The return of soul’s Screaming Eagle

Charles Bradley. Photo: PA Photo/Handout
Charles Bradley. Photo: PA Photo/Handout

It’s now five years since Charles Bradley released his debut album, No Time For Dreaming, and took his first steps away from a life almost too difficult to imagine.

With no knowledge of his backstory, the album could be mistaken for an obscure, misplaced soul gem, cut during the golden era of Atlantic, Stax, or some other magnificent label.

The classic themes were all present; heartache and pain, namely, peppered with resilience, love and hope, while Bradley - 62 at the time, staring out from the sleeve wearing tradesman-type overalls - looked very much like a man who’d seen life from tough perspective.

But No Time For Dreaming wasn’t some forgotten classic, discovered after having dropped down the back of a studio executive’s filing cabinet back in 1968. And while Amy Winehouse’s success with resurrecting lush soul saw a wave of retro records trying to cash in, Bradley was no tribute act. Well, actually he was - he performed James Brown covers under the name Black Velvet until right before the release of his first album - but as far as his own music goes, he’s the real deal.

“This is where I really got discovered, where I was accepted,” he says, gesturing around him from an armchair in the bar where we’ve met to talk.

Bradley was spotted by Daptone Records boss Gabriel Roth, performing as Black Velvet in New York.

Roth informed Tommy Brenneck, a collaborator of Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse, and the two got to work on getting him some original songs to record, the first of which were released as very limited-run singles in 2002.

“I never thought I’d make it out of the US,” says Bradley. “I was doing the James Brown show, but I knew what music I had in my heart.”

Around this time, film-maker Poull Brien, who met Bradley when directing a video of his in 2010, was making the unmissable documentary that charts the singer’s incredible story.

Charles Bradley: The Soul Of America was premiered at 2012’s South By South West festival in Texas, and the so-called Screaming Eagle of Soul’s star was cemented.

As those who’ve seen the film will know, Bradley was born in Gainesville, Florida, in 1948, to extreme poverty. Abandoned by his mother, from the age of eight-months to eight years he was raised by his grandmother, until his mother returned and took him and his siblings to live in Brooklyn, New York, where he became infatuated with James Brown after being taken to see him perform.

Still dirt poor, Bradley ran away from home at 14, and trained as a cook in Maine where he stayed for 10 years, before moving around a fair bit and finally settling in California in 1977, where he worked as a caretaker for an apartment block for 17 years.

“There were a lot of years when my mother and I didn’t talk,” he says. “She came out to California to get me but I wouldn’t go back to New York. Then I went back and she had the same old things she had when I was a kid, roaches everywhere and things like that, and I knew I had to get back to California.”

He eventually moved back to New York, however, to care for his mother when she told him she was ill.

Around 1996, Bradley had health scare of his own, almost dying from a severe reaction to penicillin. That same year, he awoke one morning to the sound of sirens, soon discovering it was police attending the scene of his brother’s murder a few blocks away.

While his songs don’t address these issues explicitly, the emotions are loud and clear. His second album, Victim Of Love, released in 2013, continued the story and built on the success of both his debut and Brien’s film.

And now we come to Changes, his third album - the first new music from Bradley since his mother’s death in 2014, which features a cover of Black Sabbath’s Changes, a song he says conveys his grief.

Explaining the choice, he quotes a line from the song: ‘ It took so long to realise that I can still hear her last goodbyes, now all my days are filled with tears. I wish I could go back and change these years...’

“You see, there’s a true story behind all of this,” Bradley adds. “All of this album was written and recorded around the time I saw my mother take her last breath and left us. When I heard the lyrics to Changes, I knew it was exactly what I was feeling.”

Bradley paid for his mum’s funeral with money he’d managed to put away. He says he lives a more comfortable life these days, but still isn’t really enjoying himself.

“I’m a very emotional person,” he says, “and it won’t be until all this is over that I can really relax and have some fun. I’m 67 now and I haven’t met anyone I want to spend the rest of my life with. People say I should get out and play the field, but that’s not me. I never had a child because until these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to give it a better life than the one I had.”

Having been given this second chance so late in life, he’s keen not to mess it up, choosing to get early nights after his concerts to be fully rested ahead of the following day’s show.

“My band are young enough to stay up all night partying and then play that night, although if they don’t give me the notes I want, I get mad! But they have to be true to themselves. I can’t do that; if I don’t look good or sound good, then the whole show is ruined.”

One thing he does enjoy - apart from carrying out DIY tasks for elderly neighbours who still see him as Charles the former caretaker, not Charles the international singing sensation - is being spotted in the street.

On a flight recently, a fan recognised him after hearing him speak, and approached for an autograph.

“That was incredible,” says Bradley. “The first few times I was recognised was the same. It was an incredible feeling and I was so excited. But as I grew and more people recognised me, I had to learn how to respond and how to show my love to people, while keeping a level head and not getting carried away by all that’s happened to me.

“I was over the moon. I still am, just in a different way.”

Charles Bradley’s third album, Changes, was released on April 1. He plays a series of UK dates, beginning on March 30. Visit www.thecharlesbradley.com