With the help of his friends at Daptone Records, Charles Bradley has turned a lifetime of heartaches and pain into sublimely soulful sounds
Part of the modus operandi of Brooklyn label Daptone Records, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, has been to bring into the spotlight amazing veteran soul singers who, for one reason or another, had yet to break through. Think Lee Fields. Sharon Jones. And now Charles Bradley, who had to wait until he was in his 60s before putting out his first album, last year’s outstanding No Time for Dreaming.
"I’ve been trying for a long time, but I never could find anybody who believed in me," Bradley tells me over the phone from Brooklyn. "I’ve been singing since I was a kid, singing and dancing!" he says, remembering how his grandmother took him along to dances at the recreation centre where she worked, as well as the James Brown concert that changed his life. "My sister took me to go see him at the Apollo Theatre when I was about 13, and when he came on that stage, I thought it was a dream. I said, ‘My God, I want to be like that!’"
For more than a decade, Bradley had actually been impersonating James Brown in clubs under the stage name Black Velvet, and this is how Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth discovered him. This led to the one they nickname "the Screaming Eagle of Soul" recording a few 45s for the label, first with Sugarman 3, then with two projects led by Thomas Brenneck, Dirt Rifle & the Bullets and the Menahan Street Band. It was also Brenneck who finally got him to make an album, a deeply personal one at that.
"I wasn’t really into recording at that time because I’d just lost my brother and I was in a very depressed mood," confides the singer. Yet when Brenneck heard the story of how Bradley’s beloved brother had been killed, he convinced him to put it to music. "And then he called me after a few days and said, ‘Charles, I want you to come and listen to what you just did.’ When I heard it, I said ‘Wow.’ It sounded so soulful…"
That song, Heartaches and Pain, was followed by other numbers addressing the difficult things Bradley has been through (such as The World (Is Going Up in Flames), How Long, Why Is It So Hard), in addition to a few love songs (including the particularly moving Lovin’ You Baby) and a cover of Joe Quarterman’s No Time for Dreaming, which gave the resulting LP its title.
"If you listen to that album, 95 percent of it is nothing but truth, things I actually lived through," says Bradley, notably referring to when he lived on the streets. "I’ve been to hell and back, but I still have God’s love in my heart. That’s what carried me on through my life. I don’t mean to push religion on you, a lot of people don’t believe in it, but it’s one of the things that I held onto to keep my sanity. If I didn’t have that, I might be pushing up daisies or be in somebody’s jail."
No one wishes to go through harsh times, but Charles Bradley acknowledges that he might not be able to sing with such heartfelt intensity if he hadn’t struggled so much over the years. "The feeling only comes forward when you’ve been through it, you’ve lived through it, you’ve hurt through it," he says. "The only way you can get that real soulful feeling, you’ve got to have been through some hell in your life and kept yourself going in a beautiful way."
Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires
w/ Little Barrie
At Corona Theatre