Featured in issue 3 of Marker.
When Charles Bradley walks onto a stage, he is a solid throwback to the great singers of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Raw. Gut wrenching. Unapologetic. It’s hard to believe that he’s only been performing professionally for two years, starting his career at the tender age of 62. That’s part of the intrigue that surrounds Mr. Bradley’s rise to fame: a story as complex and heartbreaking as the songs on his critically acclaimed records.
What do you think makes soul music such a timeless thing?
Soul music is the root of my life, my coming-up and everything that I’ve been through. You’ve got to be raw and you’ve got to reach deep down into yourself to bring it up. That’s my definition of soul music. If you look back to the olden days, people couldn’t say what they wanted to say. If they did, they would think they were going to lose what they had and that the master was going to punish them. So instead, they would sing what they felt. They would go to church and they’d moan and they’d groan and they’d talk to God in their own spiritual ways… and that was nothing but soul. Letting all that steam and all that hurt out of you. That’s where soul music was really born.
Adversity is something Bradley knows all too well. Born in Gainesville, Fla., he jumped from coast to coast, finally settling in the projects of Brooklyn, N.Y. He found himself homeless at the age of 14 after an altercation with his mother, and slept in subways in the winter to keep warm. Things didn’t get easier after that. Bradley nearly died from an allergic reaction to penicillin and witnessed the murder of his older brother. The terrible hands he’s been dealt are enough to break anyone, but his perseverance is truly remarkable.
How do you react when you see people who reach for that easy fame and try to jump all the hard work? You’ve been through so much that it must be a bit frustrating to see.
I can only speak for myself. I want to be recognized as an artist and I want people to also know who I am as an individual. All I can say to these young kids that are coming up in the world now is that you’ve got to go through some pains. If you’ve gone through some rough times and you keep your heart clean and your mind right, then you’ve got something to say to the world. Like my mama always says, when Jesus carried a cross he had to be hurting, so who are we as human beings not to suffer? We’re going to carry our crosses too, so when you carry yours, carry it wisely and righteously.
So was it your spirituality that motivated you to push through your adversities?
That’s what kept me strong. If I didn’t have spiritual guidance I don’t know where I’d be right now. I’ve been through so many things that deeply hurt me, and sometimes I don’t know how to deal with it, so I remember the rugged cross and it brings me back to myself. That’s what helps me keep going. Now I’m into music and showing love all over the world, but even now those quiet moments with myself still hurt. It takes time and patience for some of those things to be erased, but I do my best to [replace the bad] with something good.
In 1962, Bradley’s sister took him to see James Brown perform at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The showmanship he witnessed planted a seed in him, and while he may not have known it at the time, he was soon going to follow in his idol’s footsteps. He mimicked Brown’s moves at home as a child, but it was only when he was in the Job Corps that someone dared him to sing in front of a group of people. Hesitantly, he did it, and realized at that moment that this was something he could do for the rest of his life. That’s when he started performing in small clubs around New York as Black Velvet, a James Brown impersonator. He nailed everything from the hair to the jumpsuits, the music to the theatrics, and Bradley felt right at home doing it.