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Sat February 26, 2011
Music Interviews

Charles Bradley: A James Brown Impersonator Finds His Own Voice

Originally published on Tue April 2, 2013 10:12 am

A 62-year-old soul singer, Charles Bradley has a story you can hear in his voice. But for most of his life, he wasn't a singer.

Born in 1948, Bradley spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn. One day, his sister invited him to come to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where she was going to see James Brown. At the time, Bradley didn't know who Brown was, but his sister offered to pay his way.

"He had those strobe lights and effects lights on him," Bradley says of the moment Brown came running on stage. "And I said, 'Oh my god, I want to be like that.' "

Bradley went home and practiced Brown's signature mic-swing move, using a broom attached to a string. He was eager to perform, but had no clear outlet for his musical curiosity. As he grew up and left home, music remained in the back of his mind.

Bradley spent 10 years in Maine as a cook. When he grew restless, he set off across the continent, stopping through Seattle, Canada and Alaska before settling in California. There, Bradley struggled to make ends meet, and when he'd finally saved up enough money to buy a house, he was suddenly laid off from the job he'd held for 17 years. Out of options, he moved back to Brooklyn to live with his mother.

Living A Dormant Dream

It was there that Bradley finally returned to music, performing a James Brown act in nightclubs that actually made him a living. But there was more heartache around the corner. One night, he looked out his front window to see police cars and a van marked "MORGUE." The victim was his brother Joe, who lived a few doors down and had just been shot and killed.

Bradley again found himself down and out. Then came an unexpected break: Gabriel Roth, co-founder of the independent funk and soul label Daptone Records, happened to catch his James Brown act one night. Roth introduced Bradley to Tom Brenneck, a young producer and musician on the label. Brenneck and his band invited Bradley to one of their rehearsals.

"I was feeling good, had a couple of drinks," Bradley says. "I said, 'Just play anything — as long as it's funky. I can make some words up to it.' "

Brenneck says he remembers that rehearsal clearly.

"I was just like, 'Oh my god, this guy is feeling it,' " Brenneck says. "He had never been himself before. He had never been encouraged to search for his own song."

Brenneck and Bradley spent several years working on songs together — including one called "Heartaches and Pain," in memory of Bradley's brother Joe — before settling on 10 keepers. The resulting album, released by Daptone last month, is titled No Time for Dreaming. Bradley says his own life story inspired the title.

"I'm gonna say it's all right to dream, but work at it — make it come to reality," Bradley says. "It took 62 years for somebody to find me, but I thank God. Some people never get found."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Sixty-two-year-old Charles Bradley has a story you can hear in his voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Why Is It So Hard")

Mr. CHARLES BRADLEY (Singer): (Singing) Why is it so hard to make it in America?

RAZ: That voice was discovered by a record executive who happened to pop into a Brooklyn nightclub about two years ago. And he couldn't believe that the man singing, Charles Bradley, was unknown. Because most of his life Charles Bradley wasn't a singer. He had to make ends meet. But after 62 years in obscurity, his debut album, "No Time for Dreaming," has just been released. It's the story of his life and his struggles and it blew us away when we first heard it.

(Soundbite of song, "Why Is It So Hard")

Mr. BRADLEY: (Singing) ...help me somebody.

RAZ: What is it like to hear yourself on a record?

Mr. BRADLEY: I just said it'd been a long time coming.

RAZ: A long time indeed. Charles Bradley was born in Brooklyn in 1948. One afternoon when he was a kid, his sister said she was going to the Apollo Theater...

(Soundbite of yelling)

RAZ: ...to see James Brown.

Mr. BRADLEY: And when he had those strobe lights and they had those (unintelligible) lights on him, James Brown came and ran on the stage and I said, oh my God, I want to be like that.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Late Singer): (Singing) ...sweet darling...

RAZ: Charles went home and practiced James Brown's signature mike swing move. He used a broom attached to a string.

(Soundbite of song, "I Found Someone")

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) I found someone...

RAZ: He had a good voice but no connections, no way to capture anyone's attention with it. So, as a young man, Charles left New York and he went to Maine to find work as a short order cook.

Mr. BRADLEY: But my music always pulling on me. And, you know, I just said, God, I want to do my music.

RAZ: After almost 10 years working in a kitchen, he quit his job, he got rid of a car he couldn't afford.

Mr. BRADLEY: That's enough.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRADLEY: That's enough. I'm free, I don't owe nobody and I'm going to hitchhike this road until I find my opportunities.

RAZ: Charles went off to hitchhike across the country.

(Soundbite of song, "How Long")

Mr. BRADLEY: (Singing) How long must I be going on...

Kept going, kept going. I had some hardships.

RAZ: He made it out to the west coast.

Mr. BRADLEY: California, then I was in Seattle, Washington, San Francisco.

RAZ: And then he hitched a ride with two men all the way north.

Mr. BRADLEY: Toronto, Canada.

RAZ: But at the age of 51, Charles Bradley returned to Brooklyn and to music, as well. He started doing a James Brown act in nightclubs. He was making a bit of money, he was close to his family again. Things were looking pretty good -that is until the night Bradley's brother was shot dead.

Mr. BRADLEY: The night before my brother got killed, I was walking through his hallway and he grabbed me and he hold me. He said, Charles, he said, bro, I love you. You're always showing love to me, Charles. And I said, Joe, I wish I could be something like you. He said, no, bro, be you. You're sweet and I love you in my heart, Charles. And he hold me and he wouldn't let me go. I said, Joe, what's wrong with you? I said, I'll see you tomorrow, bro, and I went up and got in my bed.

And then my mother came knock on my door and she said, son, what is all those policemen outside? I said, I don't know, ma. But my bed is by that window, so I push the drapes. I look out. I said, oh my God? What is this? Six, seven police cars, fire trucks. This van's has morgue...

(Soundbite of song, "Heartaches and Pain")

Mr. BRADLEY: (Singing) Your brother is gone...

RAZ: Charles Bradley wrote this song, "Heartaches and Pain," about his brother Joe.

(Soundbite of song, "Heartaches and Pain")

Mr. BRADLEY: (Singing) Heartaches and pain...

It took 11 years for me to write this song.

(Soundbite of song, "Heartaches and Pain")

Mr. BRADLEY: (Singing) ...heartaches and pain.

RAZ: After Joe died, Charles went into a depression. It took him a while to get back to performing but one night while doing his James Brown act under the stage name Black Velvet, a co-founder of the indie label Daptone Records saw him on stage and that led to a meeting with Tom Brenneck. He's a young producer and musician on the label.

Mr. TOM BRENNECK (Producer, Musician): You know, I was maybe 19 or 20 at the time...

RAZ: And Tom Brenneck had a band. And he soon invited Charles to a rehearsal.

Mr. BRADLEY: I feeling good, had a little couple of drinks, and they gave me the mike. I said just play anything as long as it's funky.

Mr. BRENNECK: And that I remember so vividly because I was just like, oh my God, this guy is feeling it. This guy is the real deal. He had never been himself before. He had never been encouraged to search for his own song. So, maybe I was the first person to come along into Charles's life and say, Charles, you don't have one song to sing, you have like a hundred songs to sing. And we spent a couple of years and we wrote 10 together.

(Soundbite of song, "No Time for Dreaming")

Mr. BRADLEY: (Singing) No time for dreaming. Got get on up and do my thing...

I'm going to say it's all right to dream but work at it, make it come to reality, 'Cause you can sit and dream about it; just go on with your dream. Took 62 years for somebody to find me but I thank God. Some people never be found.

RAZ: Charles Bradley. His debut album, co-written with producer Tom Brenneck is called "No Time for Dreaming."

(Soundbite of song, "No Time for Dreaming")

Mr. BRADLEY: (Singing) Not (unintelligible) yonder. Wake up. You'll get your break. No time for dreaming...

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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