The hyperbolic notion of the 'miraculous', the 'remarkable' or the plain 'unbelievable' rise to prominence of an artist within the contemporary music industry is a more clichéd and often fallacious concept than the fable of penning an album in an isolated woodland cabin. This ideology, however, is perhaps the only way to describe the astonishingly uplifting yet undeniably heartbreaking journey of Charles Bradley. For the majority of his life, Bradley battled against homelessness, severe health problems and the idyllic yet near-impossible dream of a stable and viable career within the notoriously intricate music industry. As soon-to-be portrayed in the upcoming documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America debuting at the Texan South By South West festival later this month; Bradley was born in Gainesville, Florida, in 1948, and in 2011 his 48 year dream finally came to fruition with the release of his stunning debut album No Time For Dreaming at the age of 62.
In preparation for my interview with Bradley, I rose at 6am and wandered through the musty streets and laneways of Melbourne's CBD with No Time For Dreaming on repeat through my Sennheiser HD215's. The album itself is an amalgamation of soul, funk, R&B and Bradley's contemplation-defying life experience, and provides an undefinably evocative soundtrack to a stroll along to a Swanston St reminiscent of a ghost town on a frigid March morning.
"I grew up in a bad stretch of Gainesville," shares Bradley underneath his husky voice, not yet fully awake in his Intercontinental Hotel Adelaide room. "My grandmother and my mother made us go to church every Sunday. There's a Holy Ghost out there and there's a spirit inside you. When you go through a lot in life – and when you can't deal with it – the spiritual road has always been the best road to go to."
For the following half an hour, Bradley and I spoke intimately. There were no scripted questions, no generic rhetoric or any of the universal staples for an interview with a musician. Why? Because this wasn't an interview. This was a long-awaited conversation – an exploration of the soul – with a man that I feel holds more faith within the ethos of the human condition than almost any other on the planet.
"I made living being a James Brown impersonator for 15 or 16 years. Everybody still loves me doing James Brown – but thank god I found Charles Bradley," he expresses with overwhelming gratitude. "One night I met Jimmy Hill (the organist of Naomi Shelton And The Gospel Queens) at one of my shows, and through Jimmy I met David Roth and through David I met Gabriel Roth (founder of Daptone Records) and through Gabriel I met Tom Brenneck (guitarist of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings). Tom was looking for a soulful singer at that time and I was going through a lot of changes, trying to make ends meet. I was going through a lot of depression. When I met him, he took me to Staten Island and they were going through a rehearsal and they asked me to sing for them over a song. If I like something then the lyrics come to me naturally. And that's what's happened. They played, I liked it – Tom just said 'wow'."
"Three years later Tom moved to Brooklyn and called me up and said 'Hey Charles, come and do some stuff with me'. At that time I was going through a lot more depression after losing my brother, there was a lot of hardship. I told him that I needed somebody to talk to – to let it out. I went over there and we started talking and he fixed me a hot toddy. He went to the piano and started playing, and then he grabbed a cassette and started taping everything. It was hard. I broke down. He fixed me another hot toddy and we sat on his bed talking. Days and days passed by and all of a sudden we started putting it together – and that was my first recording Heartaches And Pain. Gabriel called me up and asked to hear what I did. I went to their studio and they started playing it and I had to run out. I couldn't take it. They gave me a copy of it and I took it home and let me mother listen to it and she broke down crying. Tom then said 'Charles, I want to do an album on you'. We started with Heartaches and Pain and then Lovin You, Baby, How Long and The World (Is Going Up In Flames). All of the truths just started coming out of me. If I hear music right now and it hits my soul – the lyrics will just come right out of me. That's the way I am. It's a way of life to me. It saved my life. If I tell you these things it helps. I get really emotional thinking about my past – I'm trying to find ways to be able to grow and be able to talk about it."
Of course, underpinning No Time For Dreaming, and indeed responsible for its premise and possibility, is Bradley's startling, heartfelt and miraculous voice. Following the success of his debut album, Bradley has been allowed to share his remarkable voice and story to all corners of the globe. However, no one performance holds a greater place in Bradley's heart than that of his sold out album release show. "People that believed in me and gave me the chance to come forward. I can never thank them enough. Because it took a long time. My mother said 'don't worry about it', she said 'god works on his timing' and I see that. I have to dedicate my love and compassion. When I perform, I aim to open my heart and to show the people that I have kept my heart clean and open all the time. That all the anger, hurt and bitterness that came to me – I found the strength and the love to keep my heart growing. I knew if I kept my heart open this, if I kept going, kept keeping me dream – then it's truly something greater than we all can think of. They can expect the true love of my soul. I'm out to give love and show that I'm a clear and honest person. I want to show and give love. To let people feel good about themselves when they think of their past and what they've been through, and know that there's still hope for everybody."
Whilst remaining incredibly humble of his success and ever-growing profile, Bradley confesses his true gift is not being able to broadcast his voice nor his story to the world, but something much deeper. Something much closer to his home and to his heart. "It makes me feel – I can't describe it. Everyone who believed in me – it means so much. I have a chance to show my mother how much I really love her for what she's been through. In my late days, we've really started to open up and talk to one-another. It shows me – wow – the things that she's been through," shares Bradley as he pauses, apologises, and wipes away a tear. "With the dream of my music I can show her a place that I can say 'this is home, ma'. This is what I gave her. I can say 'this is where you can lay your head'. She was paralysed for six months. She was in the hospital, trying to raise us by herself. I'm able to show her before she leaves this life that she has a son that remembers everything that she's been through. And that's my blessing."
BY TYSON WRAY
After blowing the effing roof off Golden Plains and The Hi-Fi last weekend, CHARLES BRADLEY will return for an encore performance at The Corner Hotel this Sunday March 18.