Interview: Charles Bradley
By Kyle Mullin
Photo credit: Kisha Bari
Charles Bradley threw back the curtains, wincing and squinting into the throbbing glare of red and blue. Five cop cars were parked outside. This time they weren’t there for him—but he soon wished they had come for that reason, or any other.
The aged soul singer wails like a siren about that fateful day on his signature song, “Heartaches and Pain,” the lyrics capturing his anguish as he bounded outside to confront those officers.
“I ran next door to my brother, Joseph’s, house. The detective told me not to go in there, but I just pushed my way in. And I wish to God today that I would’ve listed to that detective then,” Bradley tells FPH over the phone (in the leadup to his performance at Fitzgerald’s on Sept. 27), before pausing, then slowly adding: “Because when my brother got shot that day, the robbers, they shot him with a hollow point bullet, and his brain was outside of his head. And when I saw that, I just went completely psycho. I didn’t know how to take it.”
He eventually found a way to cope, but it seemed exploitive at first. And, even worse, that remedy chafed his soul’s wounds while they were still raw.
“I was really in mournin’, I didn’t know what to do about my life. I was closed up to the world and didn’t want to be bothered with nobody,” Bradley says, before revealing the one person who was an exception. “Tom called me, and he said ‘Charles, listen here, I moved from Staten Island and I’m doing a recording now, let’s meet up.’ He gave me chance, I came to where he was at, and it was on.”
He’s referring to Tom Brenneck, a guitarist at soul revivalist label Daptone Records. He’d been introduced to Bradley by one of the label’s heads, who had seen the elder amateur belt out cover songs at dive bars. Bradley, under the moniker “Black Velvet,” wowed them both again and again with swaggering, sweltering renditions of James Brown hits. Now he was about to drop the imitation act and make a name of his own, with a retro debut album at the literally vintage age of 64.
But after years of longing for such a shot at fame, Bradley found himself hesitating—and choking back the tears for his murdered brother.
“At that time I really needed somebody to open up to, I just kept it to myself walking up them streets,” he says of the brief but agonizing period before Brenneck’s studio invitation, which soon turned therapeutic. “Tom told me to tell him a little about it, he got a little tape recorder, and I started lookin’ at him strange. He said:
‘No Charles, you got something right to say to the world.’
I said, ‘How am I gonna say it to the world?’
He said ‘We’re gonna record an album together.’
I said ‘Man, I can’t get up on stage and start singin’ my life story, I’ll break down every time.’
And he said ‘Charles, I think you got to do this.’”
Bradley gave in, writing lyrics that evoked his emotional turmoil, while sparing the gory details, for “Heartaches and Pain.” The wrenching number became a center piece of sorts for his debut, 2011’s No Time for Dreaming. Critics compared Bradley to James Brown, Otis Redding, and other greats that should have been his peers. The disc was brimming with retrograde gems that were actually brand new originals—but the public couldn’t get enough of “Heartaches.” And Bradley couldn’t manage to even give them every verse.
“I didn’t want to sing it because of my brother, so I’d skip the lyrics,” Bradley says, adding that he was eventually yanked offstage by his younger mentor. “Tom’d lay into me. And I’d say ‘Tom, I can’t sing it, I’m getting’ choked up.’ He said ‘Charles you gotta find a way to push that aside.’ I thank him for that, the push he gave me. He said, ‘Get out there and do what you do.’”
“They called me back on stage,” Bradley says of the audience that was so sweetly emphatic that night. “The people were so gracious, so I said ‘God, give me the spirit to sing this song the way I feel it.’”
He somehow choked back the tears, crooning, moaning, heaving the verses out. But it was the hardest thing Bradley had ever had to do, not only because of the still searing memories that sparked that song— but also because music had always been his refuge from agony, not the cause of it.
Time and again, Bradley had needed music to distract him from literal bruises. But one night left him fearing he’d have no way to hear another note, thanks to the beating he took.
Decades before Brenneck’s birth, much less their stint together in the studio, Bradley was working odd jobs in the burrows that birthed him—Brooklyn. After one of his all too long shifts as a demolition worker, Bradley slowly made his way home.
“I was dirty, funky as you want to be,” he says of the memory with a snort, as if the odor still lingers in his nostrils. “Then two guys came across the street, hit me in the head with a pipe. My right ear came off.”
As his adrenaline spiked and he struggled to stand, one of the attackers jabbed at Bradley’s jaw. A passerby hollered out and the next thing Bradley knew, the assailants were gone, and he was in the hospital, with that fragment of his ear stitched back in place and his hearing, miraculously, intact.
One of those instances occurred when he was living in San Francisco. A neighbor from down hall, who had bartered with Bradley for a pair of his speakers earlier, started begging to ride shotgun.
“I came home and parked the car, stressed from work. I was a cook at the time,” Bradley says, before detailing his neighbor’s misdeeds. “I just wanted to go to the beach and sit alone, but he got in the car. We stopped at a red light and he pulled out a bottle. I said ‘You can’t do that man, the police!’ I got mad, turned around, told him to get out.”
‘He said ‘Why you actin’ that way with me? I’m not giving money for speakers, call the cops, they won’t believe you.’ He was white. I was black.”
Sure enough, the authorities ignored Bradley’s accusations. Before long, he bolted down the hall and banged on that neighbor’s door.
“I said ‘Give me my stereo.’ He said ‘I’m not giving you nothing.’ Then the guy living with him came at me with a knife. I stepped aside, pushed him and sliced him in the arm.”
Bradley served 25 days in jail and three years probation for inflicting that cut, with no speakers to show for it. But he insists that he kept on paying for that transgression, and deserved every bit of it.
“I punished myself for stabbing him, now I’m gonna tell you how I collect for my sins,” he says, pausing for a breath before barrelling on. “My left arm, I cut my left hand off on the grinder at work. My left hand was hanging off. I served 25 days and didn’t cut him (his neighbor’s friend) no stitches. Then I got cut again, the grinder got me in the chest and just missed my heart, cut underneath my neck just missed my vocal chord.”
“So when I do something wrong out of anger, I look at myself and say ‘You deserve what you got.’ Now I forgive myself, I shouldn’tve got angry. Those speakers were a material thing. That’s when I knew, your verdict will always come to you.”
The police’s negligence, after Bradley’s complaints about the stereo, paled in comparison to what a few other officers burdened him with as a boy.
“I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve seen what state troopers do to you back in those days,” he says of a certain juvenile encounter with the authorities, as he roamed around small town Florida on his own. “I’ve seen what police men do, I saw the way they treated me, how they took me back in the woods, and did what’s not right to talk about. Years later I told my mother about it, and she told me to trust in God. She told me, ‘What that person did to you, God sees everything.’”
Today Bradley cares for his 80-year-old mother—he was living with her the day of his brother’s murder. But as a boy, she was never there for him. He stayed with his grandmother in Florida until he turned eight years old when, out of nowhere, his mother returned and kidnapped him back.
“I was wrong about her for a long time, God forgive me,” Bradley admits about his mother. “When she was wild, she did not know what she was doing. She used to get angry so bad, I don’t want to mention what she done. But eventually I said ‘Mom let’s forget about the past. I don’t want you to leave this world before I know you. So she talks to me now. I know her now.”
Part of what helped Bradley forgive her was the steadfast support she showed him later on, as if she suddenly recant all those years of neglect. After a stint in the job corps and months of hitchhiking, Bradley found a few companions that shared his love of funk and soul. They started a band together, which he insists is the best he’s played with to this day.
“What brought my mother back into my heart was, when we went to the studio, she worked to support us. She sent $80 a week every two weeks, and she had to pay half that much to rent,” Bradley says, adding that he eventually went home to return the favor after his bandmates got drafted in the Vietnam War. Apparently, he got back just in time. “I saw Ma had this rash, she was stuck in bed. I said:
‘Mom, we gotta get you to the hospital.’
She said ‘We don’t got no food in this house.’
“So I took some alcohol and put it on her leg. The next day she got out of bed and fell, paralysed all the way through her body. She was in the hospital for six months after that, rabies had nearly took her body. From that day forward I said, ‘Mom, whatever you done, you can’t be punished like this all your life. I’m gonna show you my love.”
His mother may have supported him financially during that initial studio dabbling, but Bradley ended up leaning on his brother even harder, at least on an intellectual level.
“Joseph, we always called him a bookworm. He loved to read. Read read read read,” Bradley says, before admitting that teasing stemmed from envy. “I’d always try to follow him when he was reading. I don’t know why, but every time I come to one of them big words, and I can’t sound it out. I get hurt and mad at it. I think because I wanna know the word and I can’t get it out of me. And Joe, he’d help me break it down to a level I could understand.”
But hidden in that hurdle is his gift for simplicity. One of the reasons that Brenneck and the others at Daptone were so blown away by their early collaborations with Bradley is because he’d make up lyrics on the spot. And his stream of consciousness flows so freely because it seeps out—clean and clear, pure and essential, unsophisticated as drops of water.
“When I sing ‘how long must I keep going on?’ They understand that,” Bradley says of the chorus from one of his debut’s standout tracks. “I can put my words and my emphasis on that but if I start to learn how to use big jolly words for a lot of educated people, what about the people living on the bottom, that never had an education? I gotta do it so everyone can understand it, so my song can help a simple spirit.”
Charles Bradley will perform at Fitzgerald’s tonight. Doors at 8 pm. Click here to learn more.