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Can't Stop, Won't Stop: Charles Bradley's Life-Long Fight For His Career 

Wednesday, May 11 2016

Whoever decided James Brown was the hardest-working man in show business clearly never met Charles Bradley.

After all, the soul singer known as "The Screaming Eagle" was 62 years of age when his debut album, 2011's No Time for Dreaming, was released. That record was the culmination of a life of hardships: For decades, Bradley performed as a James Brown impersonator, slept on subways, worked thankless odd jobs, and endured his brother's murder.

Now, Bradley is one of the hottest retro-soul singers around, performing live sets on programs like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and CBS This Morning. His music has been used in TV shows like American Dad!, and his songs have been remixed by artists such as Jay Z and Asher Roth.

And yet, despite these accolades, Bradley said he still doesn't know how to handle the onslaught of fame that has poured in over the past five years.

"You know, my life is honestly bittersweet," he says. "Even now, I'm truly afraid to really let myself totally be happy, because if I let myself be happy, there's always a downside someplace, so I just stay neutral."

Fortunately, Bradley is anything but neutral in his music. On the title track of his latest album, Changes, he offers a remarkable, soul-infused cover of a Black Sabbath single. Slowing the song's pace down and reframing it as a mournful tribute to his late mother, it is a stunningly powerful piece of music.

Bradley said he didn't even know who Black Sabbath was when producer Tommy Brenneck approached him with the idea to record the cover.

"I listened to the lyrics and they had some deepness that fit my soul," he says. "The first two or three verses were kind of hard, but the last verse clicked right into my head. It brought back memories of my late mom, so that song helped me bind together with her again."

Bradley's relationship with his mother is one of the main focuses in Charles Bradley: Soul of America, a documentary premiered at South by Southwest in 2012. Released one year after his debut came out, the film helped create a buzz around Bradley, who was still relatively unknown. Though much of it focuses on the time he spent working on the album, Bradley's mother, whom he only got to know during the last 15 years of her life, is also a central tenet.

Part of the reason for this is because Bradley ran away from his home in Brooklyn at age 14 and moved to California, where he ended up living for 20 years. While out west, he lived for some time in the Bay Area, working as a cook in Menlo Park and at Bill Charles' Winship Restaurant in Sausalito. When new management took over the Menlo Park establishment and Bradley was subsequently let go, 500 people signed a petition to retain him — a telling sign of the endless affinity that people have for his work, be it in the studio or the kitchen.

Years later, while working as a cook at a club on Broadway in North Beach, Bradley finally met the man he'd made a living pretending to be: James Brown. Shortly before Brown was scheduled to go onstage, Bradley walked into his dressing room and bravely asked his idol if he could perform along with him.

"I talked to him for the five minutes before he had to go onstage," Bradley recalls. "I said, 'James, I've been looking for an opportunity all my life. Give me a break.' He looked me up and down and said, 'Young man, you look like good entertainment, but I'm not going to let you get on that stage to take my show from me.' "

Instead, Brown told him to audition for a spot at the famed Harlem music venue, the Apollo Theater, where Bradley originally saw Brown perform in 1962. Bradley took his advice, performing at the venue's amateur night for years as a Brown impersonator. Years later, Bradley has not only performed at the venue as himself, but he's headlined multiple shows there, his name proudly displayed on the marquee out front.

With three records under his belt, a hectic schedule of international touring, and legions of fans clamoring for more of his throat-shredding, knee-buckling sound, the world is finally Bradley's for the taking.

The thing is, there's not much he wants.

"I just want to give people a good show," he says. "I want to reach in my heart and give it to them, and give them something to really think about, help them with their own deep emotions inside, and how they feel. That's what I'm about."

Sounds like a reasonable request, especially when it's coming from the hardest-working man in show business.


About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.


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