Charles Bradley – Live And In Person
By Myles Crawley
Photos by Danica Waters
There’s a music club over on Sunset Boulevard called The Echo. I’ve been meaning to get over there ever since I moved back to Los Angeles in January of this year. Last Wednesday, May 4th, I finally made it. The occasion was to see a musical artist by the name of Charles Bradley. Project Rhythm Seed originally reported on Charles shortly after his appearance at this year’s SXSW music convention in Austin, Texas. You can read that article here. Charles was the standout and played two packed shows while in Austin. It was the start of his new career, no longer as a James Brown impersonator, but as Charles Bradley the original.
I find Charles extremely intriguing, for a few reasons. He’s a 62 year old black man who is just now getting his first real taste of success in the music business. He sings soul and rhythm & blues inspired music, and he does it very well. Someone once told me that no one over the age of 40 has ever signed a first time record deal. If that was true, it no longer is. Charles has broken that mold. But it’s not the only mold he’s broken in his 62 years on this planet.
Charles grew up in New York City. It was a hard life, made harder by the fact that he had no father and not much future ahead of him. He grew up in a rough and tumble part of Brooklyn and by his early teens was living on the streets, huffing glue and sleeping in subway cars. By that time his mother had stopped speaking to him. But before all of this nastiness transpired, he was fortunate enough to see James Brown play live at the Apollo up in Harlem. His older sister bought him a ticket and brought him along. At the time he had no idea who James Brown was, but that experience would affect him and stay with him for the rest of his life. Even today he remembers every detail of that concert. Charles is an unlikely music star. He spent most of his life working as a cook, and its only in the last ten years that he really started applying himself as a singer and musician. He had never written a song until a couple of years ago. But now that has all changed.
I walked into the Echo to find a packed house. The audience was made up of a surprisingly wide demographic – people of all ages and walks of life. I arrived just as the Menahan Street Band was going on stage. These guys back Charles up, so I figured I was just in time to see him walk out on stage. But after four or five songs I was left scratching my head. No Charles. Finally one of the band members said, “And now ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Charles Bradley!” Then it clicked in. This was the same type of entrance that James Brown would’ve made. The place went crazy and out walked Charles in a white suit with applets and a black silk shirt. The audience was eating it up from the moment he stepped on stage and he reciprocated by mouthing “thank you, I love you, I love you” and blowing kisses. I must admit that I felt an immediate reaction to this. He wasn’t acting or bullshitting this crowd. That was obvious. He is the real thing and he meant what he was saying to them. He sincerely loved them all. And they knew it.
Charles played a set consisting of most of his Dunham Records released debut album No Time for Dreaming. The Menahan Street Band was the perfect accompaniment for Charles’ gravelly, whiskey soaked vocals. The whole band rocked, but I was particularly impressed with Thomas Brenneck, who plays guitar and also co-wrote and produced all of the songs on this album. Thomas is a fluid player that holds the whole band together. But the rest of the band wasn’t shabby either. These guys were all very accomplished rhythm and blues players.
Somewhere near the end of the set, Charles must’ve struck his leg on something because by the time he left the stage his pant leg was soaked in blood. When he returned for his enchore – and there was no way he was getting away without playing one – he had changed into a dark colored jumpsuit. He was shaking hands with everyone in front of the stage and all of a sudden he just fell off and into the audience. I thought for a moment that something had happened to him, but then realized he had done it on purpose. He crowd surfed for a while before being deposited back on stage, and you could see in his face that he was genuinely moved by the experience. Tears streamed as he thanked everyone and told them all that he loved them, for the umpteenth time.
Fast forward to the next day, Thursday, May 5th. Cinco de Mayo here in California. I’ve just parked my car at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City and Charles’ road manager, Rob, meets me in the lobby. “C’mon” he says. “Charles is sittin’ out by the pool.” I follow Rob out to where we find Charles at a poolside table under an umbrella. He stands when I walk up and we introduce ourselves. That same warm, friendly attitude is prevalent right away. But I also notice an emotional fragility about him. I ask him if he’s alright and he said he is, but that he is still massively affected by last night’s show. He tells me that his experience on stage at the Echo has been a life changing one and that he’s still trying to come to grips with it. I ask him what it is about that show that differed from others he’s played lately. He says he can’t put his finger on it, but that he felt so much genuine love from the audience that it just overwhelmed him. Charles is a very spiritual man, and his recent experiences have instilled a real love of God in him. He tells me that when he returned to his hotel, after the show, he couldn’t sleep. He says he got down on his knees and just prayed to God and thanked Him profusely for everything that He has given him. He says that he knows now what it is that he’s supposed to do. I ask him what that is and he says simply “Whatever God wants.”
We speak a little about Charles’ early life. He tells me about his experience seeing James Brown for the first time at the Apollo. He describes how he went home and found a mop, tied a string to it and practiced James Brown’s famous microphone stand move for weeks until he finally got it right. He tells me about his time as a kid in the Job Corps and how it straightened him out. He says he’d be “pushin’ up daisies right now if it hadn’t been for that experience.” He tells me about his mother. When I ask how she felt about his new found success he tells me his mother said: “Son, I aint never have thought in a lifetime you woulda achieved this what you did.” She’s had two strokes and two heart attacks in recent years. The two of them maintain a very close relationship and Charles takes care of everything for her when he’s at home. But going home also has mixed emotions. He says that people all across the country now want to know who Charles Bradley is. Yet when he goes home to Brooklyn, they still want him to do his James Brown character “Black Velvet.” He says that it breaks his heart to see young girls getting pregnant and having babies at 14. He wishes that they had a chance to live a little and find out who they are before becoming mothers.
Charles Bradley is one of the kindest, gentlest, most genuine individuals that I have ever met in my life. Sitting out there by the pool, there are a couple of times that I feel my eyes tear up right along with him. There is no doubt in my mind that he is the genuine article. He cares about everyone and has not a harsh word to say about anyone. He wants the whole world to know that he loves them. He says to me several times that if he could take his heart out and give it to his fans, he would do it in a minute. And I believe he would.