Interview: Charles Bradley Channels James Brown & Past Struggles During his Unmissable Live Shows
By Shannon Carlin
For all those fans stuck in the nosebleeds, Charles Bradley is singing to you.
At every show he’s ever played, the 65-year-old soul singer—who kicks off a month-long U.S. tour tonight (Jan. 16) in Washington, D.C.—has made it his goal to reach out and touch those people in the way, way back of the venue. Sometimes literally, as Bradley makes it a nightly ritual to head out into the crowd and hug those fans who seem like they’re in desperate need of one.
“Sometimes I can really, actually look in their faces and see the hurt. I walk out on stage and see that person and hug that person,” Bradley told Radio.com. “I try to hug all I can…Sometimes my tour manager has to get me, ‘Charles, come down. It’s time to go.’ I just really want to hug everybody.”
Growing up, Bradley was abandoned by his mom and later ran away from home due to poor living conditions. He never could afford front row tickets, so now he feels it’s his duty to connect with those who shell out as much as they can to see him do his thing on stage. His “thing” being a revival of what James Brown was doing in the ’60s and ’70s. We’re talking rhinestone leisure suits and microphone tricks that make us want to get out the cape. Not that Bradley’s act is all that surprising, being that he got his musical start in the late ’90s as Black Velvet, a James Brown impersonator.
Bradley first saw the Godfather of Soul perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when he was just 14 years old. “I saw him and was like ‘Whoa,’” Bradley said. “The way he got onstage, the way he gave his all, it made me realize, if you’re going to do something, you have to give it your all.” So that night after the show, young Charles went home and tied a mop to a string so he could practice Brown’s patented bouncing mic trick. Now, over 50 years later, Bradley has it down to a science.
The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Gainesville, Florida performer’s shows can best be described as raw and sweaty. Bradley’s music seems to seep out of his every pore, making it draining to even watch him tear through crowd favorites like “Heartaches and Pain.” That track, off his 2011 Daptone Records debut, No Time For Dreaming, was written in honor of his older brother, who was murdered more than a decade ago, two doors down from where his mother — who Bradley reunited with when he was in his late 40s — was living at the time. It’s the first song Bradley wrote for the album and one of his favorites, though he admits it’s often hard to perform.
“When you see me turn like this,” Bradley said, hiding his face behind his hand. “That’s me getting emotional. But it’s also me getting up the courage to turn around and sing.”
He also likes performing “Not Loving You Baby” off his debut because of the feedback he’s gotten from fans, most of whom tell him that they got married to that song or that they had their kids because of that song. “It brings a lot of love out of people,” Bradley said laughing. “I get myself in trouble with that song.”
But whether he’s dealing with heartbreak or fading love, he’s bound to let loose that beautiful scream that helped earn him the nickname, “The Screaming Eagle of Soul.” “There’s so many hundreds of words coming to me all at once. All of them I’m feeling, but I can’t say it. I scream it,” Bradley explained of his signature vocal trick. “It’s so sweet, it hurts.”
Bradley’s unfailing commitment to his act, which, by the looks of it, seems to have him channeling every emotion he has ever felt all at the same time, takes a toll on the sexagenarian’s aging body. His schedule last year not only included touring behind his 2013 album Victim of Love, but traveling in support of his documentary, Charles Bradley: Soul of America, which focuses on the months leading up to the release of his first record at age 62. Bradley isn’t one to complain though. “Like a glass of wine, it get better in time,” he said with a smile. “I always say that.”
He does have those days where his body just doesn’t seem to want to cooperate. But, he says, it’s not fair to his fans to cancel a show. “Sometimes the body don’t want to do it, but I tell the body ‘no,’” he explained. “I’m tired, but I see the people out there, all coming to see who I am. Uh-uh, I can’t stop. I have to give them all the love I have.”
Bradley spent most of his life trying to become a singer, so he doesn’t take his newfound fame for granted. He overcame poverty and homelessness, taking residence in Alaska, California and Maine before settling down in Brooklyn. He worked countless jobs including a cooking gig at a mental hospital in upstate NY. These are all things Bradley glosses over during our conversation, simply referring to them as his “past troubles.” But now he believes that all the struggle and pain has finally paid off and every time he gets on stage he’s paying it forward to those who could use a little hope.
“You can’t erase that pain, you learn to live with it,” Bradley said of his past. “I see the good it’s doing for people out there, that pain that I carry, but in that pain comes truth. I had to go through that hurt to get that strength.”