In hindsight, it would’ve been tragic if Dap King and Daptone co-owner Gabe Roth hadn’t approached soul singer Charles Bradley in a small New York club nearly a decade ago. The payoff came on the 62 year-old’s debut, this spring’s No Time For Dreaming, a record that initiated a wider audience to his James Brown meets Otis Redding vocal stylings. While his lyrics often delve into some of dark and grittier events of his past, Bradley remains grateful and humble for the recent success that has caused some to anoint him as one of he beacons of modern soul music.
As excellent as the past six months have been for him — performing with the Menahan Street Band for adoring crowds in Europe and Australia — Bradley seems more inspired than ever and has already begun work on his second album. I caught up with him before a sold-out show in Los Angeles, where he mesmerized the crowd with his dancing and stage antics, and repeatedly told them “I love you!” as if they had come out to throw him a surprise birthday party. We discussed his roots and background as a singer, his other career choices over the years, how he became aligned with Daptone Records, and his feelings about modern popular music. — Aaron Frank
AF: Prior to meeting the guys from Daptone and Menahan Street Band, had any other labels or producers approached you about making an album?
CB: No, I’ve just been doing music ever since I was about sixteen. I had approached other people before about trying to do something, but nobody had ever approached me. They would always get me to do shows at small clubs. I got a lot of that. But Tom (Brenneck) and them, they always believed in me. So once they started to believe, that’s when things really started to happen.
AF: Can you describe the type of show you were doing at the time? How long had you been doing that particular act?
CB: I’ve been doing James Brown since I was sixteen years old. Like even now on the 27th, I’ll be at BB Kings doing the same show. People love to see me do both things. They love to see me do James Brown and they love to see me do Charles Bradley. And I get people from all over saying to me “Charles, I hope you’re not gonna give up James Brown. We love to see you do it. Ain’t nobody else that can do it the way you do.” So I’ve been telling Tom and them, “Tell me what you guys need to do. Just let me do both shows.” I come up on stage first then I’ll come back and do James Brown.
AF: So have you been mixing a little bit of the James Brown act on tour then too?
CB: No, because that’s not really Tom and the band want from me right now. But if they turn me loose, watch out.
AF: So what were your first interactions like with the people from the label and the Menahan Street Band?
CB: Well, me and Tommy were friends before I met the band. About nine or ten years ago, Tommy took me Staten Island to meet his band. I met them and at that time, they were doing more hard rock, and you know, I’m all about the funk. But now they’re doing a little bit of everything. Tommy asked me though “Do you want to sing?” and I said, “What you do wanna play?” He asked me, “What do you wanna play?” and I just said, “Play something funky.” And the lyrics would come to me. We did it and then Tommy said, “I’d like to record you.”
And I didn’t see him for about two years until he moved to Brooklyn and called me. He said “Charles, I live here in Brooklyn now.” So he called me and gave me his address, and I came over there. At that time I was going through a crisis because I had just lost my brother, and he said, “Charles, I think you should to put that in front of music, what happened to your brother.” I told him I didn’t know if I could sing it because I would get too emotional. So he got a little tape recorder just like you have and then we went in to a room with a keyboard, organ and piano. I started talking, singing a little bit, more talking.
Then he came back, got the rest of the guys, and started putting music to it. I didn’t hear it. About two months later, he called me down to the studio and played it for me and I couldn’t stand it. I had to get out of there fast. I couldn’t take the pain. I had to get up and walk out of there. They gave me a copy of it though. I gave it to my mom, and she listed to it and she started crying. She knew what it was.
AF: What song was that?
CB: “Heartaches and Pain.” And I just said “My God.” From then on, Tommy kept calling me and we started to do other things. We did songs that Tommy had taped and he had lost them. And one day we were going through some changes and he grabbed a reel-to-reel and found one of the songs we did, and that was “Lovin You, Baby.” He said, “Wow, I didn’t know we did this. We’ve got our tenth song.” So then it went to Gabe and they taped it and put it on a CD, and everything else is history.
AF: That’s a pretty interesting process. How did most of the songs take form then? Would they play a melody for you to write lyrics to?
CB: Yeah, some of the songs Tommy had instrumentals for and he asked me to put the words to them. And when I listen to something like that and hear it and like it, the lyrics just come right to me. So that’s how we did a lot of it, but he just had the music that fit my soul, and when something fits my soul, it’s not hard for it to come out. It just starts coming out. So what they had to do was just tape me while I was singing it and then we’d go back and correct the wording or whatever, because most of the time it was just coming to me raw. And then we’d listen to it again and make a better quality version of it.
Even before you came in for the interview though, I was just laying on that couch right there and lyrics were just flying through my mind. Sometimes I’m in a quiet mode and I may hear some music that hits my soul, and the lyrics come right to me. And that’s why they keep telling me to get a tape recorder and keep a trail of that, because when I get in a certain mood and start singing things to myself, I say “Wow, I should’ve wrote that down.” You never know when it’s going to happen.
AF: You talk about your background on the album a little bit. You’re from Gainesville, but moved to Brooklyn as a child and then you lived in San Francisco for a while, where you got started as a cook. Did you have any other jobs or move anywhere else when you were younger?
CB: In my life I’ve mostly been a cook, a carpenter, then a singer. I was a cook for 35 years.
AF: So you were doing that for 20 or 30 years right? I mean, did you have any idea in the back of your mind that this could all happen one day?
CB: When I wasn’t cooking, I was doing music. And when I didn’t have music, I was a carpenter. They always said Jesus was a carpenter, and that’s why I liked being a carpenter. I knew I could stay in a peaceful atmosphere as long as I stayed in that world. So those were the three things I really liked to do throughout my life.
AF: I’ve read in several places that you were really inspired by seeing James Brown at the Apollo as a child. What was it about the show that really appealed to you? Was there anything in particular you remember?
CB: I saw myself in it. Exactly. It’s a lot of things that I want to do now, I just have to find a way to get it out of me. It’s just like going to the store somewhere and buying something on impulse. There was just something that jumped out at me. It’s just with music, when I hear something that hits my soul I want to react on that, and that’s what happened when I saw James Brown.
AF: Obviously that was the golden era of soul and funk music. Who else really inspired you from that time? How do you feel about people like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett?
CB: I love Otis Redding. Wilson Pickett I’m not too crazy about. Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Tyrone Davis, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand. Those were my people coming up.
AF: So this tour you’re on now. Is this the first time you’re performing all of these songs live?
CB: No, I went to Europe. The first tour was in Australia. Over in Europe, they showed me love unconditionally. They really loved me and it’s so beautiful over there. We’re going back this summer in June.
AF: So with these tours you’ve been on recently, what’s been the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make from your old live show in New York?
CB: To stay myself and keep seeking, and just waiting for my whole self to come through.
AF: So I take it that means you’re much more confident on stage now?
CB: You know what I say about the stage light? That’s home. When I’m on stage I’m home. It’s just that when I get out there I want to give, and I want to give it from my heart.
AF: Well it sounds like you’re in a pretty good creative space then. You mentioned coming up with lyrics just sort of on the fly now. Are you also writing songs for a follow up?
CB: Yes, definitely. We already started on tour. We haven’t given a name for it yet. We started about a week and a half ago though.
AF: How long did the first album take to record in total?
CB: About three of four years because we weren’t that motivated to get deep in to it. It was only a friend thing. But then we started playing it for other people and other people started to listen and we got that feedback to it, then we got serious.
AF: Do you think your mother’s response that you mentioned had the biggest impact?
CB: Exactly, and like everybody’s telling me now about “Why Is It So Hard?” I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from that too. All that I’ll say is that music has always been in my life. I always liked music first, but one thing I thing I loved to do that I haven’t done in a long time is oil painting. I used to do oil painting and paint seascapes. I’ve got a painting in my house of one I made in Seattle, Washington. I refuse to get rid of it.
AF: I don’t want this to sound condescending but as many years as you spent as a cook and doing carpentry, do you ever get the sense that you’re trying to make up for lost time or do you regret that at all?
CB: It hurts. It hurts deeply because I feel that I’ve been seeking for an opportunity all my life. I’ve been on my own since I was 14 years old, had no one to give me no guidance, and held my faith in nothing. And I’ve been seeking humbly, not corrupted. I always seek with my heart, and it just seems like, I’m 62 years old and I’ve just begun to find a new way to look at myself.
If I would have had that opportunity a long time ago, I wouldn’t have been in a place I wanted to be at, and now at this age you just kind of say “How long can I hold on? How much more can I give?” because you never know what the body is gonna do. All you do is try to take care of it and do the right thing to keep your health and strength up to where you can give.
But when I look back it makes me angry because I’ve been begging and crying to the world for a long time and now, well my mom says “Don’t question it. It’s God’s way of doing things.” So what can I say? Just keep on going with what I got and kick in my love. When I look back, it’s nothing but hell so I just keep on moving forward.
AF: So what would you say then to any young musician or artist out there who is on the fence about pursuing it full time or as a career?
CB: If you know in your heart that you’re doing something right then keep going, but if you know you’re giving something corrupt to this world that’s going to make it worse than it is, then stop and find yourself because the music world is a treacherous world. You’ve got to know what you’re doing. If you’re not giving the right way from your soul, back off of it because it will eat you up alive.
AF: One last question, the style of music that you do, soul and funk, obviously doesn’t bring out the biggest crowds these days but it certainly brings out some of the most dedicated fans. After touring places like Australia and Europe, do you think technology has made forms of music like this available to more people?
CB: One thing I’ll say about good music is that it’s always compressed. Garbage music ends up making up to the mainstream. I think it’s time that the world really soul-search itself and look at who is real. All you hear about in music now is sex. That’s something we already know about. I think we need to downgrade on that and put more positive things in the music to make your kids and their kids better people. That’s what I see because people always ask about my background. “You’re not married? You don’t have any kids?” No, because if I don’t reach my destination in life, I’m not bringing any kids in to this world. What I see is not pleasing to my eyes so I just keep on staying humble spiritually and keep seeking. I may not be able to reach it but one thing I can say is that I was true to my body and soul.
MP3: Charles Bradley-”No Time For Dreaming”