Last year, at the age of 62, Charles Bradley released his debut album, No Time For Dreaming, on Daptone Records. The album was widely acclaimed for its honest and heartfelt subject matter, Bradley’s unchained wail and the backing instrumentation of the Menahan Street Band. What stands out more than anything, however, is what Bradley went through to get where he is today.
Bradley has endured a number of hardships over the course of his life. He spent years working as a chef around the country, and for a good deal of time was homeless. Later in life, he moved back to Brooklyn, where he grew up, and awoke one morning to find his brother murdered. Despite everything, Bradley never let his passion for music die. He was performing James Brown covers in a Brooklyn night club under the name Black Velvet when he caught the ear of Daptone Records’ Gabriel Roth, who connected him with Tom Brenneck of the Menahan Street Band. The two wrote the songs that would make up Bradley’s debut.
Bradley has been busy touring and telling his story to audiences around the world since the album’s release, and on July 21 he’ll be performing at the Firefly Music Featival in Dover, Del. Only in its first year, the Firefly Festival will feature a full brewery with a special Dogfish Head Firefly Ale, a hot-air balloon viewing area and an impressive lineup that also includes the likes of The Black Keys, Jack White and The Flaming Lips.
We recently caught up with Bradley to discuss connecting with audiences, where he found the motivation to keep his dream alive and his unparalleled repertoire of dance moves.
It hasn’t even been two years since No Time For Dreaming was released. Have you been able to acclimate to all of the success, or are you still kind of in a state of shock at how everything has unfolded?
Charles Bradley: It’s just been…wow. I’ve been really thankful that, at my age, I’ve been holding up and finding strength through the love of the people, what they’ve been giving me from day one. It’s unspeakable. The first time I went on tour it was hard for me because singing my life story, the hurt and the pain and the things that I’ve been through, singing it all in front of all the people. When I got it in my blood to push myself to sing it in front of the public, and the love that they showed me when I walked on stage…I saw some love there, and the people wanted to know me. It’s not all about the music. It’s the personality. I want you to know who I am and who is singing each song. The feelings that I get behind when I’m singing. The people are looking for someone they can open up to and talk to. I love going out there and when I see the hurt and the joy on their face, I go out to where they’re at. I know what it’s like to not be able to get to the artist, always way in the back. Every time I go out into the audience, I always aim to go to the back, because I see that the people in the back have just as much love to give me as the people up front. Ever since I’ve been doing these tours it’s like a healing sensation, to the people and myself.
That has to be an amazing experience for you, to talk to people going through hard times and for them to tell you that your example has helped them deal with it and given them strength.
Bradley: I go out and I say “How small are your dreams?” They can be as small as a mustard seed. But I say don’t give up. This guy, he stopped by and he said to me, “Charles I just want to thank you. You made me believe there’s still hope left,” and I said “Yes! Look at you. You’re walking, you’re talking. You can go on and do what you want.” He said, “It’s not as easy as that.” I said, “If your heart is clean and your mind is right and you focus on good things, it’s got to work.” It took me a long time, but now I got this chance and I want to use it for good and push it out for good. I want to help those who are going through trials and tribulations like I’ve been through, those who are hurt and closed up. It’s time to open up and let that spirit out.
LIke you said, you’ve been through a lot of trials and tribulations over the course of your life. What gave you the strength to persevere and to keep playing music when almost everybody else would have given up?
Bradley: The old-fashioned way. I do believe there is a creator above all mankind, and if I didn’t have that faith I’d be in somebody’s jail. I’d be pushing up daisies someplace. But I kept my faith alive, and I know what my grandmother told me one time. One time I asked my grandma, “Why is there so much pressure and hurt in this world?” And my grandmother reached down and picked up a piece of charcoal. She said, “Look at this charcoal.” I said, “Grandma, it’s a thing we burn and use to make a fire with.” She said, “More than that, son.” I said, “What is it, grandma?” She said, “You take this charcoal and you put it under pressure, so much compression and pressure, and one day it will be a precious diamond. Stay in it and know your heart is clean. Remember the charcoal and keep it under pressure and it will turn into a precious diamond one day.” My grandmother told me that when I was a little child and I never forgot it.
It’s taken years for that piece of charcoal to turn into a diamond for you. What was it like for you, then, when you saw your LP on the shelf of a record store for the first time?
Bradley: I was in shock. I said, “Oh God, it is really happening.” I don’t know how to explain this to you, but something in my spirit told me my debut was going to come in my old age. Because I remember I went to see James Brown, and I begged James Brown for a chance to give me an open note. And James Brown looked at me—I was working in San Francisco, at a little place on Broadway, and James Brown was performing that day—I told James Brown, “I’ve been following you for a long time, please give me a chance.” And he said, “Looking at you, I know how bad you want it, but I’m not going to let you get on my stage and take my show from me. You’re going to have to go back to New York and get on line like everybody else. I know you think I’m a mean person, but as a young man it took me a whole lot of trying to get where I’m at. Go back and try, just don’t give up.” He gave me that motivation. I just love music so much. It’s special. When you got a dynamite band behind you to open your soul. When the music is playing, my spirit will open up and God knows what may come out of my spirit.
Like you said, you’re singing about a lot of hard times, but once you get the band behind you, it really seems like you’re having a great time. A lot of artists move around on stage, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone who just plain knows what they’re doing when it comes to their dance moves. You’ve probably been working on all them a long time. Do you have a favorite move that you’ve been perfecting over the years?
Bradley: You know what, the moves that I do, if I hear the band—that’s why I listen to all the instruments, all the things that are playing—if they feel funky enough and they want to go past the music that we’re playing, and I feel it, I’m going to dance how it hits my soul. But when I keep hearing the same thing, I get tired of hearing the same music, I do the same dance moves, over and over. But if the band really wants me to keep loose? Change the tune. Make it a little more pizazz and funky. My whole emotion, my spirit, will change.
So the band is kind of playing with you, then? Trying to coax you into getting funkier and trying new moves?
Bradley: Yes, that’s why I tell them, “When you call me on, don’t do the same intro all the time.” I want to hear something that night. I love to hear it. My body turns into an instrument. It turns into a machine that’s just going with the music. I want to go where the spirit is leading me to. When it gets to where it’s feeling good, the body just do what it’s got to do.
You’re 63 now. How old do you feel? I mean, you’re doing the splits on stage night after night. What’s your secret to staying so limber?
Bradley: I just stay righteous. Stay humble. I know that I speak it all for the Lord, and with the gift you give me, I’m reaching out to the world. I’m reaching out to show who I am that you made me, and only you can give me the energy. I’m going to find the creation inside me to bring it out. And my body is not done yet, thank God. It just wants to give more. And sometimes at shows, when I really get into it, it drains all the energy out of me. I walk off stage and go into the dressing room and sit down and I just don’t want to move.
There’s one thing I know about music—you can go on stage, put your heart into it, and then you go backstage to sit down, and then they come and say, “Charles, they want one more number from you.” And I say, “Oh, no no no.” And he say, “They want more, you gotta go do one more number.” Somewhere inside me I have a reserve inside me, and it only comes to life when it has to. Even yesterday now, I did not feel like doing those shows. Yesterday I just wanted to stay in the hotel and be left alone. And that was my best show last night. Sometimes when the body don’t want to do it and the mind don’t want to do it, and you push yourself…I saw some things yesterday and I thought wow, wow. Where did that come from? You don’t know what you can do until you are put under pressure.
You’re touring Canada now, and you have a pretty busy schedule coming up. You’re going to be playing the Firefly Music Festival in Delaware later in July, which is in its inaugural year. How did you get involved with Firefly?
Bradley: Alex [Bradley’s manager] called me and asked me if I wanted to do it. And I said, “Alex, as long as you can keep a funky band behind me, and give me people who can listen to me and give me a stage and the opportunity to lead my spirit into it, I don’t care. I’m ready.”
The next few years I’m aiming to reach the highest I’ve ever reached in my life. I want to get them saying that you just got to go see Charles Bradley. I want the band to get more powerful and I want them to know me and know me on stage. And I, strictly, 101 percent, want the music, the music and dynamics behind me. If I can get them to listen to me, to follow my emotions and dynamics on stage, I’m ready to just rock this world.
You’ve probably been used to playing smaller clubs your entire life. Recently you’ve gotten a chance to play large outdoor festivals in front of thousands of people. What has that experience been like for you?
Bradley: I’ll tell you, even though I’m doing these big outdoor concerts, with my band on tour, going overseas, playing these big clubs, I like doing night clubs. The big nightclubs. I like to do shows at night, because when I do shows at night and get my lighting effects and all the things that I want, it all plays a part in my music and to my dynamics. Like at night clubs they give you a late show, 11 o’clock. See that tells me what to wear on stage, how to come out on stage. In the daytime, I don’t want to come out flashing, because it’s daylight. So I love the night shows.
What’s next for you? Are you recording a new album?
Bradley: Yes, we’ve already got eight songs. Demos. And I suppose we’ll do two more to complete the album, but I had to stop because I had to go on tour.