If Charles Bradley sings about pain and heartache more convincingly than the rest of today's soul artists — and the overwhelming critical consensus is that he does — there are a lot of reasons for that.
Bradley was 14 when he first experienced homelessness, living on the streets of New York and sleeping in subway cars for two years. He later moved upstate for a job at a state mental hospital, its sole black employee during an era when segregation was still prevalent.
Those kinds of experiences — along with the impoverished conditions that would lead to his mother's six-month hospitalization and his brother's murder — inform songs that have only recently reached a mass audience. Bradley was 62 by the time No Time for Dreaming was released by Daptone, the famed Brooklyn label that's home to neo-soul artists like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. The 2011 debut album proved to be a perfect showcase for his combination of raw James Brown swagger with soulful crooning that falls somewhere between Otis Redding and O.V. Wright.
Bradley says that when he finally got into the studio to record tracks like "Heartaches and Pain" — a plaintive song about his brother's death — he could only sing one verse at a time, then take a moment to regain his composure before moving on to the next.
In concert, the singer doesn't have that luxury. During his first European tour with Daptone labelmate Lee Fields, he remembers suddenly finding himself unable to walk out onstage and sing the opening number.
"I kept forgetting the lyrics," recalls Bradley, who says he'd get lost in memories of waking up to police sirens and discovering that his brother had been killed. "And Lee Fields was the one who said, 'Charles, man, I think you better get on that stage and sing that song.'"
Over time, he says, it's become less difficult.
"You've gotta put your hurt aside and find a way to let those lyrics out," he says. "You can't put it all aside, but you do what you can. And sometimes your voice just wants to cry and you don't want to let it out. So a lot of times I get that way, and I can't sing all those words at one time. So what I do, I scream it."
Aching all over
It was at Harlem's Apollo Theater — where Bradley's sister had taken him to see James Brown — that he first learned the value of a good scream. Back then, the Godfather of Soul's stage show was at its peak, with flashy capes, funky horns and dramatic splits that the teenager went home and practiced until his legs gave out.
James Brown was just 22 when "Please Please Please" broke the R&B Top 10. Charles Bradley would have to wait a lot longer for his turn.
When Bradley sings "Why's it got to be so hard in America," the anguish is anything but contrived. He grew up in abject poverty, living in a Coney Island studio where his single mom pushed together two beds for the family of five to share.
"One night my mother woke up and there was this big water rat that had jumped on the bed and was goin' toward my baby sister," recalls Bradley, who was 9 at the time. "My mother knocked the rat back, and the rat came back and bit my mother's leg. We told my mother to get up and go to the hospital. But it was on a Friday and she said, 'Son, I got to go to work. And when I come home, then I'll go to the doctor.'"
As Bradley tells it, his mom came home after work, lay down on the bed, and became paralyzed. "They rushed her to the hospital, and the doctor told her that rabies had done set into her body and that there was nothing they can do."
The situation left the four kids with little in the way of options. "We were staying at the beach," says Bradley, "because after my mother went to the hospital, we couldn't go back to that apartment. We stayed on the beach all the next day and night, and then my oldest brother found an apartment in Brooklyn."
Six months into her hospital stay, Bradley's mother suddenly woke up screaming, aching all over, and the staff realized that, as Bradley puts it, her body was coming back to life. But while his mom's health improved, the family's economic picture did not.
Although optimistic about his eventual move upstate, Bradley soon realized his prospects there were nearly as bleak as they'd been down in the city. "Policemen were always stopping me, and there were some things I do not want to mention. It was hard up there, and I said, 'I gotta get out of here.' And that's when I went to California to seek my dreams."
What followed was a nomadic journey of ill-fitting jobs along with another bout with homelessness. It was actually James Brown, whom Bradley finally met in person at a gig, who told him that there'd be more opportunities if he returned home to New York City.
Bradley followed the soul legend's advice and, in a weird way, achieved his lifelong goal of becoming just like his hero: He was fronting a James Brown tribute band called Black Velvet when Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth caught his act and changed his life. The artist's second Daptone album, Victim of Love, was released earlier this year to another round of acclaim.
I ask Bradley about the album's closing track, "Through the Storm," a song of appreciation that might be addressed to a woman, or to God, or both.
"There's a little of all of that in there," he says. "And I'm also thanking everybody who gave me this opportunity in the music industry. Before I met these people, I was walking in a storm of deep depression."
There's a light now, but the future is anything but certain. New York has, true to form, been less than merciful. It was during Bradley's Black Velvet years that his brother, while living two doors down from his mother, was shot and killed. "My mom didn't like the neighborhood no more," says the singer, "because every time she come out the door, she always saw my brother's spirit."
Bradley has since found her another place, and recently relocated there from the projects, which had become increasingly dangerous. "Now I'm living in my mama's basement, got it fixed up nice," he says. "I'm still in the midst of pain and stress, but I'm dealing with it. I just keep my mind focused and keep singing my heart out."
There's no question that the singer has achieved artistic success. And with all the widespread acclaim and constant touring, he's hopeful that the rest will follow.
"Sometimes, when my body is tired and I don't tell nobody, I will push myself to the limit," he says. "Because I want to get this behind me. I want to be able to get a real place to live, and come home and be able to say, 'Wow, after all the things I been through, it was worth the trouble, it was worth the hurt.'"