Six years ago, I wrote on Bradley who passed away today. He was one of my favorite feature subjects.
Few musicians have traveled as circuitous a route to a debut recording as Charles Bradley. The 62-year-old soul singer will release his first album, “No Time for Dreaming” (Daptone), on Tuesday, and that night he will celebrate with a concert at Southpaw in Park Slope.
“They say God has a plan for everyone,” said Mr. Bradley last week at the Dunham studios in South Williamsburg. Then he added, with a warm chuckle, “His plan for me meant working 48 years to achieve my dream!”
Mr. Bradley was 14 when his sister took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown. The performance inspired his ambition to become a singer, but he had many obstacles to overcome. Mr. Bradley had a turbulent youth; he ran away from home as a teenager. “I slept in the subway—find the longest line and sleep till you reached the end of the line and the cops would chase you off. You just take the next train and ride it. Do that three times, and it’s morning.”
After joining the Job Corps, he received training as a cook and job placement in Bar Harbor, Maine. During this time, he continued to pursue his passion for music, developing a James Brown tribute show called Black Velvet. He formed a band and played Mr. Brown’s repertoire throughout New England before too many of his bandmates were sent to fight in the Vietnam War. Wearying of battles over pay and in need of a change of scenery, Mr. Bradley in the mid-1970s relocated to California. He found work cooking in a retirement home in Menlo Park and pursued his musical interests in the Bay Area.
Mr. Bradley speaks with a gentle rasp, and he has a passion for telling stories. “There were a lot of great musicians out there, especially in Oakland. It was a very good place to play.” He was content to cook during the day and do his James Brown tribute show at night. He returned to New York and settled in Bushwick in the mid-1990s to take care of his mother and be closer to his siblings. He continued to perform in Black Velvet at various nightclubs in Brooklyn.
Then in 2000 two pivotal events occurred. His brother was shot to death, and he met Gabe Roth of Daptone Records, the hub of the local soul scene. Mr. Roth, who saw Mr. Bradley perform, introduced him to Tom Brenneck, a guitarist who had two instrumental bands playing music inspired in part by James Brown’s backing band. They got together in a studio and Mr. Bradley began improvising lyrics to the bands’ grooves. Mr. Brenneck encouraged the singer to begin writing.
“Heartaches and Pain” was one of Mr. Bradley’s first collaborations with Mr. Brenneck. The death of Mr. Bradley’s brother had left the singer very depressed. “I didn’t know how to deal with it until the lyrics came to mind,” the singer said.
Mr. Bradley stayed in touch as Mr. Brenneck’s other endeavors kept him busy. One Brenneck group changed its name to the Budos Band, shifted its focus to Afro-Beat and became a national success. Also, Mr. Brenneck began playing with the Dap Kings, the backing band for Sharon Jones, who is one of the biggest stars to emerge from the Brooklyn soul scene.
Messrs. Bradley and Brenneck resumed working together about four years ago. Mr. Bradley continued to write lyrics, some personal and some with social commentary. They began recording the album in Mr. Brenneck’s home studio in Bushwick.
“Since he’s new to the recording process, I think the informal environment was really good for Charles,” Mr. Brenneck said by phone from the Dunham studios last week.
“No Time for Dreaming” is an impressive recording. The soulful grooves of Mr. Brenneck’s Menahan Street Band are self-assured and deep. Mr. Bradley’s vocals have vintage grit—at times he sounds like Otis Redding, at others he recalls his idol. There is urgency and passion to everything he sings.
When asked about current pop music, Mr. Bradley laughed. “I’m not a fan of all that boom bap,” he said. “The lyrics are too sexual; they aren’t about what’s really happening out here.”
“That’s the unique thing about Charles,” Mr. Brenneck said. “You can hear that he believes everything he sings deeply in his heart. That’s real soul.”
—Mr. Johnson writes about music for the Journal.