This is how it goes at a Charles Bradley show. The Menahan Street Band warm the crowd up with a couple of numbers, like “Make The Road By Walking,” the track Hov sampled for “Roc Boys.” Then they’ll play Charles onstage with something more upbeat, maybe The Impressions’ “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey),” before launching into “Heartache And Pains,” Charles’ signature tune. Charles opens his mouth. The crowd goes wild. And that’s how it works. Every time.
See, when Charles Bradley sings, your jaw drops, the hairs on your end of your neck stand up straight, a bolt of electricity travels down your spine and your stomach does a backflip or five. He’s that good. His voice, raw and beautiful in equal measure, overflows with emotion. He rasps, he howls, he coos, he screams. As the leader of The Menahan Street Band, Tommy Brenneck, affirms: “Anybody with some life should really be moved by him.”
But what makes Charles unique, and gives his voice and his songs such power, is his age.
Charles Bradley is 62 years old.
It’s an age that makes him an embodiment of American history post WW2. The Civil Rights struggle, Vietnam and more – he’s seen it all and he’s been at the hard edge of most of it. That’s not melodramatic, that’s just the way it is. And that makes for a hell of a lot of, well, heartaches and pain to be poured into his first album. Yes, his first album, No Time For Dreaming, released at the age of 62. I’m sorry for the repetition, but, like his music, Charles’ story is an inspirational tale that deserves repeating.
“Man, I could sit here and talk to you all night and all day, and you could never get to the depths of the pain that I’ve been through. When Martin Luther King said ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop,’ I know what he meant, there’s no more life can show you. It’s a blessing that I’m still alive.”
“I’ve been on my own since I was 14 years old; living on the street, in old cars, in the subway, looking for a place, an opportunity. I’ve been working all my life, but every time I get a decent job and think I’m going to settle down and get me a nice little house, ‘whoosh’, the rope gets pulled away and I’ve got to do it all over again.”
“All of my experiences come out in my music. That’s why I’m trying to do something, to pick up the pieces where my brother my left off, because I’m the only one of family left.”
“All those experiences” include the death of his brother, (murdered by his nephew) a tragic event that would prove to be a turning point in Charles’ life.
“When my brother Joseph was alive, he was the backbone of the family. He was an income tax broker. I said to him once, ‘Joe, I wish I could be something like you’. He said ‘No, brother, you don’t want to be like me, I want you to be like Charles, the Charles that I love.’”
“That night he got killed, I was walking outside of his house and he grabbed me. I said ‘Joe, what’s wrong with you?’ and he said ‘Bro, I love you.’ I said ‘Joe, you acting kind of strange tonight, what is wrong with you?’ He grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go so I said ‘Joe, I know you love me, you’re going to be fine, I’ll see you tomorrow’ and went back to my room at my mom’s and went back to sleep.”
“Next morning, my mother knocked on my door and said ‘Charles, what’s going on with all those policemen outside?’ I look out the window, I see police, fire trucks, ambulances, the whole block sealed off.”
“I got up, washed my face, when I heard my mom screaming. I asked, ‘Momma, what’s wrong?’ She said ‘Joe’s got shot, he’s dead.’ I stopped dead, I blocked it out of my head. I said ‘Lord, please don’t let it be true.’ I tried to go outside, this girl grabbed me and said, ‘Charles, don’t go to your brother’s house.’ So I went to the house at the top of the stoop and saw my brother’s wife who said ‘Joe’s got shot, he’s dead.’ And that was it, I went down screaming. I was sick myself, I’d just got out of hospital, and my mom tried to get me to stop, she said ‘I can’t take losing two sons, please go back in the house.’ So like a little baby I go back in the house, back into bed and pulled the covers over my head. I stayed there for about five minutes before I looked out the window and saw a blue van that said ‘morgue’. I ran downstairs to go to my brother’s house but some detective stopped me and said ‘Son, please don’t go in there and see your brother in the condition he’s in, remember him as he was’. I said ‘How on earth can you tell me not to go to see my brother? I’m going in.’ And when I went in there, I wish to God, I’d listened to that detective and never gone in.
“Joseph had been to Vietnam, served his time there on the front line. Then they drafted my other brother to go there. But Joseph was so loveable he volunteered to stay another six months on the frontline so my other brother could go on the backline. One time he got caught in a Vietcong trap and everyone else got killed. The only way he got out of that was to take their blood and put it on his face and lay like he was dead. If he survived all that to come home and get killed, what can you say?
Charles’ eloquent response would be “Heartaches and Pain,” the song he recorded in tribute to his brother.
Not long after his brother’s death, he was introduced to Thomas Brenneck by Gabe Roth, the mastermind behind Daptone Records. After a brief first collaboration that didn’t get further than a couple of 45s (Brenneck didn’t feel he had the right sound or the depth for Charles back then), they met up when Thomas moved to Brookyln and laid down some tracks, including “Heartaches and Pain.”
“Tommy called me a month, two months later and told me I had to hear this song. When I walked into the studio and they put it on, I couldn’t take it, it hit my heart so hard. I played it for my mom. She broke down crying. I played it for my sisters. They broke down crying. It took me about a year and a half to sing ‘Heartaches and Pain.’ Before, I couldn’t sing it, I got too emotional.”
“Soul music is something you have to try and dig down deep to bring up. Sometimes you can’t get to it. Sometimes I play with bands who can’t keep up with me because I’ll go to my spiritual world. And when you go to your spiritual world, you don’t know what you’re going to see on stage, all you know is that you’re feeling that soul.”
“Sometimes you’ll see this (Charles puts his hand to his forehead in pain). It’s because my soul’s got too overemotional and I’ll have to take a breather to catch myself to get back into it. Sometimes the audience doesn’t know that, but if they look at me, they’ll feel my pain and know I really mean what I’m saying.”
“I remember one guy said to me: ‘Brother, I’m going to work you on stage tonight.’ I replied ‘Ok, work me and I’m going to work you right back’. And that’s what we do. I feel where he’s coming from, I feel he’s been down so long, and we share that love in the music. And when you get guys like that together, oh God, you’ll get tears, joy, heartaches and pain.”
Which leads us to where Charles is now; touring his debut album around the world with The Menahan Street Band. Finally he has the chance, after a lifetime of discrimination and misfortune, to use his voice to say what he wants, how he wants.
No Time For A Dreaming is an album, as Charles says, “a long time coming.” It harkens back to the days of groups like The Impressions, who made beautiful soul music forged in the heat of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. Where they had “This is My Country” and “Choice of Colors” Charles comes with “Why is it So Hard” (to make it in America) and “The World (Is Going Up In Flames).” Soul with a message; a message made even more powerful by the fact that it’s as relevant now as it was forty years ago.
“Something’s got to change in America. I was born in 1948. Now if you see how the United States has changed since then, I don’t think it has at all. This is a land that’s supposed to be built on milk and honey, so what I want to ask America is what is wrong with you?”
“There’s got to be a change somewhere, otherwise this will keep on going round and round in circles. We all live on this planet, and if we all don’t change, we’re going to destroy it. I don’t look at you because of the way the creator colored you, I look at your heart, your character. That’s how I judge you. We’re all the same underneath our skin, we’re ugly. It’s time for a change and stop trying to scare your kids with the past that you didn’t live. We need to go back to the golden rule, to love.”
“I just want to live confident, take care of my family, and give them something they’ve never had before. Take care of my mother. Give my sister living in a shelter a decent place to live. One time I thought I’d hit the lotto, I ran to her and said ‘Sis, I’m going to buy you a home!’ She started crying, but then I noticed that I had one wrong number. But she said ‘Charles, that’s alright, at least I know your heart was in it.’”
It’s that last story which cuts straight to the heart of Charles Bradley: a good man trying to do his best for the ones he loves. And now he’s finally in a position to make it right. He may wonder why God has kept him alive, but the answer is clear: his story and his music are inspirational and their power comes from the fact that it’s been pent up inside him for so long. And that he’s overcome such trials and tribulations is a testament to his faith, humility and the power of music.
When Charles tells his stories, he hunches over and looks in the middle distance. He’s often on the verge of tears and he looks all of his 62 years and more. On stage, however, he’s reborn. He bumps, grinds, throws the mic down and screams, and does the splits with a relish that puts younger men to shame.
Between songs he responds to the audience’s warmth with one phrase he repeats over and over again: “I love you, I love you!” If love is indeed the golden rule, Charles Bradley is doing his utmost to bring more into the world by singing his heart out. And when he opens his mouth, you should listen. Every time.
- William Georgi
*Photography: Kisha Bari
No Time For Dreaming is out now on Daptone Records.
Charles Bradley is on tour with The Menahan Street Band and The Budos Band across America through April. Check http://www.thecharlesbradley.com for more details.
Watch Charles Bradley sing “Loving You” Live in his hotel room from tour, below: