On 'Changes,' Charles Bradley Keeps Going Forward
(Photo: Mark Shaw /Courtesy of the artist)
Charles Bradley cultivated his booming voice for years as a James Brown impersonator. It wasn't until he was 62 years old that he found mainstream success, singing his own music. Now, he's out with his third album, called Changes.
Bradley had a rough childhood. He didn't always get along with his mom. He never knew his dad. As a teenager, he left home and lived on the streets.
"I was 14 and I left on my own," he says. "Living in a subway train, and police used to come in with a nightstick and say, 'You can't sleep here.' I'd get up and go across the street, get on another train and go back the other way."
Eventually, Bradley connected with Job Corps, an education and training program, which sent him from West Virginia to New Jersey to Maine for employment. During that time, he also started his first bands.
"They'd bring me to the gym and they'd ask me to sing," he says. "And I was scared to sing. But we were sneaking a little bit of gin, and I'd get a little fired up and I'd grab the microphone. And I ain't never put it down since."
Later in life, Bradley reconnected with his mother. The title track of the album is dedicated to her; she passed away shortly after it was recorded. Bradley spoke with NPR's David Greene about his late mother's wisdom and how music has helped him heal. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
David Greene: Can you give me the background for what was going on in your life leading up to 1996, when I know you had this unbelievable reunion with your mother?
1996: That's when I came back to New York. My mother said, "Son, why don't you come back home? Give me a chance to know you?" And then my brother Joseph, he said, "Charles, if you want a home, if you want anything, we'll help you get it." Joseph was my heart. And then, about two or three months later, Joseph gets shot, he gets killed.
What happened to your brother, Mr. Bradley?
Oh, God; that is a deep one. My sister has a son named Reese, and he was always in and out of jail. When he got out of jail, my brother Joseph said, "You're not going to live in no streets." He said. "I'm going to give you a place to live with me, but you're going to follow my rules."
One day, him and Joseph got in an argument. And that night when I was over at my brother's house, Joseph came and grabbed me and said, "Charles, you know you're my heart, bro." I said, "Joe, what's wrong with you?" And he just hold me. "That's OK, Joe, I'll see you tomorrow." The next morning I woke up, and all of a sudden the bell rung and I heard my mother scream. And she said, "Charles, Charles, Joseph got shot. He's dead." I went to the top of the stairs at our house and I saw this guy in a police car. I said, "Who shot my brother?" He said, "The guy right there in the car." I said, "No, you gotta be kidding, I don't want to hear that. That guy in that car is my nephew."
I went crazy; I just couldn't take it. I tried to run in front of cars — I ran in front of everything that was moving, but nothing would hit me. And I went on the subway train, right at the end of the track. I didn't have the heart to fall in the track, but I was wishing the wind would just push me. But this man, this old man, came to me and said, "Son, it's not worth it." And he pulled me back.
Your mom, when she convinced you to come to her and to your brother in New York, she said she wanted to get to know you. Did you get to know her?
Oh, the last twelve years of my life, she showed me a lot of things. And maybe that's why I can hold up now, and try to be strong.
The day before she died, she said, "Tell Charles to come in my room." And I came in the room and said, "Yes, mom." She says, "Son, momma's going home." She said, "I can tell you're my heart." She said, "You're my heart, son."
The title track on this album, "Changes," is actually a Black Sabbath song. Had you planned to put it on this record before you mother passed away?
[Producer] Tom Brenneck had asked me to learn that song, and I never heard that song before. But when I listened to the lyrics, the last verses on that song just stuck to my heart. "It took so long to realize / I can still hear her last goodbye."
One thing [my mother] said: "Son, this world is not your home. You're just passing through." She said, "Keep being a good son. Keep doing the right things you're doing. Maybe the world didn't hear you cry, but in heaven, God heard your cry."
Is there anything you would tell people who feel very alone in this life, and have lost people and have gone through a lot of things by themselves?
You know, I did this show the other night, and I got offstage — I was singing "Changes" and I went through the audience. I always try to get in the back of the audience, because people really want to get close to me, and I want to get close to them.
This young guy came to me, and he was crying. He said, "Charles Bradley, my brother died last night. The words that you put: I felt that." And I just broke down and cried with him, because I really felt this guy's love." I said, "Well, son, let me tell you one thing: Your brother is right up in heaven with my mom. They're looking down on us right now. So just know that your brother is in a better place, and he ain't got to worry about all these trials and tribulations down here no more." We sit there about two or three minutes. And then my tour manager came and said, "Charles, it's time to go. Gotta go back on stage."
I have to say, I wish I had known you and been able to listen to this song when I lost my mother suddenly a decade ago. I think talking to you would have helped a lot.
I'll say the same thing to you that I said to this young guy the other day: They're up there looking down at us. So I know, like mom says, this world is not my home. I love everything in it, and I have shown it with my dignity and my heart for my childhood. That's what my mom told me, who I was. She said, "Son, keep pushing." It's easy to give up, and it's hard to keep going forward. But I chose to keep going forward.