Charles Bradley was just finishing with a series of other phone interviews before he got on the line with us. The Gainesville-born soul singer's story of success is typical of no one else.
A former James Brown impersonator going by the name of Black Velvet, his golden years are actually his golden years. Discovered by Daptone Records' cofounder Gabriel Roth, Bradley worked with Roth and Tom Brennek to put out a series of singles starting in 2002. The relationship culminated in the release of last year's debut LP, No Time for Dreaming.
Bradley's life has been tough by any standards. His mother abandoned him at a young age, with his coming to terms with her and her reasons for this abandonment only later in life. He spent time living in Gainesville as a child, where he attended church with his grandmother. Since age 14, he has been on his own. "I lived on the streets till I was like 16," he says. It was then that he found Job Corps. Too young to get in, he says, "I got my sister to lie and sign the paper." Job Corps led him to work as a cook in Maine, where after, he journeyed across America, drifting from place to place.
When he first saw James Brown onstage in 1962, Bradley says, "He made me realize that I could show my inner spirit." Of Brown's act, he notes: "It comes from his soul. You don't see that in everybody. I related to it. There was no [other] artist at that time that made me feel the way I feel about myself."
Bradley's favorite singers are Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand. "Those were the people that I grew up with," he says. "They sang, and it came from the heart, and I could feel it."
Music happens naturally for Bradley. "My music is in my heart. If my heart hears it, the lyrics just come right out." When first rehearsing with Brennek at Daptone, the band played music while Bradley sang off the cuff. He's a natural.
"It's something I actually lived," he says of his lyrics. At times, they're painful for him to sing. "Sometimes when I'm onstage, I want to skip a verse because the verse hurts so deeply. I try to look past that verse." But he sings it anyway. "I had to teach myself to put my pain aside and focus on God."
God is an important part of Bradley's life. At a recent show in Chicago, he said he felt like his heart would explode, high with spirituality. He emotionally relates the experience of feeling almost amped with God's grace, a sensation that began while performing. "If you ever believe in the Holy Ghost, I do believe that day I caught the Holy Ghost."
His lyrics, the experience, it isn't just painful; it's also healing. On tour, he sees the audiences' reactions and responds emotionally. He often hugs people from the crowd. They cry to him and tell him how much he's helped them. "When I go out to a show, I give my heart."
Charles Bradley and the Budos Band. April 14 at 7 p.m. at Revolution Live, 100 Southwest Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Visit Jointherevolution.net.
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