He sounds weathered, worn out. It’s tough to reconcile this voice with the one that moans and shouts with such conviction on No Time for Dreaming. But this is the man, sho’nuff.
Rousted from a nap, Charles Bradley is a little groggy—“I was just dozin’ off”—but certainly not foggy. When asked for details on a bio scrap that mentions hitchhiking with a killer, he launches right into the tale. It’s remarkable how much he recalls from his 63 years. Then again, some stories tattoo themselves on your mind.
Bradley’s music has that effect.
Like Bettye LaVette, the 63-year-old soul singer came up in obscurity. He sang when he could, knocked ’em out when he did, but always wound up in a dim corner. Unlike LaVette, who found Euro-circuit fame, Bradley mostly worked as a chef in New York, Alaska, California and finally back in New York, where he quit the kitchens but really started to cook.
At 51, he got up and gigged as Black Velvet, a James Brown act. Then his brother was gunned down, and Bradley considered giving up.
That’s when Daptone Records stepped in and plucked Bradley from the blue-black depths. As labelmates Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and The Budos Band formed a new wave of funk and soul, Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth paired Bradley with The Sugarman 3 and then the Menahan Street Band for several singles. The buzz rose in pitch until Bradley and the MSB released Dreaming this year. Now Bradley is a certified soul legend—the “Screaming Eagle of Soul.”
It’s the voice, but also Bradley’s life and perspective, that gets to you. He sings about his brother on “The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” but instead of addressing it directly, Bradley writes generally about conflict, appealing for brotherhood. Even “No Time for Dreaming” isn’t explicitly about himself; Bradley’s aim is to be good to people. Like the man who gave him a ride.
“The guy kept lookin’ at me. I’m tired; I’m tryin’ to go to sleep,” Bradley recalls. After a spell, the stranger said, “I know you’re wonderin’ who I am, right?” Bradley, who calls himself “a very honest man,” said, “Not really. But what’s up?”
The stranger told him what was up.
“Oh God … I got scared,” says Bradley, wide-awake now. The man had caught his wife cheating with his boss, and, during the confrontation, she told him he was worthless. He awoke the next day, snapped, shot up his workplace, and then his family. He said he just wanted to tell his side of the story and urged Bradley to sleep, saying he’d wake him up before their paths diverged.
“I was still a little nervous,” says Bradley, “but I slept.” The man kept his word, telling Bradley, “Keep goin.’ You’re a good person. I hope you can understand [my situation].”
“I could relate to him,” Bradley says. Bradley hadn’t killed anyone, but years ago, while working at a restaurant, a dispute with white coworkers led to one attacking him. Bradley fought back, and, when the police came, he was made the culprit. He spent 15 days in jail and, upon returning to the restaurant, was treated like a dangerous criminal. That murderer had been done wrong and reacted badly; Bradley was in a similar situation and felt the same frustration, but clearly he handled it better.
As he tells this story, real sirens sound in the background.
“That’s why I say we need to bring back the golden rule,” says Bradley, referencing a song from Dreaming. People just need to show each other kindness and sympathy; that’s what he was doing with the murderer —when others would’ve jumped from the moving car. It brings to mind a line from “Golden Rule”: “Now you know what I’m talkin’ about/ Now you feel my heart—and know I’m for real.”
The State Room, 638 S. State
Saturday, Sept. 10, 9 p.m., $17