Charles Bradley: A Man of Many Hearts
March 9, 2016
There are few voices as real and robust as Charles Bradley‘s. Real from the depth of his honesty and passion, robust from the textured cadence that escapes his lips. “Old soul” is both a pun and an understatement when describing the Gainesville native, whose life has seen more rises and falls than the ocean itself. In just 5 short years, he has danced and sang his way across the world and into the hearts of many, being heralded as the figure for true Soul music. Before his unapologetically emotional performance at this year’s Virginia Key GrassRoots Festival that happened a few weeks ago, we sat down with the legend to pick his brain, or in this case his heart, about a few things that are close to home.
Soul of America came out back in 2012, a documentary that told your story in its entirety. How did it feel to see your life come together before your eyes like that?
“When I started at the age of 62, I didn’t think my music was gonna grab importance. But I told [Tom] Brennek (of Daptone Records) that I was gonna keep going ’til I found the light. When I look at it, I’m one of the fortunate ones. At the age of 62, I got a chance to go see the world and show my love to the world and honestly, that’s what I’ve always wanted. It came in a late-bloom, but I think God heard me crying to Him and begging to Him for an opportunity.”
Yeah, anyone who sees the film understands just how incredible your story is. I personally was touched when I saw it, to see your background and how you started as a cook, which I thought was pretty interesting. Do you see any parallels between cooking for people and performing for people?
“You know, there is a balance. I always love people and I always give them what they want. And when I cook for them, they always ask me: “How in the heck did I cook for so many people and always give them a good quality of food and flavor?” Look, when you love people, you try to show them you love them by giving them what they want and how they want it and that’s what I’ve always been at. I’m not trying to show off, I’m trying to make the people happy and give them what they haven’t. If you want to work hard and make people really happy, don’t look at what other people do, look at what you can give from your heart.”
So you feel like the music you create comes directly from your heart?
“It comes from my heart and soul because I’ve been begging and praying for a long time and I think God finally answered my prayer.”
He definitely did. Just a side question though, do you have any favorite dishes you like to cook? Any Charles Bradley specialties?
“Oh! I know when my mom was alive, the dish she loved me to cook for her was homemade biscuits and Chicken a la King. Now, when I’m cooking for friends, they like me to make a spinach lasagna and a meat lasagna because I have friends who don’t eat meat so I always make a veggie one with mushrooms and spinach so when they come over, everyone can have something.”
Do you have any secret ingredients that make your food so delicious?
“I like to use raw materials. I like to start from scratch. I like to really just put “me” into it. I look for that flavor that my grandma used all the time. She used to cook for a hospital in Florida and she really knew how to put some food together. Food is family, you see. When you cook, you cook with feeling, you cook with heart, you cook with love. Try to give it that something that you know you want. I don’t like to use salt, I like to find the flavor in the food.”
I wanted to talk about Daptone. It’s an awesome label and a tight-knit family that defines itself within this current “Soul Revival” that’s happening in the music scene. How do you feel about this current revival of Funk and Soul music today?
“I don’t know much about new artists, but I know about me. I know about Soul because I came from that era. People come up to me and they say: “Dawg, I thought that song was written years ago” and I can only say that it’s now. They ask me why I like James Brown so much and that’s because James Brown really came more from that era that I came from. You know? Back in the days there was this Blues when James Brown was coming up. And he took Blues and added Rhythm to it. Rhythm and Blues. That’s the funky music that I came from. I’m not trying to imitate James Brown. I like a lot of his songs but that Rhythm and Blues is where I was born at, that’s where I came from and that’s what I’m going to keep alive.”
I wanted to ask you, what does “Soul” mean to you?
“Soul means pain. Hurt. Love. Going through the emotion of so many different times. Soul has no color. Soul has what you’ve been through. It has those trials and tribulations and keeping your love strong and pushing forward. That’s Soul.”
It definitely teaches you who you are and how you can get out of these situations.
“Well, some people look at Soul like it’s all-Black, but no. Look at the Spirit of God. Some people say “God was Black” or “God was White” but God was no color. He was a spirit! And that’s the same thing about Soul. Soul is a spirit. Soul has no color. You can be hurt and go through so many trials and tribulations and your love shows no matter the color. You have to show that love to the world. The sun can still shine regardless of how we feel the hurt and the pain, it just shows you its love. You look at the world, and you look deep down at every person, it’s love that we’re looking for. We gotta stop this hatred and this fighting so we can find out who we are individually and bring that love out so we can give it to the world. That’s Soul.”
When you sing, the entire world can here you pain and your hope simultaneously. Your music becomes both a platform for connection and a pool for expression.
“Right. I know what it’s like to feel that I was going to give up. I have felt that I was going to fall into the corruption and the bad things like hating myself. But I thank God that I listened to my grandmother who always told me one thing ever since I was a boy: “Who are you not to suffer? You have to reach out and show your love regardless of how they mistreat you. You got to look in your heart and find the love to give to the world. Pick up your cross and follow forward.” She told me that a long time ago. How do you know God exists when you’ve never seen Him before? Because of love. Love all his creations including yourself. That’s a hard thing to swallow. If you can do that, you can have the deepness of love inside you that whether you sing, or cook, you can show people that love is inside you. That’s how you show there is a living God.”
So, how would you tell young musicians who may be going through some similar pain or trials and tribulations to pour that positively into creating music?
“First, trust in the master universe of love. Hold on to it. Whoever is doing you wrong and mistreating you, look them in the eye as say: “I see you and I love you” and walk away. Especially living in New York and Brooklyn and the things that I’ve seen, I know it hurts. I know it can be easy to become someone who is aggressive and so angry, you forget the love you have inside yourself. But you have to show people that you can push back all the hate and find the truth. Be the child that you’re supposed to be. You’ll see how things will change. Yes, my life was a late-coming, but I never gave up on the love.”
And what was that moment that told you that you wanted to create music for the rest of your life? That life-changing moment?
“When I first heard Blues, and then when I heard how James Brown first took Blues and put Rhythm with it, I knew that was me. I always loved Rhythm and Blues. When I hear that stuff, it brings lyrics to my brain and to my soul. It makes me want to go out there and do something to show the world that this is where I came from and this is what I want to give.”
Do you prefer playing for an intimate group of people over a big crowd?
“I love to play in intimate rooms and it hurts me to think that when there’s a huge crowd, the people in the back want to get next to me. That’s why a lot of times when I do shows, I’ll go into the audience and try to head to the back. But as soon as I get down there, the crowd swarms me and I can’t get to the back. That’s why when I see a line of space where I can run to the back, I always like to give those people my love because when I would go see shows, I could never get to the front. I don’t like to separate myself, I don’t get no joy out of hurting nobody.”
Have you ever met anyone special in the audience, or connected to someone you probably wouldn’t have had you not gone down there?
“One time, I was down there and I came up to this lady who was pregnant and she was crying and said to me: “Bless you, Charles, can you please bless my baby” and I got on my knees and I touched her stomach and I said: “May you have a healthy baby and may it be a leader to help this world for the changes it’s going through.” And I looked at her husband who was standing right there and he was crying and they both reached for me and we hugged and we cried and we had a special moment. That moment still to this day tickles my heart because only in those moments of touching and hugging someone do they really feel that love that you have. That’s what some of these young kids need. They need someone to show them that they really care and that they really matter.”
And that goes back to how you described Soul music as a way for love to exist and for people to connect in that love.
“And that’s the deepness of music. That’s the reason that keeps me alive and connected to music. The good music comes from the heart. That’s what makes you want to listen to a song over and over and over.”
Your music has actually been sampled by some current artists like Jay-Z, to give tracks this Soul spice. How does it feel to hear your music transformed for the modern-age or into a different genre?
“I think that it shows you that the artists that are out there can’t find nothing deeper than the love that I have in my deep depths. So they come back to the roots, where I’m at. I’m not changing my roots. I’m going to stay humble with the goodness and the grace of God. If people want to take it, they’re not taking something from me. It just shows that I’m a creature of God and I’m going to stay that creature. I’m going to keep giving. I want everyone to be real. If it hurts, let it hurt. But be real with it. Until the last breath I want people to say about Charles Bradley: “Man, that guy was down to earth. He was a real guy. When he gives you his heart, he gives you his heart. He don’t play with it.”