Look up soul in any dictionary: it means “strong positive feeling, as of intense sensitivity and emotional fervor.” Charles Bradley is one of the best soul singers of our generation. His raspy vocals are reminiscent of the voices of Otis Redding, Al Green, and James Brown, whose music he was covering when he was discovered in Brooklyn by Daptone Records’ co-founder, Gabriel Roth. Roth took Bradley to meet Tommy Brenneck, who plays with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Budos Band, Menahan Street Band, and runs Dunham Records.
Bradley’s brother had just been shot and killed, and Brenneck encouraged Bradley to open up about his life and put it on tape. Bradley’s life gave him a lot to sing about: fatherless since day one, homeless since 14, cooking in kitchens, reuniting with his family only to get terminally ill, getting better only to lose his brother. “Heartaches and Pain” is the song he wrote about the murder of his brother, and its title describes the whole of Bradley’s debut album, “No Time for Dreaming”, a heartwrenching glimpse of how to get through hard feelings and hard times with only your voice between you and giving up. Again: it’s great soul, and it gives our generation a sense of the greatness of that genre as it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
R&G: Charles, you have an inspirational life story. You’ve overcome many hardships to get where you are today. Can you tell me about your journey?
CB: I will tell you my story, to the best of my knowledge. That’s all I can say. All I remember is that I was raised up in Florida and that I was about eight years old when my mom came to Florida and said she wanted to take me back to New York with her. I didn’t know who she was.
R&G: Were you living in Florida with your father?
CB: No, I never knew my father. Today, if he walked in here right now, I wouldn’t know who he was.
R&G: Who was raising you?
CB: My grandmother. She was like a mother to me. Then my mom came down to Florida and said that she wanted me to come to New York so she could get to know me. My other brother was there, so I came to New York, but I always felt that I was the black sheep of the family. With my grandmother, I was treated fairly and honest, but when I turned 14, I saw there was a lot of hardships in my family. I couldn’t take it. I was living in the basement, where you couldn’t see nothing but dirt and sand, and I only had a small bed on the floor. I ran away. Then my brother ran away. My sister called the police and said there were two young people in the streets. They took me back to my mom’s house and told my mother that she could not let these children live on the streets of New York, but I saw that there was nothing good for me at home, so I went on my own again.
R&G: How were you surviving living on the streets?
CB: I was living on the subway trains. Living in old cars. Sometime at a friend house, I’d sit there and watch TV all night until he told me I had to go.
R&G: Where did you go after you were asked to leave your friends place?
CB: I would go back to the subway trains. One day, my best friend, this Spanish guy, he saw me not going home. He saw me go to the subway train. He said to me, “Charles, where are you going?” I said, “Just riding the train.” He said, “No, I been watching you. My mom wants you to come sleep on the couch.” I said, “No, your mother has a lot of kids. You don’t need me in there.” He said, “My mom wants you to come. We know what you’re going through.” I stayed on their couch, but I tell you the truth: they were very very poor. That night when I stayed on the couch, I had rats jumping on my back, jumping on the floor, crawling over me. I said, No God, I can’t stay here. I didn’t tell them why. I showed my love, but next morning I went back and stayed on the trains, anywhere I could live. I took with me two pairs of underwear and when I took off the dirty one, I’d go in the subway train in the bathroom and wash them out. Nobody knew I was washing up and nobody knew I was living in the streets.
R&G: How old were you at this time?
CB: I had just turned 16. I was living on the streets for two years. I saw myself going down. At that time, my friends were getting high, sticking needles. Using heroin.
R&G: Were you using too?
CB: No. I never did that. They tried to get me to do it, but I said no. They said, “Let your problems go, get high, don’t think about it.” But thank God I’d always been afraid of needles. Never took it.
R&G: Did you try any other drugs?
CB: I did one time, I sniffed that glue. That messed my mind up bad. So I stopped that on my own. I also tried weed a couple times. I knew that drugs were dragging me down further. I saw myself just giving in, so I heard of Job Corps. I went to try to get in Job Corps and they told me that my mother had to sign to get me in. My mother was mad with me and she wouldn’t do it. So I got my sister to forge her name.
R&G: Where did you go with the Job Corps?
CB: First they sent me to Virginia. Then I left there and went to New Jersey. I felt that I wasn’t getting the attention that I really needed, because it’s a big Job Corps. So they sent me to Bar Harbor, Maine. That was the best place of my life. That job really helped me to get out of the ghetto and really know people for who they are, not for their creed and color. Back in the hood, they always got the racial thing. The blacks are as bad as the whites: they always got something to speak back. I was wondering why when I was in Job Corps everyone was being so good to me. There were a lot of white guys. You think they want something from you, but they only wanted to be my friend.
R&G: When did you getting into singing?
CB: I believe I was 18. They had me going around to girls in Job Corps singing. I was doing James Brown. When I was 14, my sister took me to see James Brown at the Apollo Theatre and that’s what really gave me a lot of impulse. Over the years, I moved around to upstate New York then out to Northern California. Then my mom called me and said, “Son, give me a chance to know you. Come on back home.”
R&G: What year was this?
CB: That was about ’96, I came back to New York. Times were tough back home. I was in and out of the hospital because I had this fever that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t know what happened to me. I was also told to go to unemployment in New York. That was the first time I had ever been to unemployment. [Since Job Corps, Charles had always been a cook.] Unemployment told me to go to welfare. Welfare told me to go to social security. Social security told me to go to welfare. Then I had a relapse, I had to go back in the hospital. When I got out of the hospital and they said, “You missed your appointment, so now you have to wait for welfare again.” That went on for about three years.
R&G: That’s awful.
CB: Then the hospital gave me penicillin. I’m totally allergic to penicillin. I thought I was going to die. They gave up on me. Honestly, I thought I was leaving this world. I was sick as a dog. My brother Joseph came there and whistled in my ear. He put his hands on me. I was burning up. Joe said, “Charles.” He kept whistling in my ear. He said, “If you don’t want to live for yourself, Charles, please don’t leave me.” He said, “Fight, brother.” To keep a long story short, they got me out of that hospital and took me to Beth Israel. I had a fever of 104.7. They had to nurse me up, put ice all over my body to break the fever. They would stick this big needle in my back four times a day. I tell you one thing: I’d rather be dead before I live through that again. Man, I was screaming, I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I’m telling you a lot of things, the short version, but if I was to tell you the nitty gritty, I’m gonna break down, right here.
R&G: That’s fine. Please let me know what you are comfortable talking about.
CB: What hurt so bad is when I got well and out of the hospital, my brother who loved me so much and took care of me, he got killed. He got shot in the head. Man. [crying]…..when I got out of the hospital, I would always go over to his house, and he said, “Charles, I don’t want you to go back to California. I want you to stay here with me. I will take care of you. Do you want me to take care of you?” He said, “You want a house? Whatever you want.” The night before he got killed, I was at his house and I was walking through the hallway and he grabbed me and said, “Charles, I love you.” I said, “I love you too. You know my heart before I do.” He said, “Charles, I know you love me,” but he said, “Sometimes I wonder about everybody else, it seems like they’re after what I got, but you just show me that real love.” I said, “Joe, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He grabbed me. He wouldn’t let me go. That was the last hug I had from Joe. I went home to my mom’s house. I woke up the next morning. My mother came and knock at my door. She said, “Charles, what is all these police out here for?” I said, “Mom. I don’t know. I’m in my bed all night.” My bed was by the window; I just pushed open the drapes and I saw all these police cars, all these firetrucks, ambulances. I said, “My God. What’s wrong?” So then, I got up, went upstairs, threw some water on my face. I heard my mother scream. She said, “Charles! Charles! Charles! Joe got shot. He’s dead.” I blocked “dead” out. I said, “Lord. Let it be the arm, the leg, or something like that. Please God.” When I went downstairs and walked out the door, my brother’s wife grabbed me. I said, “Clarice, what’s wrong?” She said, “Joe got shot and he’s dead.” That took all the energy out of me. I just fell down to the ground, crying. My mother said, “Charles, please. Go back in the house, son. I can’t stand to see myself losing two sons. Please son.” I went back in the house, pulled the cover over my face, and said, “Lord, this is a dream. I know this is a dream. Lord, if you let this be a dream, I promise, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do better. I’ll do good.” I stayed in bed about ten minutes. Then I looked out the drapes again, out the window, and I saw this thing says, “Morgue.” I said, “No, Lord. I’m going to see for myself.” I went outside and went to go in my brother’s house. A detective was standing in front of the door. He said, “You’re Joseph’s brother, ain’t you?” I said, “Yes, I am.” He said, “Son, please, don’t go in there and see your brother until we clean up.” I said, “How can you tell me I cannot go in there? That’s my brother. I want to see for myself.” God knows, man. When I walked in there… [crying] They shot my brother…they shot my brother with a hollow point bullet. God, I wished I didn’t go in there. I ran outside. I ran in front of every car and no car would hit me. Everybody stopped. I wanted to die. I wanted to leave this world. I could not take the pain. I loved my brother so much. I remember every time me and Joe hung out as kids we would go sometimes and walk the streets. I’d say, “Joe, you go on that side and I’ll go on this side. Let’s see who finds the most pennies today.” That was me and his game. Now, when I go to his gravesite, I throw pennies on his grave. I wish to God I would have never went in there, if I wouldn’t have seen him bleeding and his body, maybe I could block it out of my mind, but every time I see a penny, it reminds me of Joe; it tears my heart out. [weeping].