Charles Bradley is not only a shining example of the American Dream, but is terrific example of success despite misfortune. A long time music lover with raw talent, Bradley struggled through a childhood marked by poverty and financial struggles throughout his adult. At a time when most people are considering retirement, Bradley made the difficult decision to leave behind his up and down career as a chef to pursue his musical dream full time.
Human society is full of success stories that inspire the masses. Musicians, actors, and everyday people come from humble beginnings to reach great heights professionally and personally. The greatest human stories are those which involve an individual who enjoys personal or professional success at the highest levels, all while overcoming a deck that seems stacked against them.
The life story of musician Charles Bradley is one of true hardship. Bradley overcame more hardships as a child and young man than most people will face in their entire life, and is still actively pursuing his dream of singing for a living. Bradley’s story starts in the American south just after the end of World War II.
A Rough Beginning
Bradley was born into a poor family in Gainesville, Florida on 5 November 1948. His mother had abandoned him when he was just eight months old, leaving him to be raised with his older sister by his maternal grandmother. He would spend eight years living in Gainesville until his mother returned to his life and brought him to live with her in Brooklyn.
Unfortunately, his life in Brooklyn was no improvement over his life of poverty in Gainesville. Bradley would spend most of the next six years living in poor conditions, including having to sleep in a basement bedroom with a sand floor. Those were the lucky nights for Bradley as it would turn out.
At the age of 14 he grew tired of the poor living conditions and ran away from home. He would spend his days trying to survive on the streets of New York City and was forced to sleep in subway cars at night just to escape the elements. His life, though not immediately, would change forever in 1962 when his sister took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown perform in person.
Bradley was so taken aback by Brown’s soulful voice and on-stage presence that he began mimicking his movements and performance on his own with a pretend microphone he constructed by hanging a broom from a piece of string.
A Life on the Road
In order to try and escape the cycle of poverty he had found himself mired in, Bradley joined the U.S. Job Corps which shipped him off to Bar Harbor, Maine to train as a chef. For a young man with a love of music, but no real skills, the option to train as a chef offered a way out. While living and working in Maine, Bradley spent his days cooking for 3,500 people while pursuing his dream of singing at night.
On evening, he was asked by a co-worker if he knew how to sing because he “looked like James Brown.” Although too shy to admit it at first, Bradley eventually admitted he had some musical abilities and would go on to form a small band after being asked to perform for the Job Corps’ female employees in Poland Springs.
That night the women in attendance went wild and Bradley knew what his future held; he knew that somehow, some way he was going to become a performer. Misfortune came Bradley’s way again though as his band was torn apart by the U.S. Armed Services draft for Vietnam War. Having lost his band mates, he set out on the road again.
From Coast to Coast
With his band mates now serving overseas, Bradley set out hitchhiking across America to the West Coast. He made his way cross country in the vehicles’ of others and wound his way from upstate New York to Seattle, north to Alaska, before coming south again to California where he would settle down for the next 20 years.
All along the way he worked as a chef, but his true passion remained in music. Over the course of his two decades in California, Bradley held the position of chef with the same company for the final 17 years. Just as it seemed life had leveled out for the chef and aspiring musician, there was one more twist yet to come.
As he contemplated spending his hard-earned savings on a new home in California, he was laid off from his job and decided a new direction in life was needed. Determined to make his musical dreams a reality, Bradley packed up his belongings and headed back across the country to New York to rejoin his family.
Upon his arrival in New York, Bradley worked as a handyman to allow more freedom to pursue his musical dreams. Playing a string of bars and night clubs, his developing soulful sound and musical talent were eventually noticed by Gabriel Roth of Daptone Records.
Helping Revive Funk and Soul
Inspired by James Brown’s performance in the 1960s, Bradley’s voice and musical style was reminiscent of the soul and funk music that dominated the 1960s and 70s. When Bradley was discovered at the Tarheel Lounge in Bedstuy, the funk era was long gone. But the soul and emotion that Bradley performed with made him a prime candidate to aid in the revival of funk and soul.
Performing as “Black Velvet” when he was discovered in the late 1990s, Bradley joined Roth’s “House of Soul” at Daptone Records. Famed soul and funk songwriter/guitarist Tom Brenneck (The Bullets, Menahan Street Band) sat down with Bradley to put his life story and emotions into song.
Bradley’s debut album, No Time for Dreaming, was released in 2011 and was the culmination of a decade of work by Bradley and Brenneck. The album, along with hit songs and live performances during the preceding decade, helped establish Bradley as a representative of the revival of funk and soul music.
In recent years, Bradley was featured in a documentary entitled the Soul of America and shown at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. His second album,Victim of Love, was released on 2 April 2013. Success may have eluded Bradley for much of his life, but he has finally achieved the goal he set out for decades ago. Now all he has to focus on is a life full of “singing, dancing, and loving.”