Charles Bradley: Through hell and back
In a cramped kitchen in Brooklyn, New York, a soul singer is making soul food. "I'm fixin' my moms something good to eat," growls Charles Bradley over a clatter of cutlery, his voice an asthmatic rasp pitched somewhere between Louis Armstrong and Darth Vader. "I'm makin' her dinner, you know. My moms loves my cooking. When I'm not on tour, I live in her basement so I can take care of her."
In which case, his mother must spend a lot of time on her own. Bradley is almost always on tour these days. After decades of plugging away in obscurity, his singing career has really taken off, and the man they call The Screaming Eagle of Soul is now in high demand.
"You're telling me! I just done 37 shows back-to-back, with only a few days off in between. But I never once slacked off the pace. That would be unfair. I know people spent their hard-earned money on a ticket, so no matter how tired I be, I give them the show they deserve."
Local audiences can judge Bradley's live performance for themselves when he plays two gigs in the New Zealand Festival in Wellington in late February.
With crack Brooklyn session band The Extraordinaires at his back, he promises a near religious experience. The spirit will move up out of him and fill the room, he tells me.
When they hear his voice, people will be able to feel what sort of life he's had, and if they listen to his lyrics, they'll find out how he survived despite the odds.
But really, he's just overjoyed that anybody cares. If there's one feeling that comes through strongly when talking to Bradley, it's gratitude.
Here's a man who imagined his life would stay tough right to the end. He expected to die as he had lived: Tired, poor and lonely. Entire decades went by when it was difficult to get people interested enough to cross the street and walk into a bar to listen to him.
Now they're queueing up to see him on the other side of the world.
"I still find it amazing, to be honest with you. To have success come my way so late is bittersweet. I wish I'd gotten noticed earlier, but I gotta thank God I finally got an opportunity to do what I love before I leave this world for the next one. It's great that the world got to know me as a singer before I passed on."
Born in Florida, Bradley has the kind of hard luck backstory that record company marketing departments usually have to invent to lend street cred to their artists.
It's all there. Poverty, homelessness, serious illness, murder.
A personal revelation after witnessing the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, burning up the stage at the famous Harlem Apollo. Decades of dues paid, sweating it out in spangly lycra jumpsuits in dive bars. And then, salvation, after discovery by a band of young white Brooklyn beatniks.
Now 64, Bradley was abandoned by his mother as a baby and didn't see her again until he was 8. By the age of 14, he was a homeless runaway, spending two years sleeping in deserted subway cars each night.
Later, he bounced around between Maine, Canada, California and Alaska, working minimum wage jobs as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital and short-order cook.
For more than 20 years, he earned chump change playing weekend gigs as a James Brown impersonator named black velvet. the bands behind him were of varying quality, but bradley gave his all as a frontman, channelling his considerable pain into the music.
He grunted. He hollered. He testified. He dropped to his knees while howling out broken-hearted ballads and shrugged off bejewelled capes between encores, just like his musical hero, and figured he'd keep right on doing it until he fell exhausted into an early grave.
And then one day Bradley's luck changed.
He caught the ear of Daptone Records founder Gabe Roth, who hooked him up with Brooklyn Retro-Soul collective the Menahan Street Band.
A few years later came 2011 debut album No Time For Dreaming, which offset Bradley's raw, yearning voice with a dozen Stax-style instrumentals that were gritty enough to delight soul purists while retaining sufficient contemporary production sheen to snare curious hipsters.
While his vocal style remained a little too indebted to James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, the album established Bradley as a top shelf live act, equally comfortable playing intimate soul clubs or huge stages on the European summer festival circuit.
A more stylistically diverse follow-up album, Victim of Love, appeared on Daptone earlier this year.
"I admit, it took me some time to find my own voice. You know, my sister Virginia took me to see James Brown play in 1962 and it changed my life. I realised him and me were moved by the same spirit, and for a long while I sang just like him, but I never classified myself as an impersonator; I was a duplicator. But then I found my own sound. Used to be I channelled my soul through James Brown, but now I found a way to do it as Charles Bradley."
Is Bradley surprised his music has connected so strongly with a modern audience, given that it's firmly rooted in the kind of soul and funk sound people were listening to five decades ago? Not at all, he says, as he prods a few sizzling ingredients around a hot pan. Music back then was just plain better.
"Any good music these days is just tappin' off the old-school sound, even if they doin' it with computers. That soul sound of the 50s, 60s and 70s will never die. That sound is the foundation for everything that followed, because people feel the realness in it. It bounces off the walls and hits their soul when they hear it, and they feel it way down deep. Music is like food; when you taste something and it's delicious, you don't question how it got made or how old the recipe is - you just want more, you know. You can't get enough of it."
As for his own songs, they're mostly about hope in the face of hardship, and faith as a salve for pain. It's his autobiography, set to music.
When he makes a new record he goes into the studio, listens through the latest tunes his band has cooked up, and the lyrics just flow out of him like tears, inspired by stories from his own life.
"Music is my way of telling the truth. I been through hell and back. Moms left me, and I never had no childhood to speak of. I done jobs where they only gave me pennies so I could hardly cover rent or buy food, with the boss always threatening to fire me. I almost died from bein' allergic to penicillin, and my brother Joseph was shot dead just down the street from my mama's house where I'm talkin' to you today. A lot of those difficulties ended up in my lyrics, so the world can see what kind of man I am and how I responded to the trials I've been through."
What comes next? More records, he hopes. More tours.
"Onwards and upwards, you know."
He still doesn't have a whole lot of money, but has performed with Stevie Wonder, and had his records sampled by Jay-Z.
A documentary about his turbulent life - Poull Brien's Charles Bradley: Soul of America - toured film festivals last year, and has just come out on DVD. And he recently saved enough money to buy a van so he could do odd jobs between tours ("A real good one, too. From 2008!").
Bradley may be still living in his elderly mother's basement in a poor part of town but, by his own estimation, he's more successful than he ever dreamed possible.
Through it all, his music has remained a kind of worship, both for himself and for the increasingly large audiences who turn up to hear him sing.
"When you sing real good, it's like an out-of-body experience. You can feel your soul fly out of you. You look out on people's faces at a live show and it's a little like bein' in church. It's an outlet for everybody's emotions, you know? The audience got their own hurts, so they relate to you when you sing. If you grew in the church like I did back in the day, that was your escape from all the painful and corrupted things in the outside world. Whether you rich or poor, church was a place concerned with love and compassion and dignity, and you could go in there and moan and groan and sing out your true feelings and bare your soul. Now I moan and groan my own truth to the world through my music, and people who come along can take something from it, whether they believe in God or not. I think that's important work for a man to be doing."
Charles Bradley performs at Wellington's James Cabaret on February 22 and 23 as part of the 2014 New Zealand Festival. Tickets via Ticketek and further info at nzfestival.co.nz.
Sunday Star Times