Photo credit: Chris Frape
When Charles Bradley was younger, living in California, and working at a restaurant, something happened. A patron was unhappy with how a burger was cooked, so he apologized. The owner then got very angry he was talking to customers, called him the n-word, and said she’d “fix” him. The next day, when Charles returned to work in the kitchen, a large white man came in from the street and started beating him up. “Before I knew it, he picked me up, and pushed me over the grill,” says Charles, wincing. “And I felt the heat coming up to my back, and I’m trying everywhere to fight to get this guy off of me.”
The cops arrived, and “put the gun on my head,” according to Charles. He went to jail for 30 days before the trial—and his attacker didn’t show up—and so Charles was given three years probation. He’s sharing this story with me because he’s wants it to be known hard it is for him to get into Canada and “spread his love with his music.”
The 66-year-old, who released his debut record at the age of 62, has lived a life. He spent the majority of his time on and off the street, living in project houses and on couches, singing as a James Brown impersonator before eventually finding his path with Daptone Records. A few years ago, a documentary called Soul of America attempted to tell his story, explaining just how a man could release a debut album at such an age. This weekend, at the legendary Apollo Theater in NYC, Daptone will put all of its artists, including Charles, on display and record a live album. (Get tickets here.)
Throughout our both joyful and tearful hour-long conversation, which takes place on a leather couch in the soul musician's apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, he continually tells me that he’s terrified of going outside, but he wants the people of the world to look inside of themselves and their hearts. Behind Charles' big brown eyes is a gentle, courageous, and kind man. He's someone who’s had shit kicked in his face more times than he can count, yet someone who still believes that life is about that moment just before you kiss someone for the first time.
Noisey: You have an incredible story.
Charles Bradley: I’ll tell you anything. There’s so much I can sit and talk about. My manager wants me to write a book. Like right now, my mom made this apartment right here. I was living in the projects, and she said I got beaten in the projects so much, and she asked me to sell the house she had before. And I sold the house, and she put the down payment. This was her apartment. The plan was I could have the basement, and she could have the apartment. When we got this house—the man selling knew we were so interested so they shortcutted on everything. Every time it rained the basement got flooded out, so I couldn’t stay down there. My mother made it possible, now I have a house. And it looks like, “Oh this guy’s been doing good,” but I’ve been to hell and back. I’ve been on my own since I was 14, and I’ve seen a lot. If I’m out in the streets I’m doing something positive with my music. Other than that, I’m in the house. I’m really afraid to go out in the public. You look on TV with all the drastic things going on nowadays, I don’t want to get involved with that. And I’ve learned to not hate or despise anyone, I just stay away from it.
At what point did you hit that realization? You’re 66 now.
It’s scary, man. Really now within myself, it’s scary out there. If I’m not out there doing something positive, I’m in the house to do something to keep myself busy. And now I get more angry because people say, “Oh he’s got this, now he thinks he this” I ain’t no better than the people out there struggling. I just try to hold and take care of what I got. ‘Cause they say you may not get what you want, but take care of what you got. I see people envying me, and I’m wondering why. Because I went the right way struggling, and to be honest I kissed a lot of asses because I wanted to get ahead. And I look back on my life and there’s nothing there for me other than that ghetto and corruption world. So I kiss ass to keep going, but at least I do it honestly.
Here's the premiere of a live video of "Strictly Reserved for You," from Bradley's most recent record Victim of Love. The video is from Daptone's Live From the House of Soul series (shot in their backyard in Bushwick), and directed by Soul of America director Poull Brien.
You struggled for so long—living on the street, in the projects, taking care of your family members, dealing with your mom’s death. This is a broad question, but what have all these experiences taught you about humanity?
One thing I learned about that I always knew about myself that I always been afraid of myself. I’m gonna take you back before you was born. Back in Gainesville, Florida, when I was living with my grandma, there was a line where we lived. Blacks couldn’t cross this line. But there was this white man always coming to get me—I was six or seven—he would come and get me and bring me across the fence. I didn’t know about racist stuff or black or white. I just always known as people. But he always took me over and gave me an ice cream cone. In those days, TVs were not that big and I never seen a TV in my life. He had a TV, and I always would say, “How do people get in there? How do they get in the picture tube?” He’d say, “through the cord.” So I’m on the floor looking at the cord figuring out how they get through that little cord into there. This man always been beautiful to me, but I was not supposed to be there. My grandma would always be like, “Charles where are you?” and he take me back like “don’t tell your grandma,” and he put me over the fence. I’d say “Grandma I was under the house playing.
I never knew about racial segregation until Martin Luther King. Now I’m grown and I’m looking at the society as it’s changed, and I seen how racial has happened on TV. Black says “Charles you’re an asskisser;” whites say, “Charles find who you are and what you do.” I’m trying to find greatness inside me that we’re all God’s children; that’s why god made so many beautiful different colored roses. Not because of what you have inside of you, what you feel. So that’s what I feel now, and why it’s so scary. I’m walking on a very touchy road right now where blacks envy me so much. And I’m telling you, don’t envy me. You got the gift inside you too. But I had to go inside me and find it, and it was scary. Just because if you’re gonna hate all white mens, we would never be in the position we in today. Some of them have love in them, some don’t. Same thing with the blacks too. I want it to be rainbow. Like a Chinese cat, a black guy, a Spanish guy, then I’ll be more whole. And this is what I want to do, but they all still in a category of themselves. They’re not ready to open up to grow, and I want to show them how to grow, and how my heart skips a beat. And when I mean skips a beat, really it does.I love everybody, and when I see something with a dark part inside of them, I think how can I change it?
How did you handle it when your mom passed away?
I was sitting in this sofa, and she told me to tell me come in the room. And I came in the room, and my mother said “Son, I just want to thank you for taking care of me.” I say “Mom, I’ll be with you all the way. I don’t want you to leave me mom.” She said, “Son, mama’s tired. I need to go.” I used to sit here watching her moan and groan and suffering, and I didn’t want her to go, but I knew she had to go. I went downstairs, went to sleep and the next day my little niece came. She was banging on my door but I was in a deep sleep, so they called me on the phone and she said, “Charles, come upstairs, Nana’s not breathing.” I just jumped up and came upstairs, and I look at her, her eyes were just a little open. Her hand was cold; her heart was still warm. I went crazy, I thought about jumping out of the window. I had a show that day, a sold out concert that day.
Did you do it?
I did it. I don’t know how I did it. I went down in the basement, and went crazy. I was crying so hard, and god. My sister Andrea came over and she went crazy. My sister said, “I want to see the whole thing,” and I said, “I can’t see them put my mama in the bodybag.” And I went that night and played my heart out.
So all these things we’ve talked about, what you were just speaking with, your mother passing, how do you see all of this coming out in your music?
Yes, because of the people I preform to. If I travel around the world and open my heart to the world, and give my love, people say, “Charles thank you for helping me.”
What’s that like for you?
Oh my god, seeing them come to me and crying and saying, “thank you Charles, I’ve been carrying my cross for a long time. Hearing your music and how you come out with it, I know there’s hope too. Some people say that 57-60 years life has ended, but you’re still giving your love.” That made me feel like I gave something good to the world.
That’s what attracted me to the music. Something connects with the listener immediately. You can feel it in the songs.
I tell you the truth man, I’ve got nothing to lie about. My niece says, “Why you telling people about me?” and I say “cause it’s truth.” And she said “I don’t say anything about you,” and I say “you can tell anyone anything you want about me, cause if it’s truth it’s truth.” My life is just an open book. If I closed my life and let this all ball up inside of me, I don’t know what would happen. But I keep it open.
What are you hoping your music accomplishes?
What I hope is if you turn on the news tonight, I want to find a way to stop all this corruption I see. I want to use me as a loving person who sees this world and knows what you’re doing to the good people. That you’re killing them with the corruption. Every time I see the news I see the 60s coming back again. And I want to be apart of none of it; I want to change it to be a brighter place. Yes we’re growing up with high tech and computers, but humanity is getting worse. It’s scary. I’m seeing, what’s that thing in the bible?
Revelations. I’m seeing that. Revelation is really at hand right now. And I’m looking at it; we don’t see it. People who have everything, they don’t see it. It’s getting very scary, and I’m seeing the thing I have right here, when are they gonna take this from me? I learned how to be a survivor though. It’s not the material things gonna make me, it’s the spirit inside gonna make me, and I have to find the strength to keep going.
You’ve had a massive big life, what do you feel life is about?
I feel like life used to be honesty, loving, caring, knowing you’re a real person and a child of god. And now the way I see life, the world doesn’t give a damn as long as they can get what they want, how they want, how they use, don’t give a damn as long as it’s me me me me. And I don’t see it that way.
Is that general society or cultural thing?
If I open my heart and give myself to one person, world already say “oh he’s a weak guy, a weak person.” And I’m trying to show my dignity and sensitivity and who I am. And they don’t look at that no more. The world look at now is what you got. This whole planet is our home, and we got to learn how to live. A lot of things I see now, I always believed in love honesty work hard you’ll be somebody, and I don’t know anymore. All it is is what you got, and that’s what I’m still living on.
I’m 27. What piece of advice would you give someone my age?
Oh young man, I feel sorry for you. I really do. I see how you talking asking me these questions, I feel sorry for you. The generation you live, the identity you have find, and love and respect. But they’re going to crucify you. If you can keep your honesty and love, all I can say to the best in my soul that I’ve lived, is trust in something greater. All I can say is, you’ll always be my little brother. Just keep trusting. My mom says this is not our home; it’s the teaching you give to the world that you give from your soul to the world now while in your physical body. The ones that gave up and are corrupted, keep your love strong. Until the day you take the last breath out of your body, and that body goes back into the earth, you’re going into a greater life that you never have to worry about anymore. Your love is gonna shine. From the love you gave to your brothers and sisters while on this earth. It’s heavy and it hurts, but we all have something we willing to live and die for. Would you either die for love or you die for hate?
I’d die for love.
I felt it. I felt you’re a sincere young man looking to grow. People are all over the world living in their own identity. And it’s scary; it’s very very scary. Now I don’t know where I belong, but I know I’m home. It’s scary, but trust in your gut feeling and in your heart. Just know there’s something real inside you, and hold onto your dignity. When you see something you know is wrong, don’t do away with it. I don’t care what it is. Sometime you’re gonna be put in a space by yourself. And you’ll say “wow.” I said this a long time ago: will I find true love for myself? I ain’t never found it. Been looking ever since I was 14, and everyone says it don’t exist. But I don’t believe that, I still believe it exists. I’m 66-years-old, and I still believe it exists. Give your love and never change. Be willing to die for the love you carry inside.
Eric Sundermann is the Managing Editor of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.