A korero with inspirational soul survivor Charles Bradley.
The gravelly-voiced 65-year-old greets me with a warm hug. He’s nervous, but once we sit down at Wellington’s Amora Hotel lobby and start talking about soul music, he relaxes and opens up about his extraordinary journey. It’s a privilege to interview Charles Bradley. He is so sincere and has such heart, spirit, and passion. As during his knockout New Zealand Festival performance the night before, Bradley gestures vividly and emotionally as we discuss Bobby Womack, hard times, and faith. He announces he hopes to record some Otis Redding covers. Photography by Catherine Bisley.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: I really enjoyed seeing you at Williamsburg Park, Brooklyn, New York, in September.
CHARLES BRADLEY: Wow, you gets around too [chuckles].
AB: I try. My friend, a long-time New Yorker, said it was the greatest gig he had ever seen. I was thinking this is the finest of homecomings, Charles. I saw you hanging out in the audience during Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. I thought how down-to-earth and supportive. Even though it’s your gig, you’re still sharing the love with everyone.
CB: I try to be as honest and fair as I can. When I know I have times that I can hang out and show the people around me that I love them and want to be around them, then I do it.
AB: There was an unusually powerful moment during this Williamsburg gig when you recalled your days as a homeless 14-year-old, walking around Brooklyn, “looking for any place to lay my head.”
CB: That’s right. You remember? That’s good.
AB: Later, I watched the raw documentary Soul of America, also moving on such topics. It shows your struggle—almost dying, grinding poverty, working crappy Heat-esque cook jobs—which you overcame.
CB: The documentary—I haven’t really watched the whole thing yet. Because I’m still deeply emotional and now that my mom passed away, it’s one month and three days. And now I want to look at it. But I want to wait until I’m home by myself and just get into it. Because when she was alive, I said, “Mommy, you want me to do all this, I don’t do this.” Now I wish I can do it, so I want to sit back and watch it.
AB: My condolences about your mother. I’m sure she’ll be looking down over you. She’ll be proud seeing the concert you were doing at the bottom of the earth last night and all the love that Wellington had for you.
CB: It was beautiful last night. I told the guys, I said, “I’m getting hyper.” I only had a little more time and I was ready to keep going because once my spirit opened up I said, “I’m ready to give.”
CB: [Laughs] Well, thank you, bro.
AB: I wish I had half of your energy, Charles.
CB: You’ve got it [chuckles].
AB: I think you share a belief I have, which is that the greatest music ever made is the soul music of the 60s and 70s, and it will last forever?
CB: I look at music today and all they’re doing is tapping off the old music, soul music. They’re tapping off it, putting it in a computer, and they mix it and it’s the same thing coming back from the bottom line. Soul is here to stay.
“You know, real music that fits the soul, you’ll never get it out of your heart. That’s the way I look at it. When I hear, ‘These Arms of Mine’, ‘Pain in My Heart’. I can sit there and play that song all day. Over and over. Because it’s a feeling that it gives you.”
AB: My two favourite musicians are Otis Redding and Bill Withers.
CB: Yes, my favourites: Otis Redding, James Brown. Those are my favourites, and Tyrone Davis. Women: Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand, Whitney Houston. Those be my favourites.
AB: I play Otis Redding everyday, I never get tired of it-
AB: Songs like ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’, ‘Mister Pitiful’. They speak to me endlessly-
CB: ‘These Arms of Mine’!
AB: Yes, ‘These Arms of Mine’!
CB: Aah! Yes, that’s one of my favourites. And ‘Pain in My Heart’, yes I love that.
AB: It’s so endlessly moving, isn’t it, ‘These Arms of Mine’?
CB: You know, real music that fits the soul, you’ll never get it out of your heart. That’s the way I look at it. When I hear, ‘These Arms of Mine’, ‘Pain in My Heart’. Ooh. I can sit there and play that song all day. Over and over. Because it’s a feeling that it gives you.
AB: You know how sometimes the city gets a bit much, as you sang about last night on ‘Strictly Reserved for You’? Last month I took a couple of days out, drove into the middle of nowhere and just kept playing Otis Redding.
CB: It’s a pleasure, man.
AB: On No Time for Dreaming, your first, 2011 album, you did those terrific covers of Neil Young (‘Heart of Gold’) and Kurt Cobain (‘Stay Away’). Then Black Sabbath’s ‘Changes’. For years you did James Brown covers live for small change, now you’re doing Charles Bradley. Do you ever think of covering Otis Redding, like ‘These Arms of Mine’?
CB: I want to. I want to do ‘These Arms of Mine’, I want to do ‘Pain in My Heart’ and I want to do ‘Dreams to Remember’. Remember that one? Yes! I want to do those three songs. I love those three songs. And I want to get permission to do it and I want to do it my way, my vision. When I go home, I’m going to talk to the [Daptones] music director. I’m going to make that be known! I’m going to tell him about those three songs.
AB: Across America and across the world, young people are excited to hear you, hear your soul music.
CB: That is—wow. And to see the young people just taking love from me and my music, that is an honour. I can see people my age hearing me sing and liking what I’m doing. But when you see the young people taking to you—I must be doing something right.
AB: When Bobby Womack was out here last year he thought–
CB: I met him. I was at his concert in Manhattan and they invited me to come over and I think I have a picture on me. Let me see if I can find it [searches for the photo on his smartphone]. Let me see. That’s my mom.
AB: That’s a beautiful photo.
CB: Yes. She was 89 years old right there. So she still looked good.
AB: In Soul of America you were doing such a devoted job of looking after her for her last years, having forgiven her for abandoning you as a child.
CB: Yes, that’s my heart. We had a hard time coming to really get to know one another, we really took time [since 2000 when brother Joseph was murdered].
AB: Bobby Womack songs like ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ are potent aren’t they?
CB: Bobby Womack, I just love that guy. We’re about near the same age and he’s been very sick lately.
AB: And he’s still going!
CB: That voice, oh yes! When I went to his concert I was shocked.
AB: He still had it in Auckland. He was a supportive, friendly guy?
CB: Yes, very, that’s why I want to find the photo.
AB: When I was in New York, it was very cool going to places like Harlem, going past 110th Street, and just thinking about all those classic Bobby Womack songs.
CB: [Still looking for photo on smartphone] Yes, yes. I know it’s in here. If I can learn how to use it right.
AB: Bobby Womack said on Obama: “He’s got four years to straight out fifty years of bullshit. Shit’s been going on a long time, they’ve got to put it all on the black man.”
CB: Wow. Say that again one more time.
AB: The essence of what he was saying was that people were blaming Obama for years of problems that he hadn’t created.
CB: It’s true. I agree to that. There’s a lot of things that I see in my life, and my days are coming up. I’ve seen lots in my life, but I don’t turn hatred to use it, I use it for goodness. I try to find a way to make a difference.
AB: We felt that message last night.
CB: Yes. When I say things, I say it from the heart.
AB: Your Daptones colleagues Sharon Jones and Gabe Roth, who electrified WOMAD 2008, are big-hearted, too. I saw that Jay-Z sampled ‘I Believe in Your Love’ on ‘Open Letter’.
CB: I heard about that but I never got the chance to see it.
AB: Even today’s biggest rapper is still reaching back to classic soul.
CB: Because the classic will never die, because when you want to really get into real music, you’ve got to go back to the classic.
AB: He and Kanye West did the same thing with ‘Otis’.
CB: Those are the ones that I always will keep my energy and focus on. Because that’s where real music come from. Here we go—found it! See [laughs]. Yes [shows me photo with Bobby Womack].
“…from my own faith, from my own love and honesty, I know there’s a creator someplace. And that faith keeps me strong, and keeps me looking up, because if I didn’t have that kind of faith, I think I would have been dead a long time ago.”
AB: Charming photo. When was this?
CB: That was about two going on three months ago, I would say. In Manhattan, on Spring Street, his concert.
AB: He’s still doing good gigs despite everything. He’s inspirational, isn’t he?
CB: Yes, he’s very inspirational. He got up there and started singing, and he was, oh my god. But he didn’t sing one that I wanted him to sing, my favourite, it’s called ‘I’m Through (Trying to Prove my Love to You)’. I love that song but he wouldn’t sing it! He said, “If you’d have came to me earlier, and asked me, I would’ve.”
AB: I wish I could dance a third as well as you.
CB: You’ve got it. You’ve got a gift. One thing I always say; we all, each and every one of us, got a gift. Maybe some of us never find it because they don’t seek it, but seek your gift. You’ve a gift. And believe it, I know that.
AB: New Zealand’s Aaradhna was excited to open for you last year in America. What’s your message for the people who are going through hard times?
CB: All I can say is believe in yourself. And my faith, I know a lot of you are non-believers, but I tell you from my faith, belief and my faith has kept me strong. So whatever you have in your heart, in your dreams, hold onto your faith and keep looking up. Don’t change the words, don’t change your heart [gestures towards his heart], let your heart be your guide.
AB: Your faith has always been strong, hasn’t it?
CB: Yes, my faith has. A lot of people don’t like to hear me. Sometimes they say, “Charles, you keeping using that word-of-God and all that stuff, how do you know? You’ve never seen God.” But I tell you one thing, from my own faith, from my own love and honesty, I know there’s a creator someplace. And that faith keeps me strong, and keeps me looking up, because if I didn’t have that kind of faith, I think I would have been dead a long time ago. So with the love and faith, looking at this world, this earth that we walk on, I know there’s some creator out there, of all mankind.
AB: In 1964 Sam Cooke sang ‘A Change Gonna Come’.
CB: Ooh. I love that.
AB: You think that things are changing slowly—change is coming?
CB: For my life, I was saying with my music, that God gave opportunity. But flames are still there, the hurt is still there. You can’t turn pain off overnight. As the world comes to you with honesty, love, and ways, it helps you to mend your wounds. My wounds inside me, you can’t erase it over night. It’s a time consuming thing, like my love for a lot of people. I love everybody, but some things I have are bittersweet because it hurt that deep.