The emotional power of Charles Bradley’s raw, yearning voice is intensified when you consider his history. He was a homeless runaway as a teenager, spending decades hitchhiking and working odd jobs, always with a distant dream of “making it” with his music. He experienced personal loss too intense to respectfully touch on here. He performed occasionally as a James Brown impersonator, but was eventually discovered by the fine folks at Daptone Records and paired up with the fantastic throwback soul collective, the Menahan Street Band, led by guitarist Thomas Brenneck. The songs from this partnership are all original: they sound like Charles Bradley, not James Brown. It was decades coming, but Bradley is finally getting his due.
His story has already served as inspiration for a documentary. Bradley pleases critics but seems to form remarkably strong emotional connections with fans. With the Menahan Street Band behind him, Bradley has toured the world and created soul music that sounds like it was pulled right out of the 1960s. His latest, Victim of Love, came out earlier this spring. When I spoke to him, Bradley was resting up after a European tour and getting ready to hit the road again.
How are you feeling after the tour?
When I got home I felt a little under the weather but now I feel much better.
How has your life changed since the breakthrough of your first album, No Time for Dreaming?
I just moved out of the projects. I’ve got my mom’s basement — I’ve been trying to get it fixed up so I can move down there. Using the money I’ve made from music […] I’ll basically make a one bedroom apartment out of it. At least [I’ll be] there — I can watch my mother more closely. I like having the apartment where she’s right upstairs. Thank God I’ve got a place where I can watch over my mother, and make my music.
That’s really admirable. Did you manage to buy anything special for yourself, though?
My van — I got a 2008 van. I bought that for me so I could move stuff around. I did not know if I was going to [keep making money from music], so I bought this van to do handyman’s work. If somebody wants me to move [something] to make a little money to pay the bills […] that’s why I bought the van.
I jumped into the mud and we started have a good time. They were hugging me, we were loving and crying together. I was just really into it. As I came back onstage, I grabbed the microphone and got a shock through my whole body. The electricity shocked me.
Can you tell me about your relationship with Thomas Brenneck, and the way you write songs with the band?
They were playing some music and I just started singing on it. When I heard it, the words just came to me. There’s more to it than just what you hear. I just like the music. We got together and put it together and started singing.
The music is written by the band and you improvise vocals over it?
Some of the songs, Tom will have it all together and he’ll come to me and ask, “Charles, how do you like this song? That song?” Some of ‘em I didn’t like, some of ‘em I did like. The ones I did like, I just said, “Let me hear it.” I listen to them very carefully and when I hear them I know where to put the lyrics. I put them in right on the spot. Some of them didn’t come out quite right — we had to work on the music. But some of them […] we just made the music and lyrics up on the spot.
How do you feel now that you have two widely heard albums under your belt?
Honestly, I’ve been excited for music ever since I was 16 years old. I’ll always love the music. I did a CD way back in 1989 but I never got it off the ground. I’ve always been seeking my music. It’s been a long time coming — [I’m] 63 years old […] When Tom gave me this opportunity and said he wanted to record me, five years later he moved to Brooklyn and we started talking and everything started happening from there. Ears opened and listened to what I had to say, and things just started happening.
Has anything about your new lifestyle surprised you?
I’ve always been the same person with music. I’ve always been a person who wanted to withdraw from the world because the changes I’ve been through I just don’t want to go through anymore. When I’m doing music onstage, I’m putting my heart and soul into it and giving all I have to give. But when I’m finished with music, I just like to put up my own little aura where there’s peace and quiet and not go through some more changes I’ve been through. I have to look out because when I’m walking in the street, a lot of those things are still out there, so I’ve got to keep myself away from them.
I’ve heard you speak about God in interviews. Can you tell me about how your faith affects your music and life?
My faith in God is totally… there’s nothing on this planet that can change my faith and love for God. Because I believe that’s who kept me strong, who kept me going through all the darkness and brought me through the darkness into the light. Without my faith in Him, I’m nobody. I would have been in somebody’s graveyard or somebody’s jail if I didn’t have God in my life.
I understand that you spent time in Job Corps as a young man?
To young kids out there, 18 years of age, if you come from a down-low life — go to Job Corps. If you’re in bad financial shape — go to Job Corps. Job Corps helped save me from a lot of different things. It got me away from living in the basement and watching people shootin’ up junk everyday, all their life. To keep warm, you gotta stay out of the cold. If you came from a hard life, and don’t know which way to go, go to Job Corps.
Since you probably have more life experience and wisdom than many of the people you play and perform with, do you ever have advice for them?
I have experience, wisdom, and knowledge. Sometimes I have to let them give me what they have to give me. If I say things, sometimes they think I’m against them or I’m trying to hurt them — I’m not. I’m trying to tell them the ways of life that I’ve seen and know. A lot of these young kids, I see what they’re doing. I see them living their life. I don’t want to do anything to hurt them or harm them, all I want to do is tell them the right thing.
When you’re young, you think you know it all. I know I did too, at one time. There’s nothing I can do but teach when [they] want to learn. When [they] want to learn, I’m here. I don’t care where you’re at. Even if the kid from down the street from where I’m at today… if they want to learn, I’ll tell ‘em. If they think they’re grown and know it all, I back off and leave them alone.
Your song “Why Is It So Hard?” asks for a change in America. Can you tell me what you’re looking for with this song?
Why is it so hard? Why must I do all these changes? I like to show the world that I’m a goodhearted person. Why is it so hard for me to get opportunity in life? Why is it so long for me to go through life to get an opportunity? What I have I’ll give […] I’ll give the world every inch of my love. Why is it so hard?
When I said that statement to America, I really mean every word. That’s the reason that song is so true. When I sing that song, I’m very emotionally, deeply, spiritually into it. I know what I had to go through. It took all these years before I was truly given an opportunity. And I can say some of the things in that song when I see how I was stripped of my identity, and know that I was right.
There was no one I could run to and tell, “Look what that man did to me,” or “Look what they’re doing to me!” I had no one to tell it to at the young age of 14 years old. And when I went to go get a job or wanted work, they wanted me to do wrong to get a job and I wouldn’t do it.
“Why Is It So Hard?” To me that song is my national anthem.
What responses have you gotten to your music and your message?
That’s one of the reasons I always go out to the audience and hug them. I get so much… “Charles Bradley, I just want to thank you. You helped me with my life.” I feel it in their souls and heart. I wish I could hug each and every one of them, because the things they tell me, the things they whisper in my ear tell me their hardship and their love.
What I did was bring the openness of their heart and it’s a beautiful feeling. It’s a spiritual emotion I get when I go out to the audience.
I’ve always been a person who wanted to withdraw from the world because the changes I’ve been through I just don’t want to go through anymore.
Can you tell me about some memorable concert experiences you’ve had so far?
One was down South — we were playing at an outdoor concert and a storm came. It was raining, so they cancelled the show. Everyone was angry. All the people were standing out in the rain and the mud. I looked out and said, “Oh my God, all these people standing out in the rain and mud […] to see me sing a song.” I said, “That’s not right. I’m on the stage, underneath this tent and I’m not getting wet. They’re out there just to see me perform.”
I said, “If you guys can stand out in the rain like that, I can come out and get wet with you.” I had a white suit on. I jumped into the mud and we started have a good time. They were hugging me, we were loving and crying together. I was just really into it. As I came back onstage, I grabbed the microphone and got a shock through my whole body. The electricity shocked me. That’s a memory I’ll never forget, long as I live. We were like one out onstage.
The other I remember, I was in Canada. [A person] came up to one of [my] band members and said, “Can you ask Charles Bradley to talk with me?” The band member came to me and said, “Charles, that young man wants to talk to you.” I said, “What does he want to talk to me about?” [My bandmate] said, “Charles, I think you need to talk to him because he’s pretty upset.” I said I would speak to him after the show.
When I came offstage, the kid was standing right by the door. “Charles Bradley, please talk to me.” I said, “Young man, what is wrong? Why do you want me to talk to you?” He said, “I just lost my mom!”
I said, “Oh God, how old was your mom?”
“My mom was 57 years old.”
“How old are you, young man?”
“I just turned 18.”
I said, God, please tell me something to teach to this kid.
“Young man, sometimes in life, God brings an angel into the world, and he gives you all the love that angel can give you. But when that angel gives you all the love God told them to give you, God calls them home. Your mother, she gave you all the love and wisdom she had in her soul. She made you a leader to go forward to change the world and make it a better place, through the love she gave you. Now that you’ve got that love, her work was done. God called her home. Now it’s up to you to be strong, to keep the love and dignity and quality that God gave you to go forward. Don’t be a follower, be a leader.”
That kid just grabbed me and cried. I said, “I want you to go out into that world and be somebody and show the world the love God has stored in your heart.”