THE DAY BEFORE his brother was murdered, Charles Bradley sensed something was wrong. "Good night, I'll see you tomorrow," he said, leaving the rehearsal space at his brother's (Joe Bradley) place. "He came down the hallway and he grabbed me," Bradley remembers. "He started holding me and I said, "Joe, what's wrong with you?" He said, "Bro, I know you love me. And I love all our other brothers and sisters, but it feels like everyone wants to use me. You just show me your love all the time."
Joe lived just two houses down from Charles and their mother. The next morning he awoke to a street filled with police. His mother broke the news with a scream: Joe had been shot. He was dead.
Family members and police tried to keep Charles from entering Joe's home but he insisted. "I pushed my way in. But I wish to God I would've never went in there. Because that picture... that'll always be in my memory."
"I walked in there and I saw my brother lying there on the floor. They shot him with a hollow-point bullet." Bradley continues, beginning to tear up. "His brain had come out of his head." It took a pair of detectives and two of his brothers to drag Bradley away. That was 11 years ago, but Bradley remembers like it was yesterday.
The youngest of five, Bradley was born in 1948 in Gainesville, Florida. His upbringing is almost eerily similar to that of his idol James Brown. Like Brown, Bradley was born in the South—black, poor, and at times, left to the streets. He moved around a lot. And when he was 14, he saw Brown play the Apollo Theater and became transfixed, immediately imitating the Godfather of Soul's every move. For the next 40 years Bradley bounced across the States and Canada working as a cook. Still covering Brown, his bands never really solidified, and the gigs were small, often in rundown bars. Still, he never let music go.
In 1996, living in California, Bradley was laid off from a job he'd worked for 17 years. He packed his musical equipment into a van and headed to New York, where Joe took him in. "He gave me a room and didn't charge me a dime," Bradley says. "He said, 'Charles, I've seen you—you've been working all your life. Now go do something you want to do.'" Joe made space in his house for Bradley to rehearse. And later, when a shifty band tried to steal his equipment, Joe pushed his way through their door and got it all back.
Continuing his James Brown act in New York, Bradley caught the attention of the Daptone Records family, who released his "Take It as It Come" single in 2002, and eventually No Time for Dreaming in 2011. His live performances still harness a devastating level of energy, and regularly Bradley jumps into the audience for a series of long, heartfelt mid-show hugs. In a world of growing detachment and fly-by-night, disposable pop, Bradley is achingly real—a man whose experience no twentysomething would-be rocker can comprehend.
At a recent performance, Bradley offered a preface to his song, "Why Is It So Hard (To Make It in America)?" Without hubris, he said: "This is my life story. I want y'all to listen very carefully. Because in this world, y'all need me."
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