Interview: Charles Bradley

A late-blooming soul man pours his life story into a wrenching LP.

Charles Bradley

Charles Bradley Photograph: Kisha Bari

Charles Bradley, the raspy-voiced 62-year-old singer behind what may be this year's most remarkable debut album, had given up on life 11 years ago when his brother Joseph pulled him from a negligent hospital, providing the artist—destitute and debilitated by a mysterious, raging fever—with the will to carry on. He was never able to fully express his gratitude: Just after his recovery, Joseph was murdered. That heartbreaking event inspires "Heartaches and Pain," the haunting ballad that closes No Time for Dreaming, Bradley's album with Bushwick instrumental outfit Menahan Street Band. Incredibly, the song, initially released as a seven-inch in 2007, was Bradley's first attempt, after a lifetime as a singer for hire, at mining his autobiography for lyrics.

"[Menahan founder and guitarist Thomas Brenneck] one day invited me to his apartment and he said, 'Charles, I think you should take this music and put your life story in it and let us know the way you feel,'" Bradley says. "I said, 'No, Tom, I can't do that, because there's too much heartbreak.'" Even after taking Brenneck's advice—and delivering—Bradley wasn't prepared for the result. "The guys called me one day and said, 'Charles, I want you to listen to what you did.' I went to the studio, and I could not believe that came out of me. I broke down. I took it home and I let my mom listen to it, and she started crying. My brothers and my sisters all said, 'Charles, how you did that?' And from there on, Tom kept calling me."

The net outcome of those phone calls was No Time for Dreaming, a heavy-hearted and highly autobiographical LP released in January through Dunham, a sublabel of Daptone Records operated by Brenneck, also of the Budos Band. Though consistent with Daptone's distinctive analog soul sound, the disc is notably darker than the Bushwick imprint's other releases. "How Long" and "Why Is It So Hard" bear the weight of a man unburdening himself, for the first time, of a lifetime of disappointments and setbacks. "The World (Is Going Up In Flames)," a single, recalls James Brown's moody mid-'70s social statements. Even the love songs are haunted.

Talking by phone from France during a European tour earlier this month, the soft-spoken Bradley was still coming to terms with his late-breaking success. "When God's ready to give it to you, he give it to you," he says. "And I think now, this must be my time. Because the love that I'm experiencing, it's a great love."

Born in Gainesville, Florida, and raised poor in 1950s Bed-Stuy, Bradley spent the better part of four decades working as a cook in Bar Harbor, Maine; Wassaic, New York (where he cooked daily for 3,500 patients in a mental hospital and endured persistent harassment from local cops); Alaska; and finally the Bay Area, while moonlighting when he could as a James Brown tribute act. Just as he was about to purchase his first home, he lost his job of 17 years and soon found himself homeless. "I feel life never gave me a chance," he says. "As long as I stayed quiet, they gave me a job. But if I saw something I knew was wrong, and I spoke out, they'd say, 'Okay, we don't want to hear that again.'"

Returning to Brooklyn to care for his elderly mother in Bushwick in the '90s, Bradley performed as "Black Velvet" and "James Brown, Jr." in dives like Bed-Stuy's late Tarheel Lounge. There, he caught the attention of the Dap-Kings' Gabriel Roth, who recruited Bradley to sing on some of Daptone's earliest singles, and introduced him to Brenneck, who played guitar on some of those records as part of the Bullets, a Budos precursor.

Encouraged as Bradley is by the odds-defying opportunities he's received in his sixties, he's not yet counting his blessings. After a lifetime of heartaches and pain, he's acutely aware of how his fortunes can change. "Right now feels bittersweet," he says. "In my life, every time I get happy, next thing I'm back where I started. In these kind of moments, I want to be happy but I'm afraid to be. So all I'm doing is staying calm, giving and watching what fruit it gives me."

Buy music by Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band on iTunes

See more Top live shows

Fort Greene Park; Tue 26;