As far as feel good stories go, they don't get much sweeter than Charles Bradley's. It goes something like this: down-on-his-luck soul singer, who never quite made a dent during his 1960s heyday, takes to working odd-jobs and performing James Brown covers to keep the dream alive. Then, his big break: discovered at age 62 still singing his heart out of those James Brown songs. The similarly minded Daptone Records soon puts him in the studio, backed him with heavy hitters the Menahan Street Band, and at last gave him the chance to make his own sweet soul music.
The story is so good, in fact, it's easy to cynically suspect the hand of a savvy PR campaign behind it. That is, until you speak with Bradley himself.
"Soul music to me is from past experience: hurt, pain, joy, bitter but sweet," says Bradley from his home in New York City. "Where sometimes I can't say what's on my mind, when I'm afraid I'm gonna lose what I got, or afraid if I say something wrong, they're gonna make it hard for me. Only when I get on stage do I let it out."
Finding positivity in the pain has become a mantra in his music, his performances and his generous dealings with fans. But the conversion doesn't always come easy. "I can take you back to some days in my life and wonder how I can still be talking to the phone with you right now," tells Bradley.
He does just that, taking me back to 1977 in Sausalito, CA. While working as the chef of a local grill, Bradley got into an innocuous argument with the waitress over a medium rare burger.
"She told me 'All of you are all alike. I'm gonna show you what you're all about,'" he recounts. "So I came to work the next day, got all set up. And this guy about 280 pounds came in, picked me right up and threw me against a concrete wall, and said, 'you bothering my old lady? I'm gonna kill you!' And he picked me up and pushed my back against the grill. I felt the heat come in my back, and just knew I couldn't get him off me. So I looked over and grabbed my chopping knife, and swung at him."
Bradley didn't cut the man, but did manage to free himself from the grill. The two tussled around the kitchen more, the man throwing chairs, kitchenware and racial epithets at him until the cops finally showed up.
"And the police came, put a gun to my head, put me in jail for 30 days, and they let him go," he explains. "It was in the Sausalito newspaper, saying I tried to harm a customer with a deadly weapon. That's been on my record all my life. To this day, I get a sold out show in Canada, I still have to wait four, five hours at the border for clearance."
The story is just one of many Bradley says inform his lyrics and the spirit of his music. Certainly that openness has endeared him to audiences, who have embraced him at the level of Daptones first star singer, Sharon Jones. Even with the success, Bradley still hasn't quite gotten where he wants to be.
"I'm really looking for some funkier music now," he says. "My soul knows what it wants, and when I hear the music that fits that inner, it comes naturally. I wanna get my spirit out of my shell, out into the open. I ain't got it yet, but I thank God I got the opportunity."
While Bradley still works in the studio to reach that next level, the man dubbed the Screamin' Eagle of Soul will be focusing his full energies into his kinetic live shows, including his Sunday night headlining set at Utopiafest's Arrowhead stage.
"You'll see Charles Bradley do some things that I don't think the world has seen yet," he warns. "When I get on stage, I wanna give the people what they want. I wanna give something to make them say 'Damn that Charles Bradley, he may be sixty-something years old, but he can still rock your soul.'"
UTOPIAfest feat. tUnE-yArDs, RJD2, Sphynx, Valerie June, The Suffers
$120-$218.90, 4pm-2am Friday September 4; 9am-2am Saturday-Sunday, September 5-6, 1556 Lemond Rd. (Utopia, TX), (512) 496-2798, utopiafest.com