Charles Bradley pours tragic life into soul-searing music

It wasn’t until he was in his sixties that Charles Bradley had the resources and support to finally record his debut album. That 2011 release, “No Time for Dreaming” (Dunham/Daptone), is essentially his autobiography, the story of a soul man-in-waiting, of perseverance in the face of death, poverty and ill fortune.

“A lot of things are starting to change,” said Bradley of the album’s impact on his life. “I’m still living in the projects (in Brooklyn). I still don’t make enough money to move out. But I don’t want to go back to the streets. I stay within my budget. I lived in the streets for three years when I was a kid and every day I didn’t know where my next meal would come from. But I was determined not to sit around and watch my life deteriorate. I kept reaching out in hope and honesty that someone would find me. I never gave up hope. I fell flat on my face and got up again. Now things are starting to look up. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. I’m 63 now, and I need to take care of myself so that I can continue to perform at my best.”

“No Time for Dreaming” is steeped in the old-school soul that Bradley has been performing all his life, when he first saw James Brown perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and glimpsed his future. With their tight, horn-splashed rhythms and taut narratives, Bradley’s songs speak to a life of hardship but are tinged by hope. They’re sung in a voice that sounds as if it’s breaking free of a straitjacket. The album was recorded in collaboration with guitarist Thomas Brenneck and his Menahan Street Band, whom Bradley met a few years ago after decades working as a short-order cook in locations from Maine to Alaska while moonlighting on weekends in a James Brown cover band. Now he’s working regularly performing his original material and headlining clubs throughout the world, including Metro on Saturday.

Here are a few excerpts from a long interview with the singer about his remarkable life:

On the role of music in his life: “I’ve never been married. I’m married to my music. Since I left home at 14, I was determined to make some money for myself or die trying. I wouldn’t put any kids through the things I’ve been through. Music is what I always liked in life. I was always good at oil painting, art. I always liked to do make things unique, make it look finished. My uncle always told me, ‘Whatever you do, do it neat, clean, make it look good. If you do that, you got life licked.’”

On the impact of James Brown: “In 1962 my sister Virginia took me to see him at the Apollo. He showed me what I wanted to be. His band gave James what he needed to open his soul. If the music is hitting me strong, my soul will open up and come out. I can watch my spirit come out on stage -- I have an out-of-body experience. It’s like you’re watching your body go through these changes. I get to that zone a lot, and when I come off I return to reality.”

On his life off stage: “When I do get free time, I run and hide, to gain my strength to face the world again.”

On how he started performing: “When I was in the Job Corps, I had my first band. They said I looked like James Brown. I had learned two of his songs, and they asked me to sing. We weren’t supposed to be drinking in the Job Corps, but they would give me a little gin, vodka, and that fired me up to sing. We had battles of the bands, and we always came in first place. The Job Corps gave me money to buy stage clothes, but the guys in the band went to fight in the Vietnam War and the war broke us up. I graduated from the Job Corps, took a job in upstate New York at a hospital for the mentally ill, and I worked there for nine years. After that, I hitch-hiked around the country, working with different bands for chump change on weekends.”

On how he got “discovered”: “A guy who ended up becoming my manager for a time saw me perform in New York, and I was introduced to Gabriel Roth (the head of Daptone Records). Gabe introduced me to Tom Brenneck, who had a band in Staten Island that was looking for a singer. Tom invited me over to rehearse. They were more of a rock band looking for a soulful singer, and I said, ‘Play it funky and the lyrics will come to me naturally.’ They played it, I felt it. I liked this guy. I kept coming back.”

On the inspiration for his songs: “My life. My older brother got killed about 14 years ago, and I went into a deep depression. He was like a father, a friend. I was in my momma’s house (in Brooklyn) in my room, and she says, ‘What are all those police cars doing outside?’ I threw some water on my face and ran out the door. A hot wind went through my heart, like a burning sensation. A woman who lived down the street grabbed my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t go in that house.’ I said I have to see my brother. I sat on the stoop at this lady’s house and I saw my brother’s wife come out of their apartment. ‘Clarice, what’s wrong.’ ‘Joe’s dead.’ I was on my knees, screaming. My mom said, ‘Get in our house, I can’t take losing two boys.’ I went into my bed and pulled the covers over my head like a little boy and for four or five minutes I was just praying, ‘God, let this be a dream. Is there something I can correct in my own life to make this not be true?’ Then I saw a blue van pull up with the word ‘morgue’ on the side, and then it hit me. ‘Oh, God, no, no.’ I went back out and a detective was pleading with me not to go in and look at my brother’s body, to remember him as he was. But I didn’t listen. He was shot with a hollow-point bullet in the head. Seeing that, I lost my mind.”

On making a record for the first time: “I came over to Tom’s house because I needed a friend, somebody to talk to about my brother. Tom fixed me a hot toddy, we were on his patio, and he said we should write a song about it. I was hesitant to do anything. We sat at the piano and the words just spilled out. That was the song ‘Heartaches and Pain.’ When the album first came out and they said I needed to tour to sing these songs, I would skip lyrics that bothered me the most on stage. Tom said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I told him, ‘You didn’t have to live through it the way I did.’ It bothered me so much I wanted to quit. But Tom said, ‘Charles, find a way to put that hurt aside some way, and push yourself to sing it, because the more you sing it, the better you’ll feel about it.’ He’s the deepest person I’ve met in some ways. He was right. We did a show last week and I thanked him for saying that to me. I said, ‘I don’t know how you found that in me. I don’t know how you believed in me that much, but I’m glad you did.’ ”

Charles Bradley: 9 p.m. Saturday at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., $17;

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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