impersonator and you don’t develop your own material if that’s your main gig.
Even today, when he’s doing extra encores at theaters and festivals all over the world as Charles Bradley, he still finds it hard to turn down offers to perform as Black Velvet in Brooklyn bars, as if he’s still not sure just how long his new career will last. Tom Brenneck, Bradley’s co-writer, guitarist, bandleader and producer, is always urging his singer to put the James Brown business behind him and focus on Charles Bradley. But old habits are hard to break.
“Tom just called me up,” Bradley told me in February. “He said, ‘Charles, I heard you got your hair weaved again.’ I said, ‘Yes, I got my hair weaved.’ He said, ‘I thought we talked about that, that you weren’t going to weave your hair anymore.’ I said, ‘but the weave makes my hair grow faster.’”
When he heard that Sharon Jones, another veteran of New York’s R&B bar circuit, had graduated to theaters and festivals thanks to Daptone Records, run by young soul-loving musicians, Bradley contacted the label. Daptone tried Bradley out on a handful of singles but nothing clicked until he was teamed up with Brenneck. The guitarist tried to record Bradley on pre-written songs but it still sounded like he was impersonating someone else. Finally, Brenneck found the key: he would play the guitar riff and rhythm for a new song and invite Bradley to talk over them about his hard-luck past. Brenneck would tape these sessions and found that the story could often be paired quite comfortably with the music.
“If you give me a funk beat and a tape recorder,” Bradley explains, “if I like the beat, my words will come out raw. Tom is really good at that; he asks me a lot of questions and I answer his questions. My spirit opens up and the best stuff comes out of me; you have to tape it right then and there, because that’s when it comes out natural. When I have the blues and I have things bothering me deeply, that’s the best time for me to write a song.”
One of the most memorable scenes in Brien’s documentary has the camera crew following Bradley down the street from his mother’s house in Brooklyn to the house where his brother Joseph used to live. He points to the darkened bullet holes in the white framing around the front door and, with damp eyes, tells how Joseph surprised some burglars in his own home and was filled with bullet holes, too.
When Bradley told that same story to Brenneck earlier, the guitarist taped the monologue and fashioned it into the lyrics for the song “Heartaches and Pain” from Bradley’s first album, 2011’s No Time for Dreaming. The track begins with a relaxed Southern-soul arrangement reminiscent of Otis Redding. “I woke up this morning,” Bradley sings in the second verse; “my mama was crying. So I looked out the window; police lights were flashing; people were screaming.” He runs down the street; a friend grabs him and tells Bradley his brother’s been killed. Over the gospel horns and Brenneck’s concise guitar lick, the singer shouts again and again, “Heartaches and pain,” as if the wounds were still fresh, even years later.
“That’s the first one I wrote with Tom,” Bradley recalls. “He called me to tell me he had moved from Staten Island to Brooklyn; he asked me to come over to check out the studio in his new apartment. We were jamming and I started telling him about the time my brother got killed, and he wrote down the words because I’m a terrible speller.
“Tom and the band know how to make the timing just right for my words. I tried karaoke once but I couldn’t do it. Because when I’m getting into my spirit, when I want to go off and get into my zone, the karaoke keeps on giving you the same old thing. That’s why I don’t like singing with a disc jockey; I want a band that can change with me. When you have a band that can rock your soul, the sky’s the limit. When I’m getting ready to do something crazy, and the band is right there with me, that’s life.”
The relationship between Bradley and Brenneck is an unusual one, for the two musicians are separated by considerable differences in age and background. But they have formed a most productive partnership, where the guitarist can channel the singer’s volcanic voice and dramatic life story into well-crafted, vintage soul songs.
“Tom came from a rock background,” Bradley explains. “I came from a soul and funk background. Tom came from a middle-class family; I came from a rough family. He had a loving mother and a loving father; I never had that and I always wanted that. His life has been good and my life hasn’t been so good. I had to take in his views, think about them and take a look at the quality of those views. After a while, I saw that everything I received from Tom was quality, so I began to respect his views and he respected mine. Now we have become very good friends.”
In Charles Bradley: Soul of America, Brenneck explains that the soul-revival acts on Daptone Records have an easier time getting attention in Europe than they do in the United States, where the music was born. He started writing a song called “Why Is It So Hard (To Make It in America)” but when Bradley heard the title, he took the lyric in a completely different direction. No longer was it about the challenge of finding concert bookings; suddenly it was about the challenges of paying rent, buying groceries and staying out of the way of bullets. This was soul music that had nothing to do with nostalgia for old records; this was about close-and-present dangers.
When Bradley returned to the Blues Tent stage for his encore at Jazz Fest last year, he told the crowd, “Listen to this tune very carefully, because it comes from my life.” Over the swirling B-3 organ and toddling horns, he sang of the restless pattern of his life, moving from Gainesville to Brooklyn to Poughkeepsie, always in search of the steady job and peace of mind the American Dream promises.
But no matter where he went, he couldn’t find it, and when the chorus came around again, Bradley clamped shut his eyes in his weathered, sweat-drenched face and cried, “Why is it so hard?” over and over as if he really expected an explanation. He started adding lyrics that weren’t on the record, shouting, “I believe in something, and what I believe in is love,” as if that too were just beyond his reach. Finally, they pulled him off stage with the question still unanswered.
“At first, it bothered me when Tom kept asking me about my life,” Bradley admits, “because I was going through a crisis and didn’t want to talk about it. But later I found out that when I sing about these things, it eases the pain a bit.”