Charles Bradley: Heart and soul

TOM CARDY
Last updated 10:09 21/02/2014
Charles Bradley
SOUL SOUND: American singer Charles Bradley.

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Success and recognition have come late for American Charles Bradley. At 65, he only released his debut album three years ago. For decades he tried to make it as a singer - including years as a James Brown impersonator, or "duplicator", as Bradley likes to call it. But what makes Bradley's sudden switch to sexagenarian R&B and soul sensation is that he got this far.

Since the 60s he's also suffered periods of homelessness, poverty, depression and being barely literate. Much of Bradley's struggle is detailed in the 2012 feature documentary Charles Bradley Soul of America. It includes touching scenes of Bradley sleeping in the basement of his mother's house in Brooklyn, New York, when the pressure gets too much living by himself in the rough "projects" housing nearby.

The fear was genuine. His brother Joseph was shot dead on the street.

On the phone from New York, Bradley, in a deep, raspy voice, explains that he's at his mother's house and still sleeping in her basement. He no longer lives in the projects. But there's been a sad turn of events.

Bradley's elderly mother, who was a big part of the documentary, died last month. "Two days after my mom had passed I wanted to cancel a show," he says.

"I was told 'Charles, you have a sold-out concert. But if you want to cancel the show we will do that.' I locked myself in the basement and I thought: 'what would my mother really like me to do? Cancel a show and go to the basement and moan and cry and holler?' It's not going to make the people happy and it's not going to make me happy."

Bradley says he found the "spiritual strength" to still perform. During the show he asked for two minutes silence in memory of his mother. "Everybody in the place [was silent]. There were flowers and cards given to me. I thought 'Wow. Charles if you had sat in that basement, look at the love you would have missed.' They [the audience] kept me from crashing."

Bradley says he was also supported by musicians and friends who attended his mother's funeral. But it's still been tough going. He and his siblings discovered his mother had cancelled an insurance policy, leaving them just US$1200 (NZ$1450) to cover her funeral. Bradley stepped in.

"We had our ups and downs, but before she left this Earth I made my peace with her."

It's a coda to a fractious relationship with his mother, who abandoned the family when Bradley was a baby. He didn't see her again until he was 8 and by age 14 he was a homeless runaway. To keep warm at night in New York winters, he'd sleep in subway cars.

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Bradley later travelled to Maine, California, Alaska, and Canada doing odd jobs, or as a short-order cook. Some work colleagues joked that he looked like James Brown. Then for more than 20 years he performed at weekends as a James Brown impersonator called Black Velvet. He was rarely seen even outside shows without his James Brown wig.

Bradley first saw Brown play in 1962 and knew his family. He says it wasn't just Brown's music that inspired him, but the musician's attitude.

"He had no education. Knowing what he had to go through to get where he had to be, it gave me a a voice for myself. That's why I love the man so much."

Bradley's big break came via Brooklyn record label Daptone Records, best known for soul outfit Sharon Jones and her band the Dap Kings, which backed Amy Winehouse on her big selling Back to Black album. The feature documentary details some of the recording of Bradley's debut No Time for Dreaming, which sold well on release and catapulted Bradley to bigger audiences. Rolling Stone magazine named it as one of the best 50 albums of the year. Last year Bradley released his second album Victim of Love and is regularly on tour. After Wellington through to August he's got dates through Australia, the United States, Europe and Canada.

"I must have been doing something right. Somebody in this world really heard my cry. "Let's see what he's all about. Give him a chance'," Bradley says, reflecting on how much his life has changed in the past three years. "I took that chance and it was a small chance and made it into something big."

He knows it could have been so different. He remembers one of his lowest points when he was broke in up state New York where "a lot of Ku Klux Klan live". Sitting in a pizza parlour he contemplated suicide. "I was in so much pain, I thought 'what can I do to myself to get out of this pain?"' Then a stranger walked in and played The Eagles' Take it to the Limit on a jukebox. "I'm a very good listener of lyrics. It really saved my life."

But Bradley describes his success as "bittersweet". He says he told friends a few nights earlier that he felt he needed counselling. "Sometimes I feel so happy. Sometimes I feel down on my last lick and it hurts. But I have to stay focused within myself to keep myself going.

"I have an opportunity now to travel all over the world doing shows. But when I do these shows I've got to open my heart and give these people the love that they came to see me about. I carry my own cause and that's what I'm doing."

THE DETAILS Charles Bradley plays James Cabaret on Saturday and Sunday, 8.30pm.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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