Bradley’s Grandmother raised him in Florida until he was eight years-old when he was then reunited with his previously absent Mother and moved to Brooklyn with her. By age 14 things weren’t going too well and Charles ran away from home, struggling to put up with his poor living conditions that included a small bed on a dirt floor of a dimly lit basement. He slept on the streets and would ride the subway through the night, sleeping between stops until the hard rattle of a truncheon would wake him up – a signal for him to get the hell off. He would then switch subway lines and ride the train again, repeating this night after night, sleeping as much as he could before being turfed off the train once more and before the morning light broke free and the crowds of people began to flow. It proved a testing time. “Everybody around that time was using drugs, shooting up and getting high,” he says. Thankfully, despite temptation, he avoided that road. “I was afraid of needles and my faith in God kept me afraid of needles so I never took any drugs.” Bradley admits to a mild flirtation with sniffing glue and smoking weed, which was enough to realise that drugs weren’t for him.
At sixteen he signed up for Job Corps, a free education programme where he would learn cooking skills. This period was instrumental for him and has become one of his fondest memories in life. “I was living in a dominant black neighbourhood and I went to Job Corps and there were whites and other races there and I was afraid because I never seen that living in a black neighbourhood all my life,” he says. “Job Corps always showed me love and was nice to me. Now, down in the hood, when someone was nice to you, something was wrong, so Job Corps, when they were nice to me, I was wondering ‘Why? What do they want from me?’ and all they were trying to do was be a friend and I didn’t know that. When it came time to graduate I wanted to stay but it was time to leave.”
It was during Job Corps that Bradley’s musical side crept out. At fourteen he had been taken to see James Brown at the Apollo and was so taken with the performance he would begin to impersonate him at home. After then, being told he looked like James Brown at Job Corps and given a little gin to loosen him up, he eventually overcame his shyness and sang for people in public. Taken aback by his talent they literally forced him on stage. He then formed a band but this would be short-lived as every member, bar Charles, got called up for the Vietnam Draft, ending the group after five or six shows.
Bradley ended up working as a cook in upstate New York at a mental institute in Wassaic. “I was feeding 3500 peoples a day,” he recalls from this period. (Bradley has a charming habit of putting an s on the end of all his words, perhaps part due to local colloquialisms and part due to the fact he was illiterate and only began to fully learn to read, write and spell in very recent years). “Looking at 3500 disturbed peoples a day, and then at the girls side they’ve got 4000 disturbed peoples – and I’m living on the grounds with them – I just couldn’t take it anymore. Some of the stories they [the patients] told you were just some sad stories, stories that will touch you to your heart.”
He drifted from city to city, ending up in California for a twenty-year period, playing small shows and making ends meet doing odd DIY jobs. His mother got back in touch around this period and asked that he move back to Brooklyn to reconnect their relationship. He did so. However, upon returning he got incredibly sick with a fever and was admitted to hospital. They filled him up with penicillin, which he is deeply allergic to and things took a turn for the worse. “I saw myself leaving this world,” he says. “I nearly gave up.”
He says that a visit from his brother was a pivotal moment in his change of attitude to hanging on in there.
“He came and he said, ‘Charles, if you don’t want to live for yourself, brother, then please live for me. Charles, I love you brother, you’re my heart.”
Bradley transferred hospitals, where they noticed the near-lethal levels of penicillin he had been given and packed him with ice in an attempt to break the still unknown fever. He was given several spinal tap (lumbar puncture) procedures, often as many as four in one day, a procedure he recalls as the “most painful thing I ever felt in my life.” Sadly, there was more pain ahead.
“What hurt so bad is when I got well and out of the hospital, my brother who loved me so much and took care of me, he got killed. He got shot in the head.”
We don’t speak about this in detail tonight but he once explained the horror of witnessing the situation. “A detective was standing in front of the door. He said: ‘You’re Joseph’s brother, ain’t you?’ I said: ‘Yes, I am.’ He said: ‘Son, please, don’t go in there and see your brother until we clean up.’ I said: ‘How can you tell me I cannot go in there? That’s my brother. I want to see for myself.’ God knows, man. When I walked in there… they shot my brother… they shot my brother with a hollow point bullet. God, I wished I didn’t go in there. I ran outside. I ran in front of every car and no car would hit me. Everybody stopped. I wanted to die. I wanted to leave this world. I could not take the pain. I loved my brother so much.” This horrific moment is recalled in his song ‘Heartaches and Pain’.
After his brother died, Bradley took on full responsibility of looking after his mother, who was then sick and getting older. He also took on the financial responsibility of paying for her upkeep and her mortgage too. After he’d moved back to Brooklyn, he began to perform as ‘Black Velvet’, a James Brown tribute act, after fully realising his ability to mimic the Godfather of Soul’s voice, moves and actions. Word – and video footage – spread and some years down the line Gabriel Roth, Co-Founder of Daptone Records, expressed an interest. During the 2000’s he worked with a few different backing bands, recording a handful of songs, before cementing a successful writing relationship with the pivotal Tom Brenneck and his Menahan Street Band, which finally led to his debut album release, at the age of 62, in 2011. It was successful, a documentary was made on Bradley’s amazing life (2012’s Soul of America) and his follow-up album in 2013 opened more doors as he gradually toured the world more frequently and, for the first time in his life, finally was able to make a little money from the thing he loved most in life. A deeply spiritual man, Bradley feels that God finally heard his prayers and gave him this late break in life.