Little by Listen: I saw you this summer at Millennium Park in Chicago, and I found your show to be really inspiring and also just really fun. It was a free show, and a friend of mine and I always talk about how artists sometimes mail it in at these free shows where it isn’t all just your fans, but you did the complete opposite of that. What motivates you to pour every ounce of energy you have on stage?
Charles Bradley: I’m a victim of love. That’s what motivates me. I love people. I love giving. My grandma always taught me one thing: “if you don’t give it from your heart, don’t give it.”
LxL: What do you hope for the audience to take away from one of your shows?
CB: I hope they take my love, listen to my lyrics, and hope that it will help their lives through the trials and tribulations that they go through. A lot of people out there are hurting; they don’t know who to go through. I think with my lyrics and my heartaches and pains, and the hold to the belief in God. A lot of people don’t believe in God the way I do. A lot of people haven’t been through what I have been through, and I couldn’t get through it without my faith in God. I hope that everyone out there who listens, listens to my pains, trials, and tribulations and know that it is hope for them too.
LxL: Where did you get the nickname the Screaming Eagle of Soul?
CB: I was on stage one time, and I just felt like I wanted to fly, and I lifted my arms up and started doing my little dance I always do. And one of the band mates said “Screaming Eagle of Soul” and it just took off and everybody started calling me that.
LxL: I had the pleasure of seeing James Brown at Indiana University for one of his last shows before he passed. I know that when you saw him in 1962 at the Apollo (with your sister Virginia) that made you certain you wanted to be a musician. Did you ever meet him?
CB: Yes, I met him, years later in San Francisco, at The Hippo joint. I got a job there being a chef and worked there about two months, and James Brown appeared there one time. When he came I went in his dressing room, and he said “no no no no no”, then they came and told him “5 minutes curtain time”, and when he said that I said “whoa”, and in the five minutes I talked to him, he said “you are not in my place yet, but everyone comes towards me when I come off stage, and I don’t want to talk to them. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to them, sometimes when I have 20/30 shows in front of me, I only have enough energy to be on the stage and do that show and recuperate for the next show.” I didn’t understand him at the time, but I’m that way now. I wasn’t bitter the way he was, I let him know I love you, and thank you for everything.
LxL: Who was James Brown to you as a musician?
CB: James Brown was a legend, and he has made me one of his fans for the rest of my life. James brown made a lot of stars dream come true. Michael Jackson learned on James Brown, we have all learned something from James Brown. James Brown was a legend of his own flavor. Now that I think it made me to learn who I am, and what qualities I can bring out into the world. Now, thanks to Tom Brennan, Gabriel Roth, Jimmy Yeal, these guys saw something in me and kept pressing me to do it.
LxL: You had an assortment of odd jobs over your life (30 year span, carpenter, cook, James Brown impersonator). What did you learn in life in working such a wide variety of jobs?
CB: I learned the personalities of people. You learn to watch people and understand their motives. I learned that people can be so mean when they don’t have to be mean. Why are they that way? Is it because the position they are in, because they control many people under them, is it that they learn to manipulate people under them. My uncle Llamar always told me “beautiful child, go out and make money, but don’t let money make you.” I will always remember that. My uncle Llamar is 90 years old, and I still remember what he told me.
LxL: Not a lot of artists get discovered (debut album at age 62) and release their debut album in their 60s.
CB: My mother always told me. “Son, Do you believe in Moses?” and I said “Yes I do”, “Moses was an old man before he found who he truly was.” And now that’s how I feel where my story is coming from.
Just as sure as the spring turned to summer, the summer turned to fall, and the fall turned to winter, there will always be something to come around. If you carry that love inside you, and keep giving, keep giving, keep giving, somewhere on the planet, the water is gonna come. I didn’t know if it was gonna come through music, but I know that God knows I love music, and I know he gave me the gifts to do music. He knew I would do great things with it, and love others with it.
LxL: What do you feel was the biggest turning point of your career?
CB: When I was going through a lot of this junk, I actually closed up and stayed in my shell. I said “the world’s not gonna hear me about me. The world doesn’t give a damn about me. I’m just some number walking on the planet, and when this number is gone its gone.” Then in 2003, when Tommy found me, I have been dreaming about this all my life, and understanding now I think “why did it take so long?” People ask me now how do I feel about life, but I feel bittersweet. I wonder sometimes why it took so long.
LxL: Your music has a great deal of gospel influence. As a child when you lived in Gainesville or Brooklyn, did you grow up singing in the church?
CB: We had a little church in Florida when I was a little kid, with a lot of hymns we were singing. And I hated going to that church because I would fall asleep. A lot of the hymns we used to sing felt like false singing.
What I really loved was oil painting. I loved water painting. I always thought that what I was going to end up as, but then I saw James Brown, and he turned my whole thing around and I never stopped.
LxL: Your album title is Victim of Love. How do you see yourself as a victim of love in your life?
CB: With all the trials and tribulations I had been through and didn’t change to be a hatred, corrupted person. I just kept my heart and soul on love and honesty. I don’t think a lot of people would go through the things I went through and really become the humble person I am. I think a lot of people cave up. It sometimes struck my mind I felt like I was just going to go crazy. But when you feel the spirit inside that I felt giving you a little guidance, that’s a way out. If I was a corrupted person, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now on the phone. I would be in jail or pushing up daisies in someone’s cemetery. I kept myself humble. Now looking back on the past, I’m glad I did it. It didn’t show no reward as I was going through it. The only thing it showed was hurt and pain and the only hope I had was my respect in God, and I had to find something worthwhile to hold onto.
LxL: Victim of Love has a little extra fuzz with psychedelic soul and funk than No Time for Dreaming. What influenced this change? Who are your major musical influences?
CB: The person who influenced me more than anyone was James Brown, but I loved Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Barbara Streisand, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Tyrone Davis. Those are the people I liked because they sung with meaningful feeling and you want to hear the music and you want to listen to the words they are singing.
LxL: Your first album focused very much on the “heartache and pain” in your past, but this one moves onto how you’ve grown past that and focused on spreading the hope. Did you feel the need to set people up with your story on the first album to now expand on that to show where you are now?
CB: The reason I want people to know, not just the artist, but me as a person. That’s a beautiful thing. Just imagine me coming to your house, and you don’t know me, you just know me as a musician. But who is that guy, other than a musician?I am letting you know who I am and getting on stage and singing the lyrics of my life story. What greater gift can I give you?
LxL: Have you had a chance to watch the documentary (Charles Bradley: Soul of America) they did on you?
CB: The documentary I can’t just sit down and rewatch that yet. I watched part of it, and I walked out. They took me some place to watch the documentary that was showing, and I told them “I can’t watch this.” There are two pieces in there that really actually hurt.
When you live a life, and you don’t see what you are going through but you feel the emotion you are going through. Now they went and took it into a film that I can actually look at my life and what I went through. Whoa, that’s too much.
LxL: I’ve heard you say before that sometimes you have a difficult time reliving songs on stage.
CB: Yes, especially “Heartaches and Pains.” “Heartaches and Pains” is such a painful feeling. It took me 10-11 years to talk about this. When you actually see your own brother shot in the head, oh no, that is the most hurting thing you can ever deal with. I was the last person to talk to my brother and hold my brother. The next day he was killed.
You asked me about the pain. It’s like you get a deep scar inside you, you can always go to the doctor and get it sewed up, but you always see the scar on your arm and you know that pain.
LxL: On “Through the Storm” on the new album, you appear to be coming full circle on your story.
CB: “Through the Storm” is thanking everyone that was a part of this, who took time for me, to help me bring my dreams out. These people helped me. I have a friend that is helping me fix my mom’s basement up to give me a decent place to live. I have friends coming out of the woodwork. I am still trying to understand this, why is this, what is this? Why are people being nice to me. I am not used to people being nice to me. I am used to getting out there and struggling and doing the best I can. I still am stunned, I still am nervous, I still am asking myself every time I get happy is someone going to take it away. I am still going through changes in myself.
LxL: Do you feel 64?
CB: No, no, no. I don’t throw my life away, I try to serve with my life. I try to give with my life. Give positively. I use my strength, my love, my everything to keep myself strong so that when I hoped and prayed that I would get a chance I could use it. I know my faith helps me do it.