Pressure over time. It’s how charcoal becomes a diamond. It’s also what helped forge soul belter Charles Bradley into the man he is today.
“My grandmother always told me one thing…she said, ‘You know what make a precious diamond? You take a little piece of charcoal and compress it for thousands of years, and under all that pressure it’ll become a diamond,’” said Bradley, 63, who joins his backing band the Extraordinaires for a show at the High Noon Saloon on Wednesday, Feb. 15. “And that’s always been my guide point through life. All these things you see coming out in my music, it come from compression. It come from stress. It come from hurt, pain, love.”
A quick glance at the track listing on the singer’s long-in-the-making 2011 debut, “No Time For Dreaming” (Dunham Records), hints at the hardship he’s been forced to endure: “The World (Is Going Up in Flames),” “Heartaches and Pain,” “Why Is it So Hard?”
“Music is everything to me,” said Bradley. “With all the trials and tribulations I’ve been through, it’s the only way I can get any peace in this world.”
Large portions of the singer’s life story sound like they could have been lifted from a wrenching, made-for-television drama. Bradley, who was born in Florida and raised by his grandmother, didn’t meet his mother until he was nearly 8 years old. Shortly thereafter, he and his siblings relocated to New York City to live with his mother, a dark period where the singer’s bedroom consisted of a dirt floor in the basement of a rat-infested hovel. At 14 he ran away from home, spending his nights on the subway or stowed away in various flophouses.
“I used to live around a lot of drug pushers and users,” he said. “They always tried to get me to use, but I was scared of needles. And the way (addicts) looked when they started nodding and going down, I said, ‘That’s not for me.’ But you could stay in the basement if you wanted, then get up the next day and go.”
Around this time his older sister took him to see James Brown perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, an experience so overwhelming and out-of-this-world that Bradley described it by saying, “It was like a flying saucer to me, it was just so wild.
“I came home and got me a piece of string and a broom, and threw the broom and pulled it towards me falling on my knees screaming,” he continued. “Ever since then I couldn’t stop.”
Still, it wasn’t until he entered Job Corps (a vocational program initiated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964) as a teenager, and relocated to Bar Harbor, Maine, that Bradley first performed for an audience, running through an array of James Brown songs like “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me),” “Please, Please, Please” and “There Was a Time.”
For over three decades, Bradley operated in this way, working as a short order cook everywhere from Maine to Alaska while performing the occasional gig as a James Brown impersonator. His break finally came in the early 2000s when Daptone Records cofounder Gabriel Roth attended one of these shows at the now defunct Brooklyn venue Tar-Heel Lounge. In 2002 the singer released his first single for Daptone, “Take It as It Come, Pt. 1.”.
While this should have been a celebratory time — a much-deserved payoff following decades of hardship — Bradley was instead mourning the loss of his brother Joe, who was shot and killed in his home while the singer slept just two doors away.
“I jumped up and went outside and I went to my brother’s house and the detective said to me, ‘Charles, if you loved your brother, please don’t go in there. Remember your brother as he was,’” said Bradley. “Talking to you on the phone right now I wish to god I’d never gone in there.
“When I went in there my brother was laying in the kitchen and I saw part of his feet in the hallway and I went in there and saw him and just went out of my mind. When they shot him, they shot him with a hollow point bullet. They shot him in the back of the head, and his head exploded like a tomato.
“When I saw that I couldn’t take it. I just fell to the floor, grabbed his feet and tried to hold him in my arms. I cried like a baby. The two policemen grabbed me and my mother and brother grabbed me, and I’m damned sure I’ll never be the same since I seen that with my own eyes.”
This horrifying scene replays in Bradley’s head each time he performs “Heartaches and Pain,” a broken tune he penned as a means of coping with his brother’s passing.
“It took me four or five months to get onstage and sing that song, because every time I’d sing it I’d go down,” said the soul man. “I compressed myself and forced myself to do it, but every time I sing it you notice I close my eyes and I’ll be looking at a picture of what really happened to my brother.”
It’s clearly painful for the singer to talk about his loss, and performing the song each night has to be the emotional equivalent of picking at a scab. But Bradley views this kind of openness as essential to developing a connection with his audience.
“I’m not onstage just to stand there and sing. I sing with my heart and soul,” he said. “I wouldn’t be on the stage if I didn’t like showing that kind of love. That’s me. And I’m letting the world know who I am.”
77 Square, in partnership with True Endeavors, will be giving away two tickets to see Charles Bradley perform at the High Noon Saloon on Wednesday, Feb. 15. Click here to enter.