Charles Bradley’s late-life career renaissance
Charles Bradley sounds tired.
The gravelly voiced soul singer, who released his first LP, No Time for Dreaming, in 2011 at the age of 62, has had a whirlwind few years of recording and touring that stand in stark contrast to his nomadic prior life. He worked as a cook and did other odd jobs around the U.S. before settling in Brooklyn in 1997. Once firmly stationed in the borough, he began regularly performing as Black Velvet in a James Brown tribute act that he’d been perfecting since he was 14. His shows quickly grabbed the attention of the group behind Daptone Records, a label that would launch the retro-soul revival movement in the 2000s with acts like Sharon Jones, Lee Fields and eventually Bradley himself.
When we speak, he’s stationed at an Econo Lodge in Nashville for one of the opening dates of a four-month tour. That string of shows will bring him to the Pisgah Brewing outdoor stage on Thursday, May 8 — as well as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Houston International Festival and the Shaky Knees Music Festival in Atlanta. It’s hard to imagine this soft-spoken man making it through it all. “When I finish my shows, I just want to get alone,” he says. “I don’t really like to socialize too much. I just want to get my spirit together and get my mind and soul right to do it another day, because every time I do a show, I do it like it’s my last show.”
This is particularly puzzling because what makes Bradley’s music so attractive is the visceral emotion and pain he conveys in his cracking voice and wordless sighs, as most nights he ends up almost crying through some of the words as he invokes the ghosts of James Brown and Otis Redding in his performances. Viewers of the 2011 festival documentary Soul of America, which chronicles the singer’s story up to the release of his debut album, will see a man who has overcome illiteracy and a lifetime of poverty with nothing more than an aching sincerity and a love of music.
It’s that sincerity that allows him to stand in the shadow of the Godfather of Soul and think nothing of charting a solo career after a lifetime as an imitator. “I love [his] music, the band, the way the funkiness brings the depths out of my soul, but doing my own songs I feel a lot of truth inside me coming out,” Bradley says. “It’s much more emotional that doing James Brown. It’s painful sometimes — all of my songs have a picture behind them, and each time I sing them it brings me back to that moment [in my life].”
Still, it’s clear that it’s more than the exhausting music career that has taken its toll on the singer, both physically and psychologically. His mother, to whom he dedicated his post-1997 life after a lengthy estrangement, passed away earlier this year, and her memory is rarely far from Bradley’s thoughts. “She gives me the strength [I need] now,” he says as he recounts his memory of her passing. He was scheduled to play a sold-out show in Brooklyn the day she died, and was plagued by indecision on whether to cancel it. Eventually he went on, but “when I got to the stage I got choked up and couldn’t say anything,” he recalls. “I just had to push through it and open up my mind and feel the love of [the crowd]. And once I pulled everything out, I looked over in the corner, and it was like my mom was right there. I have to thank all my fans for pulling me out of the dark and bringing me into the light.”
This confession comes near the end of the interview, as if Bradley was building to this emotional climax as he would in song, and it’s tough to separate the man from the music he makes. With his mother gone, there seems to be little there besides his musical expression, as if he’s simply drawing into himself until the next time he’s onstage. “I just thank God that before I leave this Earth, I’m doing the thing I always really wanted to do,” he says.
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires
with The Broadcast and Bright Light Social Hour
Pisgah Brewing, pisgahbrewing.com
Thursday, May 8, 7:30 p.m.
$20 advance/$25 day or show