In the splendidly unflinching 2012 documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America, the Florida-born, Brooklyn-based Charles Bradley openly shares the highs and lows of the point in his life when he has finally found an outlet, and an audience, for his heart-on-sleeve soul music. As a whole, the film is both gut-wrenching and triumphant in simultaneous fashion.
Unsurprisingly, the 65 year-old Bradley is equally candid over the phone. Early one recent morning, with his voice still grizzled from having just woken up, Bradley didn't hesitate to open up. His beloved mother, Inez Bradley — who abandoned a very young Charles only to reunite with him for good in 1996 — passed away earlier this year, and it's clear that thoughts of her are never far away from him, regardless of the topic at hand.
"I'll tell you, the movie was painful for me," he says with a casualness that's disarmingly profound. "It was tougher to try and watch than it was to film. When I watched it, I had to get up and leave. Going through all of that emotion and pain all over was too much for me. I still can't watch it, but since I lost my mother a few months ago, I feel like I need to watch it, but I can't do that yet."
Exactly the manner in which the documentary forces one to ride a roller coaster of thrills and sorrows, so too do both albums that Bradley has released on the excellent Daptone label in the past few years. 2011's No Time For Dreaming and 2013's Victim of Love are documents of a man who has seen more than his share of defeat, experienced more than his share of loss. Still, Bradley shares it all, regardless of whether or not he's in the mood to discuss it all.
"Every day, I get up and think to myself, 'Uh oh, I got to get up and face the world today,'" he explains, his voice growing clearer with each memory he relives. "Knowing my music can help people that are going through tough times, and the things that I have gone through in my life, makes it all worth it. I know I have to let go of the pain and do what I've got to do. The music isn't just about me."
Indeed, Bradley and his mother overcame great difficulty in patching up their torn relationship; well before her death, Bradley had only love for his mother and is grateful they had a chance to fully heal before her passing.
"I've got peace with my mom," he says confidently. "Just before she passed, she thanked me for all that I've done for her and we had peace when I lost her."
A devoutly spiritual man of Christian faith, Bradley has funneled tragedy, trials and his life's travels into music that initially feels like classic Motown or Stax soul mixed with some electric funk, but quickly takes hold of the listener as something more individual and personal. Bradley's music is indeed "soul music," but that's thanks more to his impassioned, authoritative delivery than to the fact polished horns and grooving guitars shimmer alongside his often breathless voice.
While songs such as "Why Is It So Hard" and "Through the Storm" showcase Bradley's take on struggle and thankfulness, respectively, he says he uses one driving, all-powerful force to fuel his performances.
"The truth is what I thrive on," he says. "Whether something in my songs is joyful or painful, it's all the truth. When I sing, I'm presenting a full picture of all the trials and tribulations I've been through. But I don't dwell on the pain, I just tell the truth, which happens to have some pain in it. But there's also joy in the truth. I just put truth into my music."
It doesn't take but the simplest of searches through the vast collection of Charles Bradley Youtube videos to see and hear the way every show brings out the best he has in him at a given moment. The urgency and sweat that each performance possesses is clear proof Bradley greatly appreciates where he's finally made it to at this point in his life, even if it's a temporary stop. What isn't temporary though is his faith that all of his life's suffering and success has meant something significant beyond dollars and even death.
"I still struggle and I'm still trying to keep my life together," he admits. "I try to put a little money away for when I'm not doing this anymore, and I'll keep trying to find my way then. There are a lot of great things to have in this life, but I want to get them the honest way. Just like my mom used to tell me, 'This isn't your home, Son. You're just passing through.'"