© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Charles Bradley: An Impersonator Finds His Own Voice

The 62-year-old was discovered by Daptone Records while performing his James Brown tribute act.




Charles Bradley's debut album is called No Time for Dreaming.
Kisha Bari/Courtesy of Motormouthmedia

A 62-year-old soul singer, Charles Bradley has a story you can hear in his voice. But for most of his life, he wasn't a singer.

Born in 1948, Bradley spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn. One day, his sister invited him to come to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where she was going to see James Brown. At the time, Bradley didn't know who Brown was, but his sister offered to pay his way.

"He had those strobe lights and effects lights on him," Bradley says of the moment Brown came running on stage. "And I said, 'Oh my god, I want to be like that.' "

Bradley went home and practiced Brown's signature mic-swing move, using a broom attached to a string. He was eager to perform, but had no clear outlet for his musical curiosity. As he grew up and left home, music remained in the back of his mind.

Bradley spent 10 years in Maine as a cook. When he grew restless, he set off across the continent, stopping through Seattle, Canada and Alaska before settling in California. There, Bradley struggled to make ends meet, and when he'd finally saved up enough money to buy a house, he was suddenly laid off from the job he'd held for 17 years. Out of options, he moved back to Brooklyn to live with his mother.

Living A Dormant Dream

It was there that Bradley finally returned to music, performing a James Brown act in nightclubs that actually made him a living. But there was more heartache around the corner. One night, he looked out his front window to see police cars and a van marked "MORGUE." The victim was his brother Joe, who lived a few doors down and had just been shot and killed.

Bradley again found himself down and out. Then came an unexpected break: Gabriel Roth, co-founder of the independent funk and soul label Daptone Records, happened to catch his James Brown act one night. Roth introduced Bradley to Tom Brenneck, a young producer and musician on the label. Brenneck and his band invited Bradley to one of their rehearsals.

"I was feeling good, had a couple of drinks," Bradley says. "I said, 'Just play anything ? as long as it's funky. I can make some words up to it.' "

Brenneck says he remembers that rehearsal clearly.

"I was just like, 'Oh my god, this guy is feeling it,' " Brenneck says. "He had never been himself before. He had never been encouraged to search for his own song."

Brenneck and Bradley spent several years working on songs together ? including one called "Heartaches and Pain," in memory of Bradley's brother Joe ? before settling on 10 keepers. The resulting album, released by Daptone last month, is titled No Time for Dreaming. Bradley says his own life story inspired the title.

"I'm gonna say it's all right to dream, but work at it ? make it come to reality," Bradley says. "It took 62 years for somebody to find me, but I thank God. Some people never get found."


KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.