There are dozens — maybe hundreds, even thousands — of potential Charles Bradleys out there, toiling in obscurity, simply getting by, having given up on their aspirations of musical stardom decades earlier. It’s not exactly a sob story; everyone who attempts to “make it” in show business realizes the odds are seriously stacked against them. The fact that Bradley has made it puts him in the minority, but the manner and timing in which he found success makes him one of a kind.
So many elements to the 63-year-old soul singer’s story seem almost beyond belief: the decade he worked as a chef at a hospital for the mentally ill; his near-fatal illness and his brother’s murder; his big break coming while performing as a James Brown tribute act more than 30 years after he had first hoped to be a singer; his debut album, “No Time for Dreaming,” released at age 62. Now Bradley is playing for adoring audiences on multiple continents and is the subject of a new documentary that casts him as an inspiration, an example of American resilience and redemption.
But Bradley’s success is a result of his music, which overflows with the ingredient most crucial to soul music — soul. The horns and arrangements are impeccable and expertly arranged, but it’s Bradley’s voice that takes center stage. On “No Time for Dreaming,” he sounds battered and bruised but still standing. He aches but is never angry. There’s heartbreak but also hope. In a sea of acts tagged as “throwback soul” or “retro soul,” Bradley is neither — he’s the real thing.
The journey has felt even longer than it has actually been, Bradley says, and he is humbled by his good fortune. “It’s an opportunity to spread the love. I feel that’s my mission,” the soft-spoken singer says.
When Bradley talks, he often sounds as though he’s halfway between a sermon and a trance. “When I get onstage, when I open my heart and people accept me, and I see their faces and the joy that I bring, it makes me say, ‘Charles, by keeping your heart and your mind free, you’re fighting the good fight and helping the good people.’ And that’s my mission. I open my heart.”
Bradley has seen plenty of America over the course of his life. He was born in Florida and raised in Brooklyn, primarily by his grandmother. As a teenager he was homeless, bouncing between friends’ apartments and subway cars. He became enamored with James Brown and dreamed of being a singer, but first he needed a stable job. The federal Job Corps program took him to Virginia, New Jersey and finally Maine, where he started working as a chef.
But it wasn’t until decades later, after ping-ponging across the country doing various jobs and overcoming a near-fatal illness, that Bradley was able to realize his musical ambitions. He was living in Brooklyn and had started his Black Velvet James Brown routine. His act caught on in New York, but then his brother Joe, who had offered crucial support when Bradley was ill, was murdered and Bradley hit a new low. It became the defining moment of his life and also the defining moment of his album, in the form of closing song “Heartaches and Pain.”
I woke up this morning
My mama she was crying
So I looked out my window
Police lights was flashing
People were screaming
So I ran down to the street
A friend grabbed my shoulder
And he said these words to me
Life is full of sorrow
So I hate to tell you this
Your brother is gone
Those lyrics are followed by a wail that’s as anguished as one would expect. But it also sounds like a great release, a lifetime’s worth of sorrow vanquished in one captivating yelp. The song was therapeutic but also took an emotional toll on Bradley.
“I broke out crying every time I tried to sing it,” he says of his first few performances.
Gabriel Roth, the head of Daptone Records and one of the people most responsible for the soul revival of the past decade, saw Bradley’s James Brown show and decided to give him a shot as a recording artist. Starting in 2002, Daptone released seven singles by Bradley, each one further raising the singer’s profile and culminating in the 2011 release of his lifetime-in-the-making debut album.
He poured his heart into his lyrics, creating a confessional of sorts and making him easy to root for. As much as he has been through, though, all Bradley wants to do is to give back.
“When I leave this Earth, if I’m onstage . . . that’s my goal,” he says. “If I collapse on the stage and go home, what a beautiful way to go. At least I know I’m giving them the depths of my soul. I’m giving them the truth.”
Thursday at 7 p.m.
at the 9:30 Club,
815 V St. NW. 202-265-0930. www.930.com. $20.
For a sampling of Charles Bradley’s music, check out:
From “No Time for Dreaming”: