It all a started with James Brown, the legendary soul singer and master showman. It was at one of his concerts that a very young Charles Bradley saw his musical destiny. But Mr. Bradley’s rise to the top was a long, weary road. After being abandoned by his mother as an infant and raised by his grandmother, Mr. Bradley ran away as a teen. For years he drifted from town to town, working odd jobs.
Mr. Bradley ended up working as a James Brown impersonator billed as “Black Velvet.” Soon he was discovered by Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth, and the rest is history. His debut album came out until 2011 when Mr. Bradley was the ripe old age of 63. A critically acclaimed documentary, “Soul of America,” followed, as well as two more albums, “Victim of Love” (2013) and “Changes” (2016).
The deeply introspective and somewhat weary, 67-year-old singer talked to us in advance of his District show at the 9:30 Club Thursday. He discussed the magic of James Brown, why he covered Black Sabbath and what brings him joy in a deeply sad world.
Question: What happened the first time you saw James Brown live?
Answer: I said, “Wow! That’s what I wanna be.” I was 14 years old. There was just something about James Brown that was electrifying. He put everything into it. That’s what I learned about doing it. If you’re gonna do something, you gotta put everything into it.
Q: Are you the same way when you perform live?
A: Yes. The people come to see me. You know, I gotta really give them my best, give them something to talk about. When you’re giving it and you know you’re giving it and they are loving it — oh man. That makes me wanna dig deep and find more.
Q: Tell me about the your career as a James Brown impersonator.
A: After I saw him at the Apollo, I said, “I wanna do something like that.” It took time, but from that day I knew I wanted to do James Brown. And I know about 48 of his songs now.
Somebody wants to give me a booking to do a whole show of James Brown, because there is nobody who can get it. And I know James Brown from my deepest of soul. I always know when you do James Brown, you gotta put it out. You can’t imitate it.
Q: Did you ever meet Mr. Brown?
A: Met him in San Francisco at a club I was working as chef at. He came out of his dressing room and stood behind the curtain. I stood there and talked with him for a few minutes. I said, “James, man give me a break. I been looking for a break for a long time.” He said, “Young man, looking at you, I know you got showmanship. But you’re not gonna get on my stage and take my show.”
He told me to go to New York, to The Apollo.
Q: Why has it taken you this long to find success?
A: Because I was just too honest. People don’t like honest. I always have spoken the truth. Back in those days you had to be quiet and grit your teeth. I couldn’t always do that. Now I don’t worry. At my age, what have I got to lose? Now my honesty works for me.
Q: Do you appreciate that success because it came to you so late in life?
A: It’s bittersweet. Be careful what you ask God for. It came up too abundantly. And lately it’s a constant. More, more and more. I wish he would have gave it to me when I was younger. It would have been easier. I’m enjoying it. It made me open up a little more to life.
Q: What is the best part of touring?
A: The best part is meeting people and talking to people. A lot of things I have been through, they’ve been through a lot of deepness too.
Q: There is so much pain in your voice when you sing. Does all the pain you’ve been through in life make you a better singer?
A: It hurts, but it makes the world really feel my depths. Lets them know my trails and tribulations. I’m still holding on, and they still show me love. That’s what I get from sharing the pain: the love of the world. People ask me over and over, “How did you keep going through all the stuff?” The anger. The hurt. The pain. If I didn’t have religion and love inside me, I would be in a jail or a gravesite now.
Q: Do you ever see a time where you’ll stop singing?
A: It hurts sometimes. The body says, no but the brain says yes. I look at my past, where I’ve been, and I don’t want to go back. Like my pastor said, “Son, keep on pressing your way forward.”
Q: Your latest CD is “Changes.” Why did you decide to cover a Black Sabbath song as the title track?
A: I had never heard of that song or knew who that guy was. Tommy Brenneck, he brought that to me. I looked at the lyrics and said no. Then I was going through depression after losing my mom. One part of that song stuck to me. The last three lines: “It took some time to realize, I still hear her last goodbye. Now all my days have turned to tears. I wish I could go back and change these years.”
That stuck. It got into my depths. Got inside me. Every time I sing that song, I get very emotional.
Charles Bradley plays the 9:30 Club Thursday. Tickets are $25 by going to 930.com.