It was almost exactly a year ago that Charles Bradley told the Straight: “Every time I see something I love to do, and I get into it, it’s always taken from me and I’m right back where I started from.” The 63-year-old Screaming Eagle of Soul was still in the first flush of success when he uttered those words, riding high on a critically lauded debut album, No Time for Dreaming, touring the world, and wrangling with the unlikely fact that, after a lifetime of poverty and struggle, he was becoming something of a sensation.
Twelve months later, Bradley still isn’t content to rest on anything except the fancy office chair he’s sitting in when the Straight reaches him in Manhattan. “I’m still in the same position,” he says, his voice already trembling with emotion. “Like a lot of things in life, you got to feel it inside when you say, ‘This is it.’ And I ain’t got that depth yet. Until I know definitely that I can get out of the projects and never look back to it again, I’m still in the same position.”
Be that as it may, you gotta wonder what Bradley means when he talks about getting out of the projects. As the director of the film Charles Bradley: Soul of America revealed to the Straight a few weeks ago, Bradley is more or less running his own reclamation program in the troubled Bed-Stuy neighbourhood we see in the movie.
For one thing, he’s still hitting local clubs as Black Velvet, the James Brown–inspired bar act that convinced Daptone label head Gabe Roth to sign the vocalist in the first place. It’s not like he needs to. “They don’t want me to let go of that,” Bradley chuckles. “When James passed, they give me the torch, they say, ‘Charles, ain’t nobody can get out there and do that thing the way you do it. You don’t pretend it, you just goddamn put your guts into it,’ so that’s what I do.”
Then there are the two huge barbecues he threw for the community on Memorial Day and Labour Day.
“There’s a lot of hardship live around me,” he explains, “and I just wanna show them, ‘I understand you all have some pain.’ And I had a little money that I have from the music, so I took a little of it and I went and bought a lot of barbecue; ribs, stuff like that, and we just had a party.”
Bradley also rounded up the musicians he plays with—“I liked it because it was all black, white, green, Spanish, everybody was just partyin’,” he says—and he made the grub. “I was a cook for 35 years,” he adds. “I know how to put some food together.”
Deep soul, excellent ribs, and outrageous vocal chops aside, this is why we love him. Charles Bradley has been intimate with the American nightmare for his entire life, and his very existence is an emotion-drenched, lion-hearted protest against it. “I wanna put a mark on this earth that anybody can say, ‘Man, listen to Charles’s music, the guy’s a good-hearted person, from in and out,’ ” he says. “And that’s the kind of person I wanna leave this earth as. Not as a corrupted person trying to destroy the world, I wanna leave this world with a good, loving, kind heart.”
Charles Bradley plays LIVE at Squamish, at Hendrickson Fields & Logger Sports Ground, on Saturday (August 25).